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California Primary: Green New Deal or Bust! Part 1

Scene from the Carr Fire offers glimpse of one possible future. Photo by Jon Lewis.

(Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part, consecutive-day series.)

Nowadays in my neck of the woods, 30 miles east of Redding in the tinderbox forest surrounding Whitmore, people talk about getting “the letter,” a notice from the insurance company informing residents their homes are no longer insurable due to excessive wildfire risk.

We have yet to receive such a letter, but anxiously presume it’s coming, as do many of our neighbors. After the Carr and Camp Fires in 2018, most of us are highly aware of how perilous our environment has become.

So, when Palo Cedro Farmers’ Insurance agent Matthew Iles sounded the alarm on the burgeoning fire insurance crisis facing rural California homeowners at a recent Whitmore Fire Safe Council meeting, he was in a sense preaching to the choir. Most of those in attendance spend a good deal of their time between worrying about “the letter,” being consumed by a conflagration like the Camp Fire and doing everything they can to make their properties firesafe.

It was a gloomy sermon, the gist of which was if the state doesn’t make some tweaks to the insurance market now, rural life may cease to become a feature of the California dream, because big business can no longer afford the risks posed by our planet and our region’s warming climate.

After suffering tens of billions of dollars in losses from the megafires that have plagued California this century, insurance companies are pulling out of the California market, a process Iles said he first noted after San Diego’s megafires in 2007.

In particular, “reinsurance” companies, secondary market investors that, for profit (as long as nothing goes disastrously wrong) replenish the primary insurance company’s coffers after catastrophic wildfires, view the market in California’s fire hazard zones as too risky.

As a result, hundreds of thousands of rural homeowners have received “the letter” informing them they’re no longer insured. Rates have spiked from $1000 per year to $6000 per year, a sum that can break the bank for rural homeowners on fixed incomes, while at the same time making it difficult to sell the home.

Many have turned to the California Fair Plan, the state’s last-resort insurer, which covers fires but not other disasters, requiring the purchase of a supplemental policy.

Northern California voters need to recognize this for what it is: Thanks to climate change, the risk in fire hazard zones, which cover a substantial amount of territory, are becoming so extreme, big business no longer wants to take a chance on us.

Homeowners are going underinsured, and in some cases are not insured at all. Insurance companies have gone bankrupt, unable to pay customers for their losses. Banks are refusing loans to build homes in fire zones, impacting the building trades, a vital component of the economy.

Iles has become so concerned about the situation he penned a letter and began distributing it to legislators. The letter, which you can read here, gained some traction. You can hear Iles on the radio in LA here; the Sacramento Bee recently did a deep dive on the subject here, confirming his thesis that there is indeed a major crisis in the fire insurance industry.

“The wildfires are devastating the home fire insurance market and the industry is adapting to the risks based on the current insurance market structure,” his letter begins. “Bankruptcy of insurance companies, customer dissatisfaction, Department of Insurance complaints, and underinsurance have not been fully realized; it will get worse if gone unchecked. But the structure can be altered to lessen the impact on consumers while the underlying wildfire fuel and land management is addressed.”

Iles didn’t mention anthropogenic global warming in his talk before the Whitmore Fire Safe Council or in his letter, but Mark Bove, a meteorologist and catastrophe solutions manager for Munich Re, the world’s second-largest seller of reinsurance, told the Bee that climate change and population growth in fire-prone areas are driving up the risk of doing business in California.

“We are happy for the residents of California that 2019 was much milder,” Bove told the Bee. But “the whole entire insurance and reinsurance industry still feel wildfire is a very significant, emerging risk in California. One relatively quiet year … does not change that fact.”

If the medium-to-worst-case projections of climate and wildfire scientists who study our region are correct, California will experience even larger fires at an increasing rate in the future. As the recent wildfires that devastated Australia demonstrated, that future is upon us. All we can do is mitigate the damage to come, minimize the wildfire risk. It’s a monumental task beyond the scope of market-based solutions.

My informed opinion is this: In order to tackle it on a meaningful scale, we need political leaders who actually believe in science, economics, and better yet, the Green New Deal.

As it happens, there’s a candidate running in the California Democratic Presidential Primary March 3, Independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who has championed Medicare For All, reducing income inequality, and the Green New Deal.

He’s joined by two candidates for federal and state offices, Democrats Audrey Denney and Elizabeth Betancourt, who also support a Green New Deal. Here’s how they stack up against their climate-change denying Republican opponents.

Riding the Rainbow Unicorn

Why is the Green New Deal so important? It’s not just increased wildfire risk that we’re facing. Droughts are expected to increase in duration and intensity. Sea level rise will erode the coastline, cause flooding and inundate the Sacramento/San Joaquin River Delta, endangering southern California’s water supply. The list goes on and on and on.

