This Is What Adapting to Climate Change Looks Like

PG&E’s blackouts in California are a bleak preview of the disruptions that will become routine in a warmer world.

In this December 16, 2017, file photo provided by the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, flames burn near power lines in Sycamore Canyon near West Mountain Drive in Montecito, California.
Mike Eliason / AP

California has always promised Americans a glimpse of the future. But this week, the Golden State is forecasting a future that nobody wants to live in.

Millions of people across California lost their power this week, after the local utility Pacific Gas and Electric intentionally shut off electrical lines to avoid starting wildfires in dangerously dry and windy conditions. The outage—termed a “public-safety power shutoff”—stretched hundreds of miles across the state’s northern half, dousing the lights in affluent Bay Area suburbs, on Sacramento Valley ranches, and in large coastal cities such as Eureka.

By yesterday afternoon, more than 600,000 customers faced a blackout, including hundreds of hospitals, the utility said. But that number belies the scale of the shutoff: An entire apartment building can count as a single “customer,” according to The New York Times.

In one sense, the blackout was caused by an overlapping set of crises—legal, financial, and ecological—that now confronts the state. But in a larger sense, it looked like a preview of mid-21st-century governance. When political leaders envision the century of climate change to come, they often speak of massive floods and dangerous droughts. But the experience of Californians this week—frustrated, needlessly inconvenienced, and saddled with aging infrastructure built for the wrong century—will define the mass experience of climate change as much as any deluge or inferno.

That is in part because blackouts—while not as deadly or terrifying as wildfires—are nonetheless expensive in their own right. Outages this week could cost the American economy as much as $2.5 billion, says Michael Wara, a lawyer and energy-policy scholar at Stanford University. His estimate, calculated using a tool from the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, assumes that the blackout will eventually reach its planned length (48 hours) and planned size (800,000 customers).

Most of that $2.5 billion will be silently incurred by businesses, since many offices must restrict their hours or close altogether in a blackout. But costs will propagate through the economy. Tens of thousands of families must now sort through spoiled food and restock their freezers. Others will spend money they would have spent elsewhere coping with the blackout. And people who depend on medical equipment to survive must decide whether to temporarily leave town, invest in a generator, or risk going without until the power returns.

Of course, autumn is always an inconvenient time in California, as it is the heart of wildfire season. With winter rains not yet arrived and any springtime moisture long since sapped by the summer heat, October and November are when the state’s forest and chaparral are at their most parched. This week, the state faces another major cause of fires: hot, arid gusts that can knock over power lines while further drying out the soil.

But in the warming climate, California’s wildfires are getting worse. Half of its 10 largest wildfires ever, and seven of its 10 most destructive, have happened in the past decade. Since 1972, the state’s annual burned area has increased fivefold, a trend attributable to a 2.5-degree-Fahrenheit rise in summer temperatures, according to a recent peer-reviewed study.

And while PG&E induced the blackouts to avoid wildfires, it is also responding to its own financial incentives. Earlier this year, a state investigation concluded that PG&E power lines caused the Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s history. The fire killed 85 people and destroyed almost 20,000 buildings, including the entire town of Paradise, last November. (The utility has conceded that its lines were “likely” to blame for the blaze.)

Under California law, utilities must pay for any damage from a wildfire that was sparked by their own equipment. But PG&E—which is owned by private investors—said that it could not afford to pay damages both for the Camp Fire and for several 2017 wildfires that it also caused. So it declared bankruptcy, becoming the first corporate bankruptcy triggered by climate change. Last month, it paid out an $11 billion insurance claim over the Camp Fire and other blazes.

The full cost of the Camp Fire was $16.5 billion, according to the reinsurance giant Munich Re. The fire was the most expensive natural disaster anywhere in the world last year. And for many people, it’s straightforward to think of its terrible damage—or the multibillion-dollar floods that plagued the Midwest this year—as the cost and consequence of climate change.

But the warning from California this week is that the $2.5 billion incurred by the blackouts is also a cost of climate change. The tedium of waiting in long lines for gasoline, the desperation of leaving the state and sleeping in a hotel, even the frustration of searching every nearby Home Depot for a generator—these costs are every bit as real, and every bit as climate-related, as those incurred by more biblical means. They are also just as real as the measures it would take to upgrade our infrastructure.

I sometimes hear politicians rosily speculate that we’ll adapt to climate change and rising temperatures. And we will, somewhat, especially if we limit carbon pollution and the ensuing scale of global warming. But until the federal government invests serious money in retrofitting American infrastructure—and preparing it for the climate to come—then “adapting to climate change” will mean skipping your kid’s soccer game so you can be the 26th car in line at the Exxon.