As California Fires Worsen, Environmentalists Demand a Green New Deal

As the Camp Fire death toll rises, 350.org Executive Director May Boeve talks about how California will see worse wildfires if federal and state leaders don’t stop propping up big oil

As California Fires Worsen, Environmentalists Demand a Green New Deal

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Story Transcript

DHARNA NOOR: It’s The Real News. I’m Dharna Noor.

The Camp Fire in Northern California, which is the deadliest wildfire in state history, has now killed 56 people. Over 100 are still unaccounted for. And in Los Angeles and Ventura County, firefighters are still fighting to contain the Woolsey Fire, which has killed at least three.

As California has gotten warmer and drier, its wildfires have become worse and worse. Fifteen of the state’s 20 largest fires have occurred in the last 18 years, and scientists predict that as warming continues, the fires will only get worse. This week President Trump approved a major disaster declaration for California after being criticized for blaming poor forest management for the fires.

Now joining us to talk about all of this from Northern California, from Oakland, is May Boeve. May is the executive director of 350.org and International Climate Change Campaign. Thanks for coming on today.

MAY BOEVE: Thanks for having me.

MAY BOEVE: So again, you’re in Northern California right now. Talk about what you’re seeing out there. I mean, tens of thousands of people have been forced to evacuate; 9,000 homes have been destroyed; tens are now dead. And you know, you’re away from the fires a bit, but the smoke and ash and debris left in the air are still posing tons of health issues, too.

MAY BOEVE: Yeah, these fires really have a devastating impact. And the suddenness with which they occur- I’m sure people saw the harrowing stories of people trying to escape from their cars to protect themselves from the fires. So in the deadliest places they are terrifying events, but they extend far beyond the actual locations of the fires.

So here in the Bay I can tell you that there’s a lot of people that are wearing masks. In fact, I should probably be wearing one right now, even inside. A lot of people are forced to do that. There’s a smoky haze in the air, and it’s lasted for quite some time. And you know, it was not that long ago, just less than a year ago, when Sonoma and Napa were burning. I grew up in that part of the state. And so I saw many members of my community directly impacted from the fire, and it takes a very long time to recover. So this will be with us for some time, and we’re very, very grateful for the first responders, for the many people who have rallied around the communities most affected. We know that these disasters impact low-income communities, communities of color, in particular ways, and make the recovery efforts even longer. So for those who are on the front lines this is a very difficult time, and we’re with you 100 percent.

DHARNA NOOR: Certainly. And again, you and many scientists have noted that California’s wildfires have gotten worse because of drought and warming in the state. Many have also noted that these extremely strong dry Easterly winds have contributed. Talk about how the changing climate has fueled these fires, and why in the face of these fires y’all at 350 Action and 350.org are calling to keep all fossil fuels in the ground and transition to 100 percent renewables?

MAY BOEVE: It’s important to think about this immediate crisis, the short term, and it’s also important to think about the long term. And climate change helps us understand why these fire events are as severe and intense as they are. And you know, I’m a climate activist. I’m not a climate scientist. But there’s been lots and lots of brilliant work being done by many scientists to help us understand this link, and their work has been incredibly crucial.

So what we know is this: that every disaster is a compound event comprised of many different factors. But climate change impacts all of those underlying conditions in different ways. So in California we’re dealing with very dry conditions. We’re dealing with very warm temperatures for this time of year. And as you said, we’re dealing with more fierce winds. And while there have been wildfires in California for many, many years, and you’ll hear a lot of climate deniers bring up this narrative, they are more intense now. They last longer. And we can actually prevent the worst effects of climate change and these kinds of disasters, whether they be forests, whether they be hurricanes, whether they be flash floods. We’re starting to see what the scientists warned us about.

And I think for some people they wonder, well, what can still be done? You know, you’ve probably heard politicians talk about the new normal, or even the new abnormal. But when we give into that narrative we give up some of the agency to do something about this problem and to hold accountable the people who actually benefit from climate change. Right? And we know who that is. We know their names. It’s the fossil fuel industry. It’s Big Oil. It’s Big Coal. And their product causes climate change. And they knew even in the late ’80s that some of what we’re living through right now would be the result of their business model. And did they change it? No. They in fact doubled down on extraction, and they continue to double down on extraction and prop up heads of state like Donald Trump, like Bolsonaro in Brazil, like Modi in India. These linkages between heads of state who are very bullish about fossil fuels, are very tied into this industry. And they benefit while so many other people are suffering from these impacts.

DHARNA NOOR: Yeah, it came out today that Bolsonaro said that climate change was a plot from cultural Marxists. Trump, as we noted before, blamed forest management for these fires. But then he did this week approve this major disaster declaration. So talk about what the impact of that will be on California, and what could and should be done at the federal level?

MAY BOEVE: Well, there is, again, the short term and the long term. So there should absolutely be support for emergency management. And we’re going to see more of these needs, and we support those efforts to build up our resilience, 100 percent. But the other 100 percent that we need is 100 percent renewable energy. And these fires are a reminder to us that we are faced with a stark choice. We can kind of give in to this increasingly scary scenario of a very unpredictable world, or we can turn the tide and actually stop what’s causing the problem, and invest in the solutions that make it better.

