Op-Ed: California’s burning landscape is proof of rapid climate change

The Bobcat fire rages above Rincon Fire Station on Highway 39 in the San Gabriel Mountains.
The Bobcat fire rages above Rincon Fire Station on Highway 39 in the San Gabriel Mountains.

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
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So far this year, California has experienced three of the four largest fires in state history, and we’re only just entering the traditional fire season. Sixteen of the 20 largest fires have occurred since 2007, nine of those in just the last five years.

Every time California suffers a particularly bad fire season, we ask the same questions: How can we prevent destructive fires in the future? Where can we turn for more resources? What can we do to help those who lost their homes and businesses?

One near-term solution is the Emergency Wildfire and Public Safety Act, a bill I introduced last month with Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) to carry out wildfire mitigation projects, sustain healthier forests and help businesses and residences limit their risks from future fires.


But immediate steps to combat wildfires will only get us so far. We must recognize that the root cause of this devastation is climate change — which is also the cause of searing droughts and the continuing rise of sea levels.

We can fund all the firefighters and air tankers in the world; we can pump billions of dollars into expensive water infrastructure; we can surround low-lying towns with levies and sea breaks — but we’ll never get ahead of these crises until we make the investments needed to reverse the course of climate change.

California knows the devastation of a warming climate all too well, and it has been a global leader in the transition to a zero-carbon future.

In 2018, the state enacted SB 100, the groundbreaking law that requires that 100% of California’s electricity will come from clean energy by 2045. Critics said this was impossible, but California is ahead of schedule to meet this goal. More than one-third of the state’s electricity now comes from clean sources like solar and wind power.

The process hasn’t been perfect. One continuing challenge is the rolling blackouts because of heatwaves and as a wildfire prevention measure when winds are strong. But these are the kinds of obstacles we can overcome to avoid the bigger calamities we will otherwise face.

Even with a statewide focus on addressing climate change, California can’t reach its goals entirely on its own. We need the federal government to partner with California and other states on the procurement and buildout of clean energy infrastructure, to include more solar and wind farms and the construction of high-efficiency batteries to store increased capacity.


As the top Democrat on the Senate subcommittee that funds clean energy technologies, I’ve worked hard with Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the subcommittee, to move us in that direction.

Congress increased funding for renewable energy programs by more than $400 million this year, the highest funding level ever. Our national labs, like Lawrence Livermore and Lawrence Berkeley, received $7 billion for research on artificial intelligence to improve energy and battery technologies to complement wind and solar and make our cars cleaner.

Congress even funded, for the first time ever, research on how to cost-effectively remove carbon directly from the air. And while President Trump tried to slash funding for the Environmental Protection Agency by $1.7 billion, Congress instead increased it by $207 million, including for anaerobic digesters to produce fuels from waste.

Of course, developing cleaner technologies isn’t the only step. We also need to reduce energy demand. Here the challenges are substantial. How can we reduce energy use through new technologies without imposing new costs on working people? How can we urge China and India to take similar actions? And what actions can Congress take to help cut energy use and emissions?

One important step is to put a price on carbon. Last year, Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) and I introduced the Climate Action Rebate Act. This bill would place an increasing fee on greenhouse gas emissions and aims to reduce U.S. carbon emissions 55% by 2030 (from 2017 levels) and reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. It would rebate most of the revenues from the carbon fee to low- and middle-income Americans as a monthly dividend. The remainder of the revenues would be spent on infrastructure, research and worker and community transition assistance.

There’s no silver bullet to creating a sustainable clean energy economy. But every tangible action taken by Congress can make a difference in diverting us from the calamitous path we are on.


We’ve seen some success in securing more clean energy funding under a Republican-controlled Senate. We will do even more if Democrats retake the Senate and the White House.

California is doing its part. We need the federal government to follow suit.

Dianne Feinstein is the senior U.S. senator from California.