The Lights Went Out in California: That Was the Plan All Along

The power has been out in Northern California. More than 1 million Californians were without electricity, one of modern life’s essentials that is frequently taken for granted. The blackout was done on purpose—to prevent sparks from powerlines that could ignite deadly wildfires.

On the surface, the blackout and its causes are simple to understand. But the deeper causes are complicated, span decades of public policy, and dozens of overlapping unintended—and intended—consequences of decisions, both related and unrelated.

The wind in Northern California is blowing in from dry Nevada, as it often does this time of year. It’s called the “Diablo wind.” In Southern California, the comparable current blowing in from the Mojave Desert is known as the “Santa Ana winds.”

In both cases, as the wind rises above California’s mountain spine, then descends, it compresses and heats up. Forests, chaparral and brush, dry this time of year in California’s Mediterranean climate, are primed for wildfires. Amazon.com Gift Card i... Buy New $15.00 (as of 09:55 EST - Details)

This Isn’t Climate Change

Michael Wara, Stanford University’s director of climate and energy policy, warns,

“We are having to adapt to new circumstances brought about by climate change.”

He estimates that this week’s blackout could cost the state as much as $2.6 billion in lost economic activity.

Politicians, journalists, and some scientists repeat a common refrain: California is getting hotter and drier because of climate change. They ignore the fact that annual precipitation totals over the past 100 years show no statistically meaningful trend.

There are plenty of examples of California’s fires being blamed on climate change. Last year’s Sacramento Bee editorial about the deadly Carr Fire in Northern California was typical: “The Carr Fire is a terrifying glimpse into California’s future,” it declared, adding, “This is climate change, for real and in real time. We were warned that the atmospheric buildup of man-made greenhouse gas would eventually be an existential threat.”

But California, unlike the rest of the nation, receives most of its moisture in the winter and the months bracketing it, while getting precious little rainfall during the summer. Further, California is drought-prone, and has been for as long as scientists can determine from tree rings and sediment records.

The bottom line is that California has always had a high threat from wildfires and always will. The issue is how will that threat be managed, accommodated, or avoided?

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