California governor signs legislation to bail out utility that sparked deadly fires

Dec. 2018 Fire ruins Malibu (AP)


In October, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that the effects of climate change are already happening, making natural events like wildfires more intense. A month later, the Camp Fire, fueled by Diablo winds and drought conditions, incinerated Paradise, Calif., killing 88 people with nearly 800 unaccounted for. More than 16,000 structures, mostly homes, were destroyed, forcing at least 52,000 to evacuate and leaving tens of thousands of people homeless throughout the 150,000 acre burn zone in Butte County. It is the deadliest fire in the state’s history, and was nearly as destructive as the previous 10 record setting California fires combined.

As the fires raged in Paradise, an area covering hundreds of miles was an ominous and forbidding landscape full of smoke darkened skies that affected millions with hazardous air or nearly two weeks. Air Quality Indexes measured from upwards of 400 in Sacramento and 238 in San Francisco. Smoke plumes were detected as far away as Philadelphia.

Factoring in the Woolsey fire in southern California, which left three dead and upwards of 2000 homes and structures destroyed or damaged, nearly 150,000 people have been displaced, leading to a humanitarian/housing crisis in a state where affordable housing is already extremely difficult to find for working and poor people. Ed Mayer, executive director of Butte County’s housing agency, said, “Big picture, we have 6000, possibly 7000 households who have been displaced and who realistically don’t stand a chance of finding housing again in Butte County. I don’t even know if these households can be absorbed in California.”

Lawsuits have been filed by victims against PG&E for their suspected responsibility in starting the Camp Fire. The AP reported, “PG&E told state regulators that it experienced a problem on a transmission line in the area of the fire just before the blaze erupted. In its filing Thursday [Nov. 8] with the state Public Utilities Commission, it said it had detected an outage on an electrical transmission line. It said a subsequent aerial inspection detected damage to a transmission tower on the line.”

PG&E’s practice of cutting labor costs (which boosts profits) led to poor maintenance of its electrical grid, and, according to state fire investigators, caused 17 of 21 wildfires in 2017. A series of lawsuits have also been filed against Southern California Edison alleging that the Woolsey fire began due to poor maintenance of their equipment near the flashpoint.

To shield three California utility monopolies—Pacific Gas and Electric, Southern California Edison, and San Diego Gas and Electric—from financial ruin, Governor Brown recently signed SB 901 to pass off the utilities’ liabilities to rate payers for fires attributed to equipment owned by these billion-dollar corporations. PG&E alone is facing $15 billion in liabilities for the 2017 fires, and SB901 allows them to issue bonds paid for by increasing fees for ratepayers. Their liabilities may be as high as $30 billion if it’s determined that the utility is responsible for the Camp Fire, which could lead to PG&E’s collapse without another state government bailout.

SB 901 was proposed by Brown and passed the State Assembly and Senate with virtually no resistance from Democratic Party legislators (nine Democrats opposed it in total). There is no comparable bailout legislation for the victims of the most destructive fire in U.S. history in a century.

Capitulation to corporate-power-in-crisis by the liberal wing of the capitalist political system is often the rule, not the exception, whether in California or Washington, D.C. Democratic Governor Gray Davis bailed out PG&E after they filed for bankruptcy in 2001, and rate payers footed the bill while Wall Street energy traders made billions. When tens of millions were laid off and 5.2 million homeowners foreclosed upon following the 2008 Great Recession, the Obama administration presided over the bipartisan bailout of the financial institutions that caused the economic collapse. They were gifted as much as $30 trillion.

After multi-billion dollar corporations and banks are exposed for their direct role in widespread unemployment, homelessness, death, destruction, and environmental pollution, it would seem inconceivable that they would be given financial gifts by governments at the expense of millions of people, the very victims of these same corporate powers. This is capitalism operating as designed; social, political, and economic control resides with the ultra-rich few who benefit at the expense of the many.

The role of climate change

California’s climate—largely arid or semi-arid, including large desert areas—is historically prone to wildfires. Strong wind systems, known as Diablo and Santa Ana winds, are also a contributing factor, which hasten evaporation, fan flames, and send embers alight to spread fires further and more quickly.

Temperatures in the state have increased as much as 1.16°C over the past hundred years, dating back to a time when modern-industrial global capitalism contributed less greenhouses gases than it does today. Higher average temperatures have altered weather patterns throughout the state, leading to longer droughts, less precipitation, and consequently drier and more flammable vegetation and forests.

California will certainly continue to be a major contributor to global emissions, owing in no small part to Governor Brown. In addition to expanding offshore oil drilling in alliance with the Democratic governors of Oregon and Washington, Brown’s office approved nearly 22,000 permits for oil and gas exploration issued in mostly low income communities of color. California is current the country’s 2nd largest emitter of greenhouse gases, accounting for over 12% of the total.

