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Editorial: Trump refuses to do anything about climate change, even as California and the West burn

By The Times Editorial Board, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Political News

President Trump arrived in California Monday to offer his own assessment of the wildfires that have left vast swaths of the West charred and smoky. It's not climate change driving the ever worsening fires, in the president's view. It's the exploding trees. And all those dried leaves piled up on the ground.

If California would just clean up its messes and do more forest management, Trump suggested, the problem could be solved.

If only it were that easy.

Yes, California and other Western states could be doing a lot more to make forests more resilient to wildfires. But as Gov. Gavin Newsom pointed out, the federal government owns 57% of the forest land in California. The state owns just 3% and the rest is in private hands.

Despite that lopsided ownership ratio, California spends five to six times more than the federal government does on fires and forestry in the state, according to a briefing Newsom gave to Trump. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spent $3 billion in 2018 on fire management. The U.S. Forest service budgeted $500 million for the state.

So, yes, there does need to be a lot more forest management done - by the federal government, in partnership with the states and private land owners. None of this will be simple or fast. Decades of fire suppression by land managers and fire departments prevented the regular, low-level wildfires that once served as natural forest management.

Returning the forests to better health will be labor intensive, time consuming and really expensive. Trump can talk about more effective forest management as much as he wants. It will come to pass only if he works with Congress to budget a lot more money for the U.S. Forest Service. It's also worth remembering that some of the most destructive fires in recent years have been in the chaparral-covered hills, such as the Woolsey fire in Malibu. Forest management is important, but it's not the one-size-fits-all solution to California's worsening fire season.

 

Beyond that, Trump's myopic focus on forest management misses the big picture. Climate change is undeniably behind the worsening fires.

Forecasters have long warned that higher temperatures and prolonged droughts will make more areas vulnerable to fire. The number of days with extreme wildfire weather in California has more than doubled since the early 1980s, primarily due to warming temperatures drying out vegetation, The Times reported. Wildfires have raged through geography usually considered at low risk of severe fire, such as the cool, damp coastal redwood forests near Santa Cruz.

And all of this is happening now. Imagine how much worse it could get as the world continues to burn fossil fuels and warm the planet. California's Climate Change Assessment released in 2018 warned that if greenhouse gases continue to rise, extreme wildfires would become more frequent and the average area burned statewide would increase by 77% by the end of the century.

We have a president who is not just pooh-poohing the threat, he's exacerbating the problem by aggressively promoting the use of fossil fuels. In fact, when California's Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot pressed Trump to not ignore the impact of climate change on the state's wildfires, the president responded, "It'll start getting cooler. You just watch."

No, we really cannot sit and watch and hope for a cooler tomorrow or next year. California and Western states could rake the forests all day long, but it will be little help if the U.S. and the world don't do more to slash greenhouse gases and slow climate change.

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