We here in California have our battles over who will pay for massive infrastructure projects such as the tunnels to deliver water to Southern California and high-speed rail to move people up and down the state. Most of what was built, most of what we take for granted in terms of highways, roadways, libraries, court buildings, schools, dams and power plants was constructed in the 1950s or a bit later.

Senate Bill 1, adopted by the Legislature and signed by the Governor last year, was intended to address some of these infrastructure needs by raising the current tax on fuel and increasing vehicle fees to pay for road and bridge repair, and improvements to mass transit systems. It would raise about $5 billion a year, much less than the estimated $130 billion needed for repairs and maintenance, but it’s a start.

But will people support this tax and fee increase? Despite the fact that everyone complains about the roads, and how bad congestion has become, there is reluctance among many to pay to improve the situation.

One would think that people who use roads and bridges would want them to be maintained and improved and would appreciate the logic of having those who use those roads and bridges pay for it. Not so, apparently. At least a significant portion of California voters have indicated they will vote yes on Proposition 6, to repeal SB 1.

I mention this because the question of who will pay for damages caused in whole or in part by the climate crisis is very much a current and serious controversy. Most broadly, the Paris Climate Accord asks less-developed countries to avoid developing along the fossil fuel intense pathway that the U.S., Europe and others have followed. But, despite promises, it doesn’t appear that the richer countries are willing to shoulder responsibility for paying for sustainable development.

More locally, usually tax-averse representatives in the U.S. Congress are urging the federal government to put up at least $12 billion to build a 60-mile sea wall on the Texas Gulf Coast to protect oil refineries from damage such as what they experienced with Hurricane Harvey. One can make an argument that oil refineries are important to the economy and people’s lives, and point to the loss of about a quarter of refining capacity and a spike of about 30 cents for a gallon of gas when the hurricane hit.

One can also make an argument that the refineries played a big part in the increase in greenhouse gas emissions that is partly to blame for increased extreme weather events such as strong and wetter hurricanes and they should shoulder some of the cost of protecting their facilities.

A similar situation is developing in California in response to wildfires. The State’s 4th Climate Change Assessment issued this week estimates that as bad as the fires have been in the last few years, the acreage they will burn by the end of the century will effectively double. The assessment estimates that average temperatures in the state will be between four and five degrees hotter, with temperatures in the Sacramento Valley increasing by 10 degrees and the number of “extreme heat” days (104 or higher) increasing from 4 days a year to 40.

There’s a substantial debate on how to better manage the forests to lessen the risk of fires but the Climate Assessment indicates whatever form of management is undertaken it may lessen but will not reverse the impact the Climate Crisis has on wildfires.

One report I came across indicated that in 2017 wildfires put more carbon into the atmosphere than all the actions California took to reduce emissions in that year.

So, who pays the tab? There are efforts in the Legislature to limit the liability of PG&E for fires caused by their equipment. The utility argues that these extreme fires are caused by climate change and they shouldn’t be liable for 100 percent of the damages. For their part, insurance companies are by and large substantially increasing what they charge for insurance or just stop offering it in fire-prone areas.

In both the cases above (the wall protecting the oil refineries and the fires in California) there are very deep-pocketed entrenched interests lobbying hard to limit their liability, and expending large sums to influence legislation and, in some cases, ballot measures.So who pays? Who’s going to pick up the tab? In the gas tax situation commuters and people for whom the cost of living in California can lead to a “No” vote, effectively throwing the ball back into the lap of the taxpayers, themselves included. In the oil-refinery case, there’s more than a little irony in the insistence by Texas politicians who dispute that there even is a climate crisis but are nonetheless arguing for a government subsidy from taxpayers to keep out rising seas.

In the wildfire example, many of those who moved to the “rural-urban interface” in order to find a home they can afford, even if it’s many miles and hours on the freeway from where they work, are looking at higher insurance premiums or no insurance at all.

— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis. This column appears the first and third Wednesday of each month. Please send comments to johnmottsmith@comcast.net.

Crossposted from the Davis Enterprise 

Published online September 4, 2018
Printed September 5, 2018 edition page A5