But California’s carbon load, well-head expansion, and massive fires are merely symptomatic of a global capitalist economy that depends on burning fossil fuels, the major contributor to C02 emissions. Over the past 100 years, atmospheric C02 has gone from 307ppm to 410 ppm, leading to global temperature increases of 1.17ºC (2.1°F). (Temperatures measured between 1880 and 1920 are widely accepted as the “preindustrial” baseline).

Globally, climate change has led to the increased number, intensity, and duration of extreme weather events. This year alone, there have been unprecedented forest fires in the Arctic Circle, a deadly conflagration in Greece, massive flooding in Japan, while intense heat caused dehydration that has led to a deadly epidemic of kidney disease in El Salvador. We have seen bigger, wetter, and slower moving hurricanes, global freshwater shortages, and the increased likelihood of crop failures. Climate change is also increasingly affecting global migration, pointing to new challenges and possibilities as activists grapple with these related issues.

Forests, the lungs of the planet, lock away between ¼ and 1/3 of global greenhouse gas emissions, and they are under threat more than ever. In Brazil, for example, newly elected extreme right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro promises to expand mining, agriculture, and pasture further and more rapidly into the Amazon in order to boost economic growth.

In Borneo, widespread deforestation and the resultant release of massive amounts of carbon is actually the result of U.S.-led changes in environmental laws that promoted growing highly profitable oil-palm as a less carbon intensive alternative to fossil fuels. A recent story in The New York Times Magazine explains the extent of it: “NASA researchers say the accelerated destruction of Borneo’s forests contributed to the largest single-year global increase in carbon emissions in two millenniums, an explosion that transformed Indonesia into the world’s fourth-largest source of such emissions.

“Instead of creating a clever technocratic fix to reduce American’s carbon footprint, lawmakers had lit the fuse on a powerful carbon bomb that, as the forests were cleared and burned, produced more carbon than the entire continent of Europe.”

Other technocratic fixes (geoengineering) are in development, including releasing millions of tons of sulfuric dioxide into the atmosphere to dim the sun. There are also technologies to suck carbon out of the atmosphere and store it underground. These untested so-called solutions threaten to alter delicate and complex planetary systems, with unknown and possibly catastrophic consequences. But capitalists are already seeking ways to commodify and profit from them, which means that they are likely to be amplified as climate change solutions.

For Republican Rep. Randy Weber of Texas, chairman of the Energy Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, “The future is bright for geoengineering.” And pivotal ruling-class figures like Bill Gates are investing in these technologies.

Over the past 28 years, world leaders have deliberated at periodic conferences over ways to solve the climate crisis, but have failed to enact a single mandate, in large part because they are politically incapable of thinking outside core capitalist principles of continuous economic growth, accumulation and, therefore, profit.

IPCC and FNCA reports

According to the IPCC, only 12 years remain to “limit” climate change catastrophe, let alone avert it completely. Trump has been widely criticized, and rightly so, for pulling the U.S., the greatest contributor to global carbon emissions over the past 150 years, out of the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement. But even if every country met their target carbon reduction goals, global temperatures would increase by at least 3°C by 2100 compared to preindustrial levels, making certain a dooms-day climate scenario. And this would be the outcome of the most ambitious climate accord to date!

In an ironic twist, the Trump administration, which denies climate change, issued a major scientific report from 13 federal agencies, the “Fourth National Climate Assessment,” while the Camp Fire still raged on Nov. 23. The findings of the 1700-page document have received wide media coverage, although Trump, true to form, stated, “I don’t believe it.”

The FNCA report detailed the far-reaching effects climate change could have on the country, including massive crop failures; larger, more intense, and increasingly frequent forest fires; and infrastructure collapse across the South, all of which could lead to an economic toll double to the losses of the 2008 Great Recession. Poorer communities would be hit the hardest, according to the report, keeping with the fact that climate change affects the most those whom contribute to it the least.

The IPCC and FNCA reports are clear about the danger of inaction regarding climate change, but neither point to the kind of unprecedented systemic change necessary to limit, let alone reverse, an impending climate catastrophe.

Climate change is already affecting billions of people, and the energy industry is primarily responsible for the crisis at hand. Solutions that fail to address the fact that 100 fossil fuel and coal companies and state enterprises contribute to 71% of carbon emissions will mean irreversibly dire consequences for the planet. The entire energy industry must transform to become carbon-neutral, and this is only possible under a system of democratic workers control as part of broader world anti-capitalist mobilization whose aim is to build an environmentally sustainable society.

Photo: Ruins from the fire in Malibu, Calif. (AP)

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[Editor’s note: We reprint this article by the Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debt (CADTM). In 1989, the Bastille Appeal was launched, inviting popular movements throughout the world to unite in demanding the immediate and unconditional cancellation of the debt of the so-called developing countries. This crushing debt, along with neo-liberal macro-economic reforms imposed on the global South, has led to an explosion of worldwide inequality, mass poverty, flagrant injustice and the destruction of the environment.