Year-round wildfires, utility bankruptcy, a president's climate delusions. All symptoms of the same disease: capitalism. Can we treat it before it's too late?

Climate and Capitalism in the Age of Disaster

By Holden Jurisich

Original publish date: January 15, 2019

Last Nov., California was ravaged by wildfires of historic proportions, including the Camp Fire in Butte County. Burning over 150,000 acres, the fire killed 86 people, left hundreds more missing, and destroyed thousands of homes and other buildings. It is the deadliest fire in state history.

And it wasn’t an anomaly, either. Global temperatures have steadily increased as a consequence of our collective inaction on climate change, making California’s dry climate more and more susceptible to this type of “natural” disaster. The state’s wildfire season, in fact, is already being described as year-round by scientists.

California communities cannot wait any longer for a robust legislative solution that decisively acts on climate: that’s why each and every person in the Golden State should back a Green New Deal, and put pressure on our elected officials to enact change before we all collectively burn.

The recent scourge of wildfires and the other terrifying effects of climate change clearly require an immediate response on an unprecedented scale: the complete and rapid transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy.

Any moral, rational person should see that.

But we don’t live in a moral society, and certainly not a rational one. Instead, we live in a society where a man who believes that the concept of global warming is a “hoax” created by the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive can be elected as the president.

There is no shortage of nonsense in this dumbed-down, post-truth society, a problem that is exacerbated when that nonsense helps people avoid facing unpleasant facts. Climate change is easily the most unfortunate illustration of this dynamic. Many of its doubters feel justified in their denialism because the reality of what’s happening is scary and the science supporting it can be difficult to understand. The evidence is vast, and therefore easier for them to dismiss altogether than to grapple with.

Some prominent denialists also like to offer their own solutions for the natural disasters climate change is fueling. In an interview with the Washington Post last year, President Donald Trump claimed that California’s fires could have been avoided simply by having more efficient “forest management.” Specifically, Trump pointed to the forest brush, saying, “If that was raked in the beginning, there’d be nothing to catch on fire.”

Last week, President Trump doubled down on the sentiment and threatened to pull FEMA funding if California “doesn’t get [its] act together.”

As questionable as our president’s ideas may be, the solutions he offers in place of combating climate change also represent something much more sinister than mere ignorance. His comments, with all their delusion, carelessness, and all-around inadequacy, are only possible in an age in which the dominance of capitalism has been cemented beyond a shadow of doubt. The cultural response to the industrialization of the last 150 years has emphasized the economic growth it brings, without regard to its detrimental impact on the environment.

Over a century of positive reinforcement for industrializing entities has created a culture broadly unwilling to look past its achievements and toward its globally devastating impact. Our culture has laid the infrastructure that allows Trump to brazenly ignore his responsibility—as our nation’s chief executive—to fight climate change and instead enabled him to spout off wild conspiracy theories.

Trump is, of course, fundamentally unfit to lead the way in the fight against this monumental problem. But he is also a symptom of the decisions that have left us where we are today. Our climate is changing drastically because of big business’ long history of unchecked control over society; America’s decision to elect an unaccountable celebrity-businessman as president is entirely predictable.

The immoral capitalist culture that elevated Trump has come to define more than just the powerful individuals and business interests he represents: it has also spread its influence to some of the very institutions we trust with protecting our interests as “consumers”—the capitalist-friendly term we ordinary people can expect them to use to describe us.

The most notable and worrisome such institution, at least in the context of California’s wildfire problem, is Pacific Gas & Electric. PG&E has become increasingly unaccountable in its own right as it has grown into one of the largest private utilities on the planet, time and time again prioritizing the interests of its shareholders over the lives of its consumers. The utility’s reckless failures to properly maintain and/or bury power lines and other equipment as well as its negligence toward customer concerns has resulted in the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) finding it at fault in sixteen deadly fires in the past two years. As a result, PG&E this week jettisoned former CEO Geisha Williams and initiated bankruptcy proceedings to halt the plummet of its stock and bond share prices amidst talk of breaking up the struggling utility. If Cal Fire finds PG&E at fault for the Camp Fire, the company could also face murder charges.

The task at hand is monumental, and will require a monumental response on our part.

Californians will never be fully protected from the state’s dangerous climate as long as we are at the mercy of a profit-driven institution like PG&E. Community Choice Energy (CCE), a spreading trend in California and across the country, solves PG&E’s underlying problem by replacing the legal requirement to produce shareholder value with a commitment to every stakeholder within the communities they serve. CCE programs are nonprofit, community-centric electricity procurement entities that can, and have proven to, help establish local, renewable energy buildout in municipalities across the state. Refocusing from what is best for a single company to what is best for all of California is the only way we’ll be able to adequately address the current climate crisis.

Even greater a challenge than democratizing the energy grid will be halting the larger trend of climate change by liberating the world from corporate interests. Transitioning completely from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy will require that we no longer be subservient to those interests, and that we never again allow someone who is representative of them, like Trump, to lead us going forward.

For California, as well as the rest of the country and the world, a Green New Deal is the best way forward. The task at hand is monumental, and will require a monumental response on our part. Such a plan will both reverse our environmental impact and in the process reinvigorate the economy, as millions of new jobs are created.

The original New Deal was a bold act against the economic disaster of its time. Now, the environmental ruin that awaits us if we don’t act soon—and that which is already happening—demand that we take bold, comprehensive action again.