The California Influencer Series

Wildfires still rage. They also shine light on California’s environmental challenges

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The California Influencers Series

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The majority of Californians identify climate change as the state’s most serious environmental threat.

As California wildfires continue to rage, many of the California Influencers are inclined to agree.

Readers who responded to a Your Voice question this week about their top environmental concerns last week wanted to know whether the state will run out of water and how to combat global warming. They also wanted to know what the state can do to prevent so many wildfires.

The Influencers, a group of the state’s most respected experts in public policy, politics and government, stressed that the immediate fire emergencies are intertwined with larger problems.

And given the intensity of the fight between California’s political leaders and the Trump Administration on climate change policy, it was not surprising that much of the emotional energy was targeted directly at the president.

Trump last week issued a tweet saying the fires were worse due to “bad environmental laws,” making an argument disputed even by members of his own party that water that could be used to fight them is being pumped into the Pacific Ocean.

“Wildfires are ravaging vast tracts of our state, confirming the ever-widening footprint of climate change. Yet our nation’s top leader and his appointees show nothing but contempt for environmental laws…” said Mindy Romero, founder and director of USC’s California Civic Engagement Project. “The Trump administration’s actions will literally fan the flames of future wildfires in our state.”

“We’re destroying the earth before our very eyes — and while human error has played a role in triggering some fires — climate change and our inability to address it is undoubtedly the biggest threat not only in California, but around the world,” agreed Democratic strategist Catherine Lew. “…Unfortunately, some of the nation’s most powerful representatives are still under the delusion that none of this is real — while Rome is literally burning.”

California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Oakley also emphasized the importance of combating climate change, for both environmental and economic reasons.

“Greening the economy is both the biggest environmental challenge facing California and also a major economic and workforce challenge,” he said. “Creating a ‘green’ economy that reduces greenhouse gases and creates livable wage jobs for Californians of all backgrounds is a must if we are going to maintain a Golden State.”

Some Influencers warned that environmentalism can go too far.

“California needs to escape from the ‘feel good’ solutions that either don’t work or aren’t worth bringing economic havoc to most people,” said Tea Party Express Co-Founder Sal Russo. “Too many of California’s environmental laws are an open invitation to make costs nearly unbearable for poor and middle-class families.”

On the question of California water, many Influencers ageed with readers that access is a top concern.

“California’s biggest environmental challenge is its need to ensure every citizen has access to clean, safe and affordable drinking water,” said Chet Hewitt, President and CEO of the Sierra Health Foundation. “While the tragic fire season we are experiencing is a reminder of why we must continue to do our part to confront global environmental concerns, drinking water is an issue (that) we as a state have the ability to address ourselves and we should do so now.”

“We should be having a more robust discussion by the (gubernatorial) candidates about water,” argued Republican strategist Rob Stutzman. “…we’ve vested far too much power in faceless and unaccountable appointees on the state and regional water boards. We must be storing more water off stream for supply and also flood control in the Sacramento Valley. The matter of a conveyance from the Delta to the south will continue to be a massive political quagmire, as it has been for decades.”

Ashley Swearengin, President and CEO of the Central Valley Community Foundation, warned of the ramifications of inaction for her home region.

“The list of environmental challenges in California is long, but I believe the most immediate challenge is water quality and supply,” Swearengin said. “There are entire communities in the Central Valley… that are not plumbed and rely solely on groundwater…. For regions like the Central Valley that have limited access to surface water, it’s hard to see how we truly transition communities off of groundwater in a sustainable way.”

Others called for stronger environmental protections for low-income communities.

“The bounty and burdens of California’s environment are not equally shared or shouldered,” said Daniel Zingale, Senior Vice President of the California Endowment. “Meaningful engagement means giving affected communities the facts about air pollution, lead paint, groundwater, racial disparities and risks of cancer… It means giving lower-income residents incentives and access to clean vehicles, clean energy and water delivery systems.”

“We have to be much more intentional in understanding the impacts… on low income (communities) and communities of color,” said Monica Lozano, President and CEO of the College Futures Foundation, who called for “policies that safeguard all neighborhoods as places where people can live without fear of exposures to toxic surroundings.

Much of the environmental debate underscored the colossal ideological gap that exists between California and the federal government.

“President Trump’s misguided and legally questionable attempt to roll back California’s mileage standards is the biggest environmental threat to California and the nation,” said former Gov. Gray Davis. “There was a time not so many decades ago when the air was orange, particularly in Southern California. We can’t and won’t go back to those days… And when we win, the rest of the country will benefit from our leadership.”

Former California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ron George was less specific but just as scathing.

“The greatest threat to California’s environment comes from the hot air flowing from Washington, D.C,” he said.