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LeFevre:California’s Global Warming Contradictions

Meditations - From Martin LeFevre in California

California’s Global Warming Contradictions

The drive out of California’s Central Valley was through the thickest, most noxious and ominous-looking smoke I’ve ever seen. Huge swaths of rice fields had been set ablaze, as well as enormous piles of debris from the almond harvest. What would have otherwise been a lovely drive on clear day of blue skies became a disorienting, Dantean experience.

In places the smoke looked like San Francisco’s characteristic fog, except that it had a reddish hue and you nearly choked on it even inside the car.

This area is one of the largest producers of almonds and rice in the world, and miles and miles of orchards and rice paddies line the highways and back roads. Every fall after harvest time, the people of northern California endure the kind of lung damaging conditions you hear about in parts of Asia. Burning is the traditional and easy way to dispose of excess plant matter, even though it violates California’s air quality standards.

The smoke was moderately bad in Butte County; the hellishness did not become apparent until we neared the Sacramento River in adjoining Glenn County. We didn’t see any plumes at first, and passed only small mounds of smoldering fires in the orchards, which could in no way account for the increasingly opaque and acrid air.

Highway 45 passes along the spacious Sacramento River for a stretch before entering the small town of Princeton, where there used to be a ferry. As we drove down into this farm town, the smoke hung in rolling sheets of reddish smog. Beyond the town, approaching the larger city of Colusa and the main north/south artery of California, Highway 5, it was even worse.

Finally the source of the madness came into view—massive piles of smoking debris, mostly branches trimmed from the almond orchards. A single section looked like it encompassed acres, and it was but one of many.

Crossing the freeway, and thinking we had seen the worst of it, we came upon entire rice fields set ablaze. The smoke was so bad that state highway vehicles with blinking lights were leading caravans through the smoldering inferno. We were now in Colusa County, on the two-lane east/west highway heading toward the hills above the wine country.

“Think of the children with asthma, they’re