The Future of California: Up in Flames or Dried to a Crisp?

As a local Southern Californian, I have grown up seeing the whirlwind of climate change impacts become increasingly worse. My schools grew to be flooded with flyers telling us to limit water usage, state-wide news channels switched between covering town-wide floods and burned-down cities, and air quality warnings increased in frequency. It’s becoming increasingly obvious to any U.S. resident that our environment is sick. Climate change is prevalent in our daily lives, whether that be through intense wildfires ripping through the nation, the highest temperatures on Earth recorded during August 2021, hurricanes causing hundreds of billions of dollars in damages, and flash floods destroying towns and infrastructure. Additionally, the state’s coast is trembling under the rising threats of sea-level rise, ocean acidification, and coastal flooding. Like I said, our planet is sick.

California — a state supporting almost 40 million people, generating $49.9 billion purely in agricultural cash receipts, and excelling in profitable production and technology industries — is extremely threatened by anthropogenic climate change. Looking at the state as a whole, California’s most pressing concerns – wildfires and droughts – have become immensely severe due to climate change. 

How Did We Get Here?

Total global temperature has warmed about 1.8℉ since the Industrial Revolution, while California itself has warmed about 3℉ 

For those who may see a three degree state-wide warming as unconcerning, especially considering the constant temperature change that we experience daily, let’s compare the planet to our bodies. When our body’s internal temperature rises a few degrees, alarm bells go off and discomfort kicks in. Now, imagine that your internal temperature has been rising since you were born, causing you to feel consistently more sick as you aged. This process throws the proper functions within your body out of whack, similar to the effects of global heating on our planet’s normal processes. 

California Ablaze

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) has calculated that almost 2.5 million acres of land has burned since the start of 2021, amounting to around 3,600 devastated structures and more than 8,000 incidents of sparked fires. For reference, 2.5 million acres is slightly smaller than the state of Hawaii. Looking back at 2020, more than 4 million acres of land burned that year. These fires left cities engulfed in a thick orange haze, ultimately creating severe air pollution that triggered various public health issues and spread from coast to coast.

Although it’s true that wildfires are a common, natural, and seasonal cleanse of the forests that they engulf, there is something unnatural about the severity and frequency of the wildfires that regularly spread through California’s forests. Inadequate fire suppression has created easily-ignitable forest fires, bark-beetle infestations, deforestation, and minimal forest restoration, which are all contributing factors towards the current frequency and severity of California’s wildfires. 

On top of these factors, the single largest cause behind the intensity of these fires is climate change. Climate change has spurred wildfire-friendly conditions in California: intense heat, less snowpack and rainfall, and severe droughts. California’s long-standing drought has also turned formerly lush forests, moist agricultural lands, and thriving grasslands into dead plant material which, paired with extreme heat, has an incredibly high chance of catching ablaze. Climate change has led to “a fire season that now lasts the whole year” and “an annual average area burned increased fivefold.” 

So, climate change is intensifying California’s wildfires, but how are the wildfires in turn intensifying the climate crisis? Well, the increase in wildfires contributes to a positive feedback loop. In short, positive climate feedback loops occur when one change in the climate creates an effect or action that then cyclically allows the original change to occur again. In a wildfire context, fires burn trees and vegetation with tons of carbon dioxide stored inside them, allowing the combustion of that carbon dioxide, along with particulate matter and other greenhouse gases, to be released back into the atmosphere. These gases released then contribute to the greenhouse effect, causing higher global temperatures, less rain and snowpack, drier vegetation, and generally perfect conditions for more wildfires. Not only does this positive feedback loop make wildfires and climate change both worse, it also heightens the severity of droughts that the world is facing.  

A Thirsty State

In California, it feels as though there is always an unprecedented drought plaguing the state. Jon E. Keeley, a research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, summed up the situation by stating that “each of the past three decades has had a substantially worse drought than any decade over the last 150 years.” Looking at the U.S. Drought Monitor statistics, which are updated weekly, 100 percent of California is abnormally dry, 80.3 percent is in an extreme drought, and 28.3 percent is in an exceptional drought. This means that 37.3 million people in California are affected by the drought, especially farmers and minority communities who don’t have access to the infrastructure and wealth that brings guzzling fresh water to affluent communities dotted along California’s coast. Snowmelt from the Sierras, which typically feeds 30 percent of California’s water needs, was also recently impacted by a major drought. Snow droughts, high temperatures evaporating runoff, and early snowpack melting has caused California reservoirs to hit historical lows

Not only does this affect the human lives that depend on water for their basic personal and household needs, but it also affects the agriculture industry in California. California’s agriculture brings in more than $20 billion into the economy and uses about 80 percent of the state’s water supply. Surprisingly to some, most of that 80 percent of water is consumed by livestock in California. For example, the difference in water use between one pound of beef and one pound of wheat is 1,498 gallons, with wheat using about 102 gallons versus beef using about 1,600 gallons. Incredibly large amounts of water are used to hydrate our livestock as well as grow the crops they consume. There is a surplus of articles that expand on how a sustainable diet is a plant-based diet, but decreasing animal consumption to save our water is another story in itself. 

Looking at what the drought means for Californians, the National Integrated Drought Information System and Atascadero News both claim that the agricultural impacts of California’s drought have $1.84 billion in direct costs, 10,100 lost seasonal jobs, and 8.7 million acre-feet surface water shortages. Additionally, future water restrictions may result in 85,000 jobs lost as well as $2.1 billion lost to employees annually. Future Californians may very well face extreme thirst, mass migration, job losses, hunger, economic downfalls, and more as the impacts of the climate crisis accelerate.  