And we really do have a promising potential here. When we were just getting started with 350.org almost 10 years ago, renewable energy was not nearly as widespread a technology as it is today. But it is inexpensive, and it is helping bring people who’ve never had electricity to be able to turn on the lights for the first time. And we are actually seeing this energy transition happen before our eyes. And it’s really a question now of how quickly will it happen? How quickly will renewables replace fossil fuels in our energy mix, and how will this be fair? How will this great transition we’re living through actually support communities and actually support workers, and reduce inequality, and achieve some of the many important values that we all care about in the climate movement?

So we’re calling on the federal government to keep fossil fuels in the ground and to support a Green New Deal. What we’re talking about is nothing short of a major investment in infrastructure and job creation in the jobs of the future. And we want this new Congress to embrace that message. And in fact, some have already have on the campaign trail. And now they’re in Congress, and hopefully they can make some moves to enact it.

Right here in California, Governor-Elect Gavin Newsom can embrace this agenda. California’s obviously a leader in renewable energy, having passed SB 100, the 100 percent renewable energy standard, back in August. But what we have to do in this state as well is to work on the other side of the ledger. And a lot of people may not know this, but California’s behind only Texas and North Dakota in the amount of oil that we’re producing in this state. And it really shocks people to realize that we’re on the one hand such a phenomenal environmental leader- and I am a very proud Californian- and the incredible environmental sustainability that is part of our state’s value system. But we have to take the whole picture, and transition off of fossil fuels here, as well. And there are communities who live next to oil drilling facilities in many parts of this state, and they deserve better.

So we are calling on these changes, and we have been calling on them. We will continue to do so. And we will continue to build a movement that is strong enough that these policies aren’t challenged, but that they are the accepted status quo.

DHARNA NOOR: Yeah, California Governor Jerry Brown signed the 100 percent renewable bill into law, and has been called a climate hero. But again, he’s been criticized by many, including by many in your organization, for approving some 20,000 new oil and gas permits during his term as governor.

So talk about what can be done to usher in what you’re calling a Green New Deal at the state level. I mean, just this week we saw hundreds of activists from the Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats occupy Nancy Pelosi’s office, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, demanding a Green New Deal. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York joined them. Talk more about how that can be done at the federal level, and also at the state level in California.

MAY BOEVE: Well, you did a wonderful job just connecting the dots there, Dharna, because it’s these kinds of social movement actions that we know can change the zeitgeist. And I also want to bring up another social movement fight, which has been the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline. And there was a huge victory last week, and the pipeline’s fate is very uncertain. It’s actually very unlikely at this point. And when it was first proposed, people in Washington didn’t give it a second thought. They assumed it would be built within a year, done deal. Ten years of movement pressure has made that pipeline now almost impossible.

And that is exactly what we see happening in many corners of the world as these acts of political resistance that help paint the picture of the future that we need, and we fight for it. And we can’t always be talking about what we don’t want. That’s why the idea of the Green New Deal is so essential, because it’s actually talking about the future we need to build. And I think that’s differently inspiring about … For myself, you know, what Is the future I want to have as I get older? If I have children, the future that I want for them? And that is, I think, a way of really capturing that we can do better. And we’re absolutely living in a really challenging political moment.

But all of our sister movements have really helped to make this point, that if we are not spending this time when we are not in full control of government to actually articulate our boldest visions, then once we are back, how will we actually enact that vision if we haven’t made it clear, if we have not fought for it. So that is why sometimes we find ourselves pushing people who we agree with on most things but we can all do better. And it’s not a matter of saying- it’s not a matter of any kind of personal aspect. What we’re saying is you have Big Oil and their agenda on one hand, and you have us on the other. And we’re asking for our elected leaders, all of them, to put people first, and not the role of corporations, and not the needs of these industries. We know that’s difficult. But it’s nothing less than what is being required in the world we’re living in right now.

DHARNA NOOR: So what do you say to people who take a look at what’s happening at the federal level and think, you know, nothing is possible? I mean, we have a federal government that is full of climate deniers. Even many Democrats are continuing to take money from the fossil fuel industry. What do you say to people who look at the picture across the nation and say that there’s really no hope to fight climate change?

MAY BOEVE: I say to them giving up is exactly what the opposition wants. It’s part of their strategy. They’re trying to make us feel so worried and so demoralized that we just throw our hands up and give in to their agenda. That’s exactly what they want.

I would advise people to look at history, to look at social movements who have fought against military dictatorships and won. You know, part of what’s so hard about what’s happening in Brazil right now is people are still alive today who lived through the last dictatorship, and here you have Bolsonaro praising that time. And that is absolutely terrifying. But then, they remember, and they’ve told me. Our colleagues in Brazil, they did it then, and they can do it again.

And especially for those of us who have any kind of privilege, to walk away from the fight now is the maximum abuse of power. In fact, staying engaged when it is most difficult, and find all the ways you need to find to keep yourself resilient. Whether you have to go off Facebook for a little while, or you know, go for more walks and take a break, OK. But come back into the fight, come back into the movement. Because this is when we’re most summoned to be the kind of leaders and live into our values as strongly as we can.

DHARNA NOOR: Well, May, thank you so much for braving the horrendous air quality where you are right now. Please stay safe out there in California, and we hope to talk to you again soon.

MAY BOEVE: Thanks a lot.

DHARNA NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.