Gov. Jerry Brown says California’s drought and the wildfires it has spawned are wake-up calls about the potentially cataclysmic effects of climate change.
That may be true. But they are not the only indications of potential disaster that could devastate a state perched, however precariously, on the continent’s western edge.
California has been experiencing a series of moderate earthquakes this month – coinciding, somewhat eerily, with the first anniversary of a temblor that severely damaged downtown Napa.
In a way, these earthquakes are good news because they relieve pressure on the numerous faults that underlie California and thus may – emphasis, may – obviate the monster quake that seismologists say will happen sooner or later.
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There’s no way we can fully insulate ourselves from the devastation such a quake would visit upon the state, particularly were it to be centered on one of its two major metropolitan areas, Los Angeles or the San Francisco Bay Area.
We can build earthquake resistance into vital structures, such as freeways and hospitals, as we are doing. We can make certain that emergency responders are trained and equipped. We can establish a warning system, such as the ShakeAlert string of sensors now being planned.
But whenever it happens, a killer quake will have a life-altering effect – a Katrina-scale disaster magnified by 10 times or more. We can only hope to minimize its impacts.
We are also getting a warning about fiscal peril from global financial markets, one that’s within our control and should not be ignored.
California’s economy is especially sensitive to events in Asia. Its budget, meanwhile, is dangerously dependent on income taxes paid by a handful of wealthy Californians, largely on their capital investment profits.
We saw, just a few years ago, what happens when the global financial system hiccups. The wealthy got a financial cold, so to speak, and the state budget got pneumonia, with a $20 billion drop in annual revenue.
It should have warned us to change our tax system and become less dependent on our 1-percenters, but instead we largely raised taxes on the wealthy and became more dependent.
The gyrations in the stock market this week do not, unto themselves, pose a major threat to the budget, but were the declines to continue and/or recession once again rear its head, our brief period of balanced budgets could come to a screeching halt, as the Legislature’s budget analyst says in a briefing paper.
Politics tend to be reactive, rather than proactive, as demonstrated by the Capitol’s current fixation on repairing our dilapidated highway system after decades of ignoring warnings about its deterioration.
Brown wants California to “de-carbonize the economy” to fight climate change – a massive conversion that will change Californians’ lifestyles and entail great costs.
We should also heed warnings about other incipient disasters and be just as diligent about earthquake preparation and tax reform.