These grave losses of life, jobs, and income are staring California’s government in the face and demanding a solution. To even begin looking at how to solve these issues, we must first find the root causes behind why California is becoming so dry. Noah Diffenbaugh, a Stanford climate scientist, found that there is a “blocking ridge” of high atmospheric pressure that has stubbornly remained over the Northeastern Pacific (called the Triple R). This ridge has been diverting necessary jet streams of precipitation away from California, and is caused by the high levels of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. 

On top of the increasing amount of storms being diverted away from California, rising temperatures are also a major contributor to the drought. Hot air pulls the moisture out of land and vegetation to maintain its homeostasis of 100 percent humidity. This means that as temperatures rise, hot air draws more moisture from the ground and vegetation. Essentially, heat creates a thirstier water cycle while greenhouse gas emissions change patterns in our atmosphere, influencing rain and snowfall patterns and ultimately leading to unnaturally dry areas. This process is a contributing factor to the increase in droughts by 15 to 20 percent from the climate crisis.

Looking at what this means for the future of California, increasingly intense droughts will lead to drier forests, severe wildfires, stressed aquatic ecosystems and life, depleted reservoirs, and human and animal migration or loss of life. Scientists are claiming that California is experiencing a “megadrought” that could continue on for decades to come, especially if we don’t act fast.

Policy Solutions

Both raging wildfires and cripping droughts are intensified by one thing: climate change. Given the serious threat they pose, one must wonder what action California is taking to decrease its wildfires, droughts, and the effects of climate change in general, as daunting as that is. 

In 2006, California implemented the Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32), which requires California to reduce its emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. AB 32 hopes to decrease climate change risks through the increased usage of renewable energy sources, cleaner transportation, less waste, and increased energy efficiency. Through these legally binding goals, California plans to bring greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 and is funding the implementation of clean and renewable energy technologies. 

Recently, Governor Gavin Newsom signed SB 129, a $100 billion California Comeback Plan,” with $15 billion allocated towards tackling the climate crisis. This budget focuses on the drought emergency, wildfire preparedness, clean energy, water resilience, protection for vulnerable communities, sea level rise, and other impacts from the climate emergency. These policies, among other legislation, campaigns, and projects, are working towards solving the root causes of climate change, but California’s constant natural disasters are a sign that this work is still not enough.

In regards to climate action that may decrease future wildfires, $1.5 billion of the California Comeback Plan is dedicated to Wildfire and Forest Resilience. The goal of this package is to protect fire-vulnerable communities, plan fuel breaks and reduction projects, restore forests and wildlands, and support local wood products economies. On top of this, Newsom has increased CAL FIRE’s resources and put new emphasis on the Wildfire and Forest Resilience Task Force/Action Plan. CAL FIRE is currently working on 35 priority fire prevention projects that should reduce the severity and frequency of natural and human-caused wildfires. Additionally, the California Tropical Forest Standard (CTFS) recognizes the ecological value of worldwide tropical forests as vital ecosystems and greenhouse gas (GHG) sequestration centers, and it has implemented policies to restrict deforestation and protect forests through other methods to counteract GHG emissions.

 AB 416, the California Deforestation-Free Procurement Act, also embraces curbing climate change through restricting deforestation practices. California is filled with fire prevention packages, preparedness plans, and management policies, but the long story short is that the state needs more money and more legislation to implement policies that help prevent and limit wildfires as well as decrease planet-warming emissions, which are the root cause of climate change and worsening fires.

California’s leaders are also working on improving water use information, setting clear goals for the environment, promoting water conservation, using resilient water supplies, and increasing environmental management. As a result of the constant drought, California’s largest water providers have cut water deliveries while hydropower generation has also dramatically decreased. California has currently set up an official California Drought Action website to improve communication and information about the most up-to-date water situation. The website includes discussions around how Governor Newsom has extended the drought emergency while also signing climate bills that designate $5.2 billion towards drought response and water resilience. In 2020, the Water Resilience Portfolio was also created. This portfolio, developed by the California Natural Resources Agency, California Environmental Protection Agency, and California Department of Food and Agriculture, outlines how California plans on coping with droughts, floods, and extreme temperatures.

Governor Newsom has enacted other solutions as well, such as mandatory watering restrictions, voluntary conservation policies, Save Our Water campaigns, a drought preparedness website, a drought contingency plan, and other water-related pieces of legislation. While these solutions and policies help manage water in California, there needs to be a larger emphasis on holistic, wide-scale drought prevention solutions. Policies that reduce emissions causing climate change, protect vegetation, and restore forests and other natural ecosystems are more than necessary to reduce the intensity of climate impacts plaguing California.  

More Action, More Policies, More Solutions

After hundreds of years of environmental degradation by our predecessors and our current political and corporate leaders, action is overdue. It’s time to switch the default of our society from extraction to reciprocity.  We must change the rules that outline how our world functions and we can do so by electing political leaders, from community to nation-wide levels, who put an emphasis on environmental protection and reparations for injustices. It is possible to save the remnants of our healthy environment from complete degradation, but only if we act now. 

Listed below are a few of the many organizations fighting for a more sustainable California!


Featured Image: Firefighters from Stockton, Calif. put out flames off of Hidden Valley Rd. while fighting a wildfire. Photo: Mel Melcon / AP PhotoLos Angeles Times on Climate Visuals