SAN FRANCISCO — As Californians suffer widespread power outages and mass evacuations due to wildfire dangers, former Gov. Jerry Brown is warning that the dark scenario may be “only the beginning” for Americans across the country — unless officials in Washington seriously tackle the issue of climate change.
“I said it was the new normal a few years ago,’’ Brown said in an exclusive interview with POLITICO. “This is serious …. but this is only the beginning. This is only a taste of the horror and the terror that will occur in decades.’’
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“And it will occur in various spots: in America, in Africa, in Canada,’’ said Brown, who will travel to Washington this week to speak on climate change issues. “It’s unpredictable, other than the fact that it will get worse in present trajectory. Washington, under Trump, is doing very little — and even the Congress has been unable to mobilize under Washington.’’
“It’s a real threat, but it has to be managed. This is the world we live in. And it will get more dangerous.”
Northern California grappled again this weekend with widespread power outages that affected as many as 2 million Californians, a preemptive effort by Pacific Gas & Electric to avoid sparking another massive wildfire after its wires started the state’s deadliest conflagration last year.
The shut-offs, which began in the middle of last week and persist Monday, may not have been enough. One of the biggest fires of the year has engulfed popular wine areas in Sonoma County and forced mass evacuations from vineyards to the coast. The Kincade Fire began last Wednesday near where PG&E says it suffered a wire failure around the same time.
Brown, the former four-term governor of California, last month inaugurated a UC Berkeley think tank specifically focused on tackling the climate crisis in partnership with China. His California-China Climate Institute aims to encourage partnerships between policymakers, academics and researchers in California and Tsinghua University.
Brown and his wife Anne Gust Brown live on his family’s ranch in Colusa, about 60 miles north of Sacramento and 120 miles from San Francisco. While much of rural Northern California had its power shut off this past week, the Browns aren’t sitting in the dark, and don’t expect to be affected by the outages — in part because they prepared for just this moment.
“We’re off the grid. We have solar collectors and lithium-ion batteries, so we’re set,’’ he said. “We have a well. We collect rainwater and put it into the underground cistern.”
But he says he is concerned for millions of Californians who aren’t so lucky. Such widespread outages are “dangerous” for California, “because you can’t notify many people’’ when power is out, compounding the threat to residents in many communities. On the other hand, “experts say not turning off the power is dangerous,’’ he said. “So you’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t.”
His advice to state residents facing down outages: “Get ready….of course the state government and local governments, with the Office of Emergency Services, are doing a lot,’’ he says. “But they have to do more. People have to be mobilized; it’s not just the government. Whether it’s prescribed burnings or making your house more secure, knowing what your point of exit is, this is serious. “
Asked whether such events are the result of climate change or PG&E’s mismanagement — as Gov. Gavin Newsom has said recently, Brown said: “We’ve always had climate cycles — and sometimes very long droughts, but what we know is that climate change will exacerbate and make this more likely, more often.”
California officials “have to be worried about PG&E, because if they go under — then what?,’’ he said. “And we need a centralized authority to manage the stuff. “ He said some solutions that would control the problem, like undergrounding of wires, “are going to cost money, it’s going to take leadership — and it’s not business as usual.”
PG&E said this month it would take a decade for the utility ensure that its wires are fireproof, until which residents may be forced to face continued blackouts during dry, windy conditions such as those experienced this month.
Newsom said Sunday at a Petaluma evacuation center, “There is a plan to get out of this. This is not the new normal. This is not a 10-year process to deal with this. That will not be the case… They will be held to account to do something radically different.
PG&E shareholders, bondholders and hedge funds are jockeying over control of the company as it tries to emerge from bankruptcy after sparking last year’s Camp Fire, which virtually destroyed the town of Paradise and killed 85 people.
Another option: Cities such as San Francisco and San Jose are contemplating taking over the utility. But Brown said that may not be an easy solution.
“If you take over PG&E, your gas prices will turn into taxes — and politicians are very sensitive to that,’’ he says. “It’s complex…you have to look at it from a non-ideological point; anybody who is rushing to take over the power business may not understand the full difficulty of what the ‘new normal’ actually is.”
Angela Hart contributed to this report.