What Can a President Do About Wildfires?

President Biden touted his actions on wildfires on a tour in California. But what’s really in his power?,


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We’re also covering the debate about a Civilian Climate Corps and Biden’s plans for cleaner jet fuel.


President Biden and Gov. Gavin Newsom in Sacramento, Calif., on Monday.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

By Christopher Flavelle

President Biden visited California this week to showcase his efforts to better protect the state against the raging wildfires that have burned more than two million acres, displaced thousands and pushed responders to the brink of exhaustion.

But Mr. Biden’s record on wildfires, which includes more pay for firefighters and more money to harden communities against blazes, demonstrates a worrying truth, experts say: There are limits to what the federal government can do to reduce the scale and destructive power of the fires, at least in the short term.

“Climate change impacts can’t be absolved in a single year,” said Roy Wright, who was in charge of risk mitigation at the Federal Emergency Management Agency until 2018. The goal, he said, should be “investments that will pay back over the coming three to five years.”

Federal action largely depends on Congress approving new funding — but even if approved, that money might not make much of a difference anytime soon, as Zolan Kanno-Youngs and I wrote this week. And even then, curbing the damage relies largely on state and local governments, which experts say should scale back development in fire-prone areas.

Mr. Biden could use the megaphone of the presidency to encourage such restrictions, according to Michele Steinberg, wildfire division director for the National Fire Protection Association. But it would mean competing against a deeply held American view that land is something to profit from, rather than conserve or protect.

“It’s more like, let’s get the value out of this land that we can right now,” Ms. Steinberg told me, “and let the next generation worry about it.”

The growing scale of fires: Until 2018, the largest wildfires in the state seldom burned more than 300,000 acres, according to state data. In 2018, the Ranch fire consumed more than 400,000 acres, and last year, the August Complex fire topped 1 million acres, making it the largest blaze in the state’s history. Just north of the Caldor fire is the Dixie fire, which has already burned more than 960,000 acres and is not yet contained. That fire could break last year’s record.


House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, center, called for climate action at the U.S. Capitol on July 28, 2021. Credit…Shawn Thew/EPA, via Shutterstock

Democrats want a ‘Climate Corps.’ They just can’t agree how to create it.

By Lisa Friedman

Democrats aim to pour tens of billions of dollars into a New Deal-style program that would hire young people to work on projects to protect communities and the environment from disasters that are growing more destructive because of climate change.

Momentum for a Civilian Climate Corps has been steadily building since President Biden called for its creation in March. Though the program will not directly reduce emissions of greenhouse gases that are warming the planet, it is a top priority for environmentalists as part of a $3.5 trillion spending bill Democrats hope to pass this fall.

Republicans have denounced the program as a boondoggle that would create eco-vigilantes who, as one lawmaker recently warned, will “report who is watering their lawn, whose fireplace is smoking.”

But the biggest hurdle may be Democrats themselves, who have yet to agree on how to design a climate corps. Some want to fund the program under the umbrella of AmeriCorps, a federally-funded national service program. Others have advocated expanding existing apprenticeships and job training programs through the Department of Labor and other agencies. And legislation introduced by Senator Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, both Democrats, would require that at least half the members of a climate corps come from “under-resourced communities of need.”

Can they come to an agreement? Read more about the debate in the full article here.

Quotable: “Any time you’re negotiating over how to do it rather than whether to do it, you’re in a pretty good position. And we’re negotiating over how,” said Collin O’Mara, the president of the National Wildlife Foundation.


The deal between the Biden administration and the airline industry is meant to drive down flying’s environmental toll.Credit…Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

Biden outlines a plan for cleaner jet fuel. But how clean would it be?

Flying is one of the most difficult methods of travel to make more climate-friendly. We’re a long way from being able to jet from New York City to Tokyo on a battery-powered plane.

But making the fuel that airplanes use more sustainable is one important step. Last week, the Biden administration and the airline industry announced an ambitious goal: to replace all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050.

Like a lot of climate policies, the devil is in the details. I wrote about how, depending on the type of alternative fuel we use, using billions of gallons of it could hurt, not help, the climate. That concern centers on the complicated calculations that go into assessing the true climate-friendliness of biofuels, a major subset of sustainable fuels.

Quotable: “The problematic part is that today’s biofuels don’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That’s not where the state of the science is,” said Jason Hill, a professor of bioproducts and biosystems engineering at the University of Minnesota. “They can actually make them worse.”

Upcoming climate-y events

Black in Bloom: How do you find purpose, joy and peace in the great outdoors? A Times event, Black in Bloom, is exploring these questions in a virtual event on Sept. 19, as part of the Black History, Continued series. Become inspired to experience the outdoors with historian and author Blair Imani and a performance by singer Mumu Fresh, and join a discussion about food justice with Alexis Nikole Nelson, known as the Black Forager on TikTok, and others. R.S.V.P. to attend this Sunday at 2 p.m. Eastern.

Netting Zero: In episode 10 of Netting Zero (a series of virtual events on climate, hosted by The New York Times), The Times’s climate reporter Brad Plumer is joined by experts to discuss whether international freight will make a comeback or if the era of cheap mobility is over. R.S.V.P. now to join us Sept. 23 at 1:30 p.m. Eastern.

Also important this week:

During Hurricane Ida, the greatest killer in New Orleans wasn’t the storm. It was the heat.

Wildfires in California are threatening sequoia groves containing some of the oldest and biggest trees in the world.

Nicholas, now a tropical depression, could produce life-threatening flash flooding as it moves east through Louisiana, forecasters warned.

What is flash flooding, and how can you prepare for it?

The issue of climate change may be shifting the balance of power to the left in some European countries, like Norway.

Tune in to climate change: Seven of TV’s most popular late-night programs and hosts plan to address the subject on Sept. 22.

The period from June through August this year was the hottest on record in the United States, exceeding even the Dust Bowl summer of 1936, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said.

California aims to ban recycling symbols on things that aren’t recyclable.

And finally, we recommend:

Summer nights are getting hotter


Credit…Source: NOAA’s Global Historical Climatology Network

By Aatish Bhatia and Josh Katz

This summer was unusually hot in the United States, especially at night. Minimum temperatures were the hottest on record for every state on the West Coast and parts of the Northeast. Most other states neared their record highs for overnight temperatures from June through August.

This is part of a trend that aligns with the predictions of climate models: Across the United States, nights are warming faster than days. This effect is amplified in cities, which are typically warmer than their surroundings.

“At nighttime, the deserts cool off really, really fast, but our city does not,” said Jennifer Vanos, a professor in the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University, referring to Phoenix.

“Not having that break from the heat is really hard on the human body — it builds up,” she said. “And knowing the temperatures in Phoenix, we’re going to be in the 90s overnight and we’re going to be up to 110 sometimes in the day. None of those are safe for a person that doesn’t have access to air-conditioning.”

To see how summer nights have gotten hotter in recent decades, The New York Times charted 60 years of daily weather data from nearly 250 airports in the United States that have kept consistent weather records.

one last thing:

In last week’s newsletter, a caption with the first photo misspelled the name of a town affected by Hurricane Ida. It is Lafitte, La., not Lefitte.

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