Without a substantial public investment, a la FDR’s New Deal to mitigate these issues, large swaths of California could become uninhabitable by the next century. Here’s how AB 1839, the California Green New Deal bill introduced by Assembly Democrats last month, puts it:

“The state will continue to experience significant climate change impacts by 2050 that include human mortality, coastal degradation, extreme droughts, wildfires, flooding, and increased air pollution. By 2100, if emissions of greenhouse gases continue to rise at current rates, the increasing frequency of extreme weather will have a dramatic impact on all facets of living in the state. Wildfires will increase significantly, up 77 percent by the end of the century based on recent moderate averages.”

Living in the tinderbox forest 30 miles east of Redding, that last projection is easy to believe.

If passed, the ambitious legislation will create a Green New Deal Council charged with addressing myriad climate change issues, from transitioning from fossil fuels, creating carbon free public utilities and transportation, to restoring resilience to our forests.

It also goes much further than that, advocating for affordable college education for all, an improved public healthcare system, a reduction in income inequality, and taxing extremely wealthy corporations and individuals to help pay for it all.

Is it any wonder the New Green Deal is gaining steam in Trump’s America?

Meanwhile, our man in Washington, D.C., Republican U.S. 1st District Representative Doug LaMalfa, now running for his sixth term, has earned a reputation as “one of the dumbest deniers of climate change on Capitol Hill,” according to the progressive website Daily Kos, which has selected LaMalfa five times as it’s “Crazy/Stupid Republican of the Day.”

LaMalfa is a welfare millionaire rice farmer whose family farm operation in Butte County has pocketed nearly $6 million in USDA farm subsidies during the past 20 years. He’s also a fervent right-wing evangelical who likes to quote bible verses when, say, cutting food stamps for poor people or justifying his flat-out denial of climate science.

Major campaign donors include the petroleum and timber industries, and LaMalfa has fully supported fellow denier President Donald Trump’s wholesale evisceration via executive order of the EPA and numerous environmental laws designed to protect our air, land, water and other natural resources from degradation.

Democratic AD-1 candidate Audrey Denney demonstrates what a ballot looks like, in case you haven’t seen one lately.

Democratic candidate Audrey Denney, an agricultural educator from Chico, is the polar opposite of LaMalfa when it comes to climate change. This is her second attempt to take on LaMalfa; she fell 10 points short in 2018—a respectable showing compared to previous Democratic efforts.

She has signed the Sunrise Movement’s Green New Deal pledge. The Sunrise Movement is “building an army of young people to make climate change an urgent priority” and has endorsed candidates across the country who promise to advocate for the Green New Deal and refrain from taking fossil fuel campaign donations.

Far from a wild-eyed tree-hugger, Denney approaches the Green New Deal from a pragmatic point of view.

“Climate change is not a threat in the distant future,” she states on her campaign’s website. “It is threatening the lives, homes, and livelihoods of people who live in my district today. We have to take bold action to mitigate climate change and restore our forests to health. The Green New Deal is not a plan to mitigate climate change – it is a bold commitment to the belief that we can.”

Interviewed last year by the muckraking website Sludge, her assessment of LaMalfa’s performance in office was sharp and on the mark:

“The congressman’s ineffectiveness given his status on the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry goes far beyond his denial of science and speaks to his failure to serve in his most basic capacity as the voice of our rural district in Washington,” Denney told Sludge.

“Under his leadership, we’ve seen increased mismanagement of our forests, policy missteps between federal and state government agencies that have limited our land management strategies, and increased cuts to federal conservation and forestry funding that have crippled our rural economies and made forest health the most urgent public health crisis facing rural Californians today.”

All of that is true, by the way.

Unlike her Republican opponent, Denney is not taking donations from corporate-backed political action committees or the fossil fuel industry. Amazingly, considering how conservative the 1st District is reputed to be, she’s outpaced LaMalfa in fundraising, hauling in $750,000 to the incumbent’s $674,000, primarily from small and large individual donations.

None of the other candidates on the ballot appear to have serious campaigns—meaning that they’re underfunded—which give Denney a great shot at finishing second in the top-two primary and continuing on to the general election.

Even if LaMalfa wins more than 50 percent of the vote, she’ll be well-funded and have momentum going into November. It will be very interesting to see LaMalfa defend Trump’s recently proposed massive cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid to town hall audiences full of pissed off senior citizens.

If he shows up, that is.

Who knows? If things keeping going Bernie’s way in the Democratic Primaries, and Trump keeps breaking things, Denney could find herself riding the rainbow unicorn wave to victory in the fall!

Tomorrow, Part 2: California Primary: Green New Deal or Bust!