By Elliot Bartz, Reserve Trainee with Alameda County Fire (personal capacity).
In an era of accelerating climate change, extreme and unpredictable weather is the new norm. But even still, few would have expected the incredible winter that California is experiencing – whiplashing from a decades-long, severe drought to historic rains and disastrous flooding in a matter of days. This climate crisis, and the total chaos of emergency response, is exposing the total inadequacy of the ruling class’ reaction to this disaster of their own making.
I volunteered for an impromptu community storm response on New Years’ Eve – a day that ended up being the second-wettest in San Francisco history. Arriving at the fire station to fill sandbags (no small feat as the freeway and many other roads were completely shut down due to flooding), the scale of the logistical failure became painfully apparent. We had bags, but no sand, with a line of worried people outside needing urgent help.
A single load of sand was on the only truck the county had available, and it was stuck 30 miles away, behind a landslide brought down by the deluge. After two hours of waiting, the sand finally arrived, and we hastily shoveled it into about two hundred bags in the pouring rain. The next load didn’t come for another 4 hours, leaving us to ration a meager four sandbags per family, in one of the wealthiest regions of the wealthiest country in human history.
This bleak picture, which played out all over California that day, has at least been somewhat tempered by the drought relief. In late September 2022, 41% of California was in extreme drought. Following the two-week period from December 26 to January 10 (during which an astounding 13 inches of rain fell in the Bay Area), conditions improved significantly. Snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains, which feeds our rivers and streams and provides the drinking water for over 75% of Californians, has totaled a massive 56 feet as of March 15. But the problem posed by the erratic nature of climate change in California is apparent – we need rain, but so much all at once is a crisis.
Since the start of the year, the rain has not let up. Storm after storm has arrived with little reprieve. The already-saturated ground has been unable to absorb water, leading to progressively more intense flooding. Thousands of homes have been damaged, power has been cut off to millions at various times, and our already criminally neglected infrastructure has deteriorated further.
To make matters worse, flood insurance – which is already expensive – is becoming unreliable. The National Flood Insurance Program exhausted its borrowing capacity in October, and the program has been in the red since 2005. Its ability to pay claims even for those who can afford insurance is in doubt. In California, run by a Democratic supermajority, profit-hungry banks and their wealthy depositors receive huge bailouts while working people facing severe flood damage to their homes are left to fend for themselves.
Even when the rains stop, the flooding will continue. This year’s massive snowpack will melt as the weather warms, overwhelming dams and flooding communities downstream. This could include disruptions to the massive agricultural industry of the Central Valley, large parts of which were once marsh and wetland. The resulting interruption of food supply to the rest of the country would be the latest addition to the cascading list of climate disturbances.
As the impacts of the climate crisis worsen before our eyes, the capitalist class continues its endless war on workers and the planet. This fact is laid bare by the Biden Administration’s infuriating decision to approve a huge oil-drilling project in Alaska, which is expected to produce more than 239 million metric tons of greenhouse gasses over the next 3 years. California Governor Newsom has already matched the president’s subservience to oil and gas interests by green-lighting fracking operations throughout California. Clearly, the devastating impacts felt by California’s big winter are only the beginning if the rapacious fossil fuel industry continues to get its way.
Realistically, it is already too late to prevent some of the oncoming disasters wrought by capitalism’s destruction of the planet. But the history of the working-class response to the coming era of climate crisis has yet to be written. Workers are learning that we can’t expect more than a few sandbags under the flood of empty promises from capitalist politicians.
The struggle in the U.S. is now moving out of the electoral arena and into the workplace, with fights for new unions, contract battles, and strike actions coming to the fore. The growing consciousness of the working class, on whom all production depends, points to a future where we can exercise our power to take on climate change. Stopping this disaster will require mass action by all workers, but especially by workers in the fossil fuel industry. Our class alone has the power to take on the capitalists hell-bent on destroying our planet for profit.