This Halloween and election season follow right on the heels of some of the most dramatic weather-related challenges that the Western US has seen in a long time. Enormous fires burned major portions of the Pacific Northwest down through central California, including the coastal ranges, causing orange skies and historic air pollution in Portland and San Francisco, while Phoenix set a variety of extreme-heat records (that no one was cheering on) due in part to a nearly absent North American Monsoon. Drought has covered much of the West the last few months, also resulting in intense autumn fires in the Colorado mountains, despite a preceding and record-breaking early-September snowstorm.
These weather extremes highlighted the slow climatic drivers that stress systems and, in combination with human-behavioral factors, can cause them to behave in intense or unexpected ways. Case in point: warming plus natural variability led to the extreme region-wide drought of 2012-16; the drought led vegetation to be weaker and more prone to beetle infestations; the combination of dryness and insects killed millions of trees; those trees provided ready kindling for any fires that sparked in the next dry year, either from lightning or human activities. That the Western-US landscape is dynamic and heavily shaped by human influence makes facing the constraints of the naturally dry (but strongly variable) climate a daunting psychological and political challenge. Having lived in California now for a bit over a year, my observation is that this state epitomizes how climate can serve as a revealing lens into the conflicted soul of a place. Below, I elaborate on this thought and what it means.
The statistics on California's success are everywhere: its economy is larger than that of France or India, and its companies shape the daily lives of billions of people. Yet despite its image as a paragon of a gentler sort of capitalism than is practiced in Texas or Florida, California encompasses gaping inequities: it is a land of dazzling success and glamour in beautiful surroundings, but also of grueling low-paid work in hot dusty fields or sprawling industrial zones. These poles of desirability are highly correlated with the climate, much more so than in other places, even ones that are more unequal. The wealthy are concentrated along the coast, monopolizing access to cool weather and fresh clean air off of the ocean, while poorer people (sadly, often this means people of color) live disproportionately in the Central Valley, Inland Empire, and interior deserts, with their hot summers and perennial smog. The relatively more pleasant climate of some minority neighborhoods, like those in South LA, is offset by longstanding pollution and other environmental issues there. Where the wealthy do own property or spend time in sometimes-adverse areas, like the Coachella Valley (home of Palm Springs), they tend to visit at the best times of year and have permanent dwellings elsewhere -- whereas workers in those communities stay there year-round and suffer through the entire summer at 40-45 C, often while working outside in sectors such as agriculture or property maintenance.
A similar story plays out on a more-local level, for example with respect to street shade. In a climate where trees often require conscious planting or tending, the differences among neighborhoods in terms of resources (and in city priorities) are on stark display. As in the below two images I've captured of a urban swath south of downtown LA, the relative wealth of an area can be ascertained with reasonable accuracy even from space. These features lead to localized heat stress and the associated impacts. While a given heat wave in California may have a larger impact along the coast, due to the rarity of extreme heat there, this must be weighed against the much higher absolute temperatures inland.
People with means have always sought out the most naturally desirable parts of a metropolitan region, whether that is the western (upwind) neighborhoods of mid-latitude cities or elevated neighborhoods away from docks, factories, and mosquito breeding areas. In California, the topography and coastline create large differences in climate over small distances, heightening the contrast. Restrictive zoning has further increased property values and reinforced this climate/income correlation by pushing lower-cost housing to the urban fringes, where heat, drought, and fire are more serious concerns.
However, a countervailing trend that has become apparent in recent years is that of the owners of expensive properties who would rather invest large sums for protection against climate-related hazards than sell and move elsewhere. This is happening in Malibu (despite recent wildfires), Montecito (despite recent mudslides), and Newport Beach (despite ongoing sea-level rise). Evidently, it will take repeated disasters to change mindsets, if at all, regarding the overall desirability of the coast. Another component of the calculation is that within urbanized areas (as opposed to the wildland-urban interface) fires are quite rare, and mudslides and sea-level rise threaten a relatively small number of properties, whereas heat, drought, and air pollution affect large areas all at once. And even when exposures are similar, socioeconomic factors cause greater vulnerability among poorer communities, such as through their lower levels of insurance coverage, resulting in very long shadows of impacts from disasters.
Many of California's challenges, from homelessness to climate change, hinge on affordable and equitable housing. Achieving this will require a certain innovativeness, graciousness, and progressiveness that is hard to realize anywhere. There must first be a broader recognition of the endemic de facto environmental/climatic segregation here, and how it worsens overall health and economic outcomes. Erasing such distinctions is of course impossible, but taking a completely laissez-faire approach is itself an active choice, and one whose short-sightedness climate-related stressors will likely continue to demonstrate over the coming years.