Opinion: Could climate change play a role in the California recall?

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As California experiences the wildfires, drought and extreme heat, it’s possible that gubernatorial candidates could touch on the problems of climate change in the recall campaign. Graphic by Cristobal Spielmann.

By Cristobal Spielmann

California has been experiencing two major upheavals this year. The first of these is political: a gubernatorial recall election set to take place in less than eight weeks against current Democratic governor Gavin Newsom. The other, much more important upheaval, is the one faced by the impact of climate change. 

From wildfires to droughts, this summer has proved itself historic by showing how dismal the future of unmitigated climate change would look in California. The Dixie Fire has burnt over 200,000 acres and become one of the largest wildfires in state history this year. The U.S. is getting Californian wildfire smoke that could contain leadfrom sea to shining sea.  

As most of the state is under emergency drought proclamations due to the impact of the megadrought sweeping the western U.S., Newsom began asking Californians to conserve their water use by 15%, just five years after the last major drought in the state ended. 

Read more about how climate change-fueled fires have impacted Californians’ homes, businesses and overall lives here. 

Considering all of this, one major question arises: how will the effects of climate change impact Californians’ decisions at the ballot box in September? 

To gain some perspective, I contacted Michael Shellenberger, an environmental journalist and author of the 2020 book “Apocalypse Never.” Shellenberger previously ran as a candidate for governor of California back in 2018, the cycle when Newsom was first elected governor, running on a pro-nuclear energy platform. 

Shellenberger reiterated his thoughts from his Substack about his criticisms of Newsom’s mishandling of forest management in California. 

“The reason California has failed to properly manage its forests is because, for decades, its leaders underinvested in fire prevention, including by diverting money that … should [have been] spent on clearing the area around electrical lines, to renewables.” Shellenberger wrote in defense of better forest management as a method of combating worsening forest fires. 

“In 2019 and 2020,” Shellenberger continued, “as [Newsom] was attacking Trump and Republicans as climate deniers, he was actually cutting the budget for forest fire prevention.” 

Shellenberger also argued that Newsom’s blaming of recent fires in the state and abroad solely on climate change was a political strategy. 

“A big part of the reason that politicians like Newsom blame California’s forest fires on climate change is to deflect attention away from his role in creating them,” Shellenberger wrote back in July in partial response to Newsom’s comments on the Pemex oil fire

“By blaming climate change, Newsom redirected attention away from his role in mismanaging the forests, the main cause of the state’s high-intensity fires.” 

In “Apocalypse Never,” he criticizes positions held by some environmentalists for misrepresenting the science of climate change, among other environmental problems like plastics. He attacks the conventional wisdoms of some environmentalist positions like the benefits of banning plastic straws or the supposed 12-year deadline in a 2018 IPCC report. 

On the other hand, Shellenberger has been criticized by some for cherry-picking information, strawmanning opposing arguments and incorrectly presenting factsDesmog, an environmentalist blog with a focus on debunking climate change misinformation, has profiled incidents of Shellenberger collaborating with or promoting his work with climate change denialist and fossil-fuel-funded groups like the Heartland Institute and the Center for Industrial Progress

Incidentally, when I asked whether or not climate change had more impact on this recall election compared to the previous election in 2018 and whether or not voters treat climate change as a crucial issue at the ballot box, Shellenberger simply wrote back, “No.” 

There might be some evidence to support Shellenberger’s conclusion. According to a 2020 poll by the Pew Research Center, a higher percentage of Democrats (78%) said that climate change should be a serious priority for the president and Congress compared to Republicans (21%). A 2021 report by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) found that 78% of Republicans would support a recall against the governor compared to only 11% of Democrats. 

Continuing in the PPIC report, when asked what the most important issue facing people in California today was, of the top four issues mentioned by all respondents (adult Californians), climate change did not make the cut. The results, in order of most often mentioned to least often mentioned, were jobs and the economy, COVID-19, homelessness and housing costs and affordability 

Though it’s important to recognize that these studies were sampling from different populations, it would be difficult to see the overlap between potential voters going out to vote in the recall and those who vote based on the impact climate change has on their lives. 

However, that doesn’t mean that some replacement candidates for the recall haven’t talked about issues related to climate change on the campaign trail. 

Kevin Faulconer, former Republican mayor of San Diego, released a statement on Monday regarding his plan to tackle wildfires if elected governor. As mayor, Faulconer supported various climate initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including backing the Paris Climate Accords

Faulconer’s plan doesn’t advance much beyond campaign promise paragraphs, but those promises do include increased funding for wildlife prevention and agencies that were underfunded under the Newsom administration, as well as offering tax credits to those who lost their homes due to wildfires. 

Additionally, Faulconer released a drought relief plan on Wednesday, referencing a connection to the Central Valley. Faulconer’s plan includes building new water infrastructure and talking about framing water insecurity as an emergency. 

Many of the other notable recall candidates — who are all Republicans — including public figure Caitlyn Jenner, businessman John Cox and radio host Larry Elder, do not have policies on their campaign websites regarding what they plan to do about forest fires in the state or even climate change more generally. They have, however, tweeted about or briefly mentioning forest management.  about or briefly mentioning forest management.  

Unlike Faulconer, Shellenberger and Newsom, who all, to some degree, acknowledge that climate change has some role in wildfires, the latter candidates have a history of climate change denialism or skepticism, have no public stance on climate change, or, at best, consider climate change as an irrelevant factor. 

As the globe continues to warm and California faces bigger disasters, hotter temperatures and more overall strife, only the future holds whether these concerns will grow to a sufficient level to influence voters. 

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