As the federal government shutdown and the rancorous border wall dispute consumes much of our attention, President Trump reiterated his threat to withhold essential wildfire response funds from California. The White House has even asked the Army Corps of Engineers to see if it can divert money from the disaster funding passed by Congress to pay for the border wall.
Trump’s threat is as immoral and counterproductive now as it was when he first made it late last year, while the wildfires were raging and the lives of residents and firefighters were at stake. It also once again encapsulates Trump’s approach to the environmental challenges facing our country — ignore the real causes and culprits, deny the science and refuse to take productive steps that would actually help solve the problem.
There are three main reasons why the president’s threat is ill-founded. First, the president misunderstands or misrepresents the role of the federal government in forest policy in western states like California. Second, the threat indicates that he doesn’t know or doesn’t understand that climate change is a key driving our more frequent and more devastating forest fires. And third, the economics of the devastating impacts of climate change are lost in the president’s policies.
Trump’s ostensible reason for threatening to withhold the funds — claims that mismanagement of forest lands in the state are to blame for the state’s surge in forest fires — ignores the fact that the federal government owns more than half of the state’s 33 million acres of forests. The federal government is responsible for managing the vast majority of those acres. California only manages three percent of its own forests.
Trump also does not recognize that climate change — not state mismanagement — is leading to rising temperatures and more drought, which in turn lead to longer and more severe fire seasons. Climate scientists agree these conditions will continue to worsen in the years to come, and the consequences will only accelerate the longer we wait to act.
The reality of climate change and the impact it is having on our economy cannot be ignored. The latest estimates are that it will cost $3 billion to address the devastation caused by the Camp Fire — and that was only one of over 100 major blazes in 2018. Citibank estimates the costs of unchecked climate change at more than $40 trillion by 2060.
Smart economic policy would dictate investing in policies that create new jobs and address this environmental challenge. Aggressively moving the country toward clean energy that eliminates carbon pollution would create jobs and help reduce the dangers and cost of climate change-related disasters like forest fires in the future. More than 3.2 million Americans work in wind, solar, energy efficiency and other clean energy jobs. That number can grow with smart policies that encourage a greener economy.
Finally and most importantly, disasters like the Camp Fire impose costs much beyond dollars and cents. At least 86 people died in that catastrophic event, and more than 14,000 homes were destroyed. Climate change disasters also have a real health impact. The dense smoke exacerbated lung conditions like asthma, impacting thousands of Californian kids.
It is hard to imagine what the devastation and human toll from a future wildfire will look like if Trump withholds essential resources needed to fight them. And refusing to act on climate change will only make future fires even worse.
There are certainly immediate steps that can be taken to help improve forest fire response and improve prevention – promoting fire-safe communities, more modern fire policies that reflect the changing environmental conditions, and expert-led education efforts are among them. But Trump’s baseless criticism of California does nothing to advance those steps, and actively undermines any progress on climate change.
It would be irresponsible for the president to follow through on his threat to withhold funds for forest fires in California. Just as it is irresponsible for him to ignore the reality of climate change and turn away from the common-sense solutions that would create jobs, improve kids’ health and make our planet more livable.