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Surrounded by fire, California politicians question links to climate change
At a public meeting not far from the California town of Redding last year, the US congressman Doug LaMalfa said that he “didn’t buy” human-made climate change.

“I think there’s a lot of bad science behind what people are calling global warming,” he said on another occasion, theguardian.com reported.

In recent days, the outskirts of Redding have been ravaged by the Carr wildfire, and scientists have directly connected the blaze, which has claimed six lives and dozens of properties, to climate change. Yet LaMalfa sounds unswayed.

“I’m not going to quibble here today about whether it’s man, or sunspot activity, or magma causing ice shelves to melt,” he told The Guardian on Tuesday, citing discredited alternative explanations for rising temperatures.

Can climate-driven natural disasters shift attitudes about climate change? In Redding, the weeks to come may provide a somber test case.

As of Tuesday evening, the Carr fire was 27 percent contained, and it was one of sixteen wildfires burning in California.

Like LaMalfa, the citizens of Redding are far more skeptical about climate change than the average American is. In 2016, a team from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that only 35 percent of Redding residents believed that global warming would harm them personally, five percentage points lower than the national average, and 12 points less than the average Californian.

“Experience is an important part of determining one’s belief on climate change, but not necessarily the determining one,” said Christopher Borick, the director of the National Surveys on Energy and Environment, which has carried out long-term studies on attitudes to climate change and other environmental issues.

But he said partisan affiliation was still a more powerful influence on beliefs about climate.

“If you gave me one factor to explain someone’s belief, I’d ask you what party they belong to,” he said.

“Among Republicans, about half think there’s evidence of climate change, but only a third think it’s anthropogenic in its roots.”

Redding is the county seat of Shasta county, which is only about 200 miles north of San Francisco but has opposite political values.

“The county went 65 percent for Trump,” noted David Ledger, who belongs to the Shasta Environmental Alliance, a coalition of environmental groups in the area.

“The media here runs a lot of very conservative talkshows. The newspapers tend to have very conservative editorials. Almost all of them are skeptical of anthropogenic climate change.”

Still, Ledger held out modest hopes that the events this week would shift some attitudes. “The fire will not cause a huge shift, but it may change some attitudes in the area.”

Near Redding’s Sundial Bridge, a popular gathering place for locals, a longtime resident, Ray Cutchen, dismissed any contribution of climate change to the fire.

“I think it’s bull,” he said. “It’s just fire season. It’s hot. There’s more people living out further and further in the woods.”

His wife, Barbara Cutchen, sounded a more cautious note.

“I think it could be due to climate change,” she said. “All over the country it’s changing.”

Ray responded with recollections of his own childhood in a nearby town.

“I can remember as a kid in Red Bluff, it’d be over 100 for three weeks at a time. People are babying themselves right into the grave,” he said.

“It was an unfortunate event,” he added of the Carr fire. “But everything was just right for it to happen.”

Like other Republicans The Guardian spoke with, LaMalfa, who is profoundly concerned for his constituents affected by the disaster, linked it less to anthropogenic conditions in the atmosphere than to forest-management policies by federal and state authorities, and specifically to efforts to limit logging.

These, he claimed, had led to “fuel loads that have been left in the forest for 30 to 40 years”.

“Climates always change, so the question is what do we do about the conditions” that now exist, he said.

Experts agree that forests are abnormally dense, a factor they link to the suppression of wildfires, which might otherwise have thinned out the trees. But they say it is unequivocal that climate change is leading to a longer fire season and drier vegetation.

A Republican state senator representing Redding, Ted Gaines, also batted back questions about climate change.

“It was the environmental community that resisted for decades our ability to get into forests and manage them,” he said.

“I think the environmental community has come around and realized we have created a tinderbox.”

As smoke lingered in the air in central Redding, a passerby named Voyd Fleming approached the bridge and said he didn’t need science to tell him about climate change.

It’s “obvious”, he said.

“Look at the trees around you right now. The leaves are falling out of the trees when they shouldn’t be. The environment is changing, and it’s changing everywhere.”

But that doesn’t mean he thinks he, or anyone else, can do anything about it.

“The good Lord has to fix it. We’re not capable of it.”

 

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