Sometimes I wonder, “What does ‘climate disruption’ actually look like?”
This week, I got a new glimpse as Pacific Gas and Electric Co., California’s massive electric power company, pre-emptively shut down power for 2.3 million consumers in northern California. With dry conditions and high winds bearing down, the company acted to minimize the chance that power lines and equipment would spark more wildfires.
Even with this precaution, several wildfires have started (probably caused by power equipment in areas that were considered less risky) and are burning an area twice as large as San Francisco. At this writing, 180,000 people have evacuated their homes, including my sister, Mary, who tells me interesting tidbits about living in a world that is intermittently ground zero of climate change.
For instance, she doesn’t use her freezer anymore; it’s not worth the risk of losing frozen food during the next power outage. Kids wait for the next break from school. She wears a mask outside during fire season, uneasily watches real estate prices and lives in a general state of alert. It’s kind of like living in a war zone, with an enemy of undetermined strength and little warning before attacks.
Amazingly (to me), this precautionary move by the electric utility elicited a backlash response from both elected officials and citizens, even as evacuation centers were sprouting up in response to the fires that did ignite. PG&E should have been able to “handle this,” apparently.
Since when are precautionary measures foolish? To me, this is akin to withholding sand bags for those who anticipate floods. Watching California, we see both the worst and the best of the times we live in. Firefighters continue to put themselves in mortal danger every day. Schools and churches open themselves up and make it clear that no immigration questions will be asked.
And on the other hand, the blame game begins.
We are accustomed to feeling secure. Blackouts take away something we have come to rely on 24/7. Yet, we must consider alternatives to our national grid.
Already, the discussion is growing: How reliable, really, is the electric grid in a world of climate disruption? If those huge power lines are unreliable, what are the implications for electrifying transportation and heating? We’ve already determined that natural gas and oil carry heavy risks to safety and climate. Could smaller, local grids be safer in the end?
All this may seem distant to Lake County, but it isn’t really. This month continues the record-wet trend for 2019, with parts of Lake County reporting over 7 inches of rain in October, over three times the normal. Up to 2 inches of that rain fell during the gale in mid-October. October gales seem to have become the norm.
Waves and wind washed debris up along the Burlington Bay Road and blew down still more tall pines on our lovely coastline trail in Two Harbors, further thinning the woods and validating the insistence of the Knife River Marina staff on pulling boats out of the water in early October.
Ice is no longer the reason for pulling boats early — crumbling infrastructure and damaged boats from fall gales and record-high water is. The same storm damaged the relatively new kayak launch at the break wall in Two Harbors and exposed new weak spots in trails and roads throughout Lake County, some of which are now cordoned off and unfit for use.
We are looking at tax increases from both city and county. Let’s not “punish the messenger.” They, like California power companies, are responding to (and anticipating) changing conditions.
We can search for culprits in the cost of living increases — and yes, of course, efficiency can always be improved — but part of the picture is the undeniable fact that we have “lived beyond our means,” if the means is our planet, and that is coming home to roost.
Energy has been far too cheap to allow us to see the damage our lifestyle choices are causing. We are just beginning to pay the price.
Katya Gordon is a volunteer for the Citizens' Climate Lobby and a Two Harbors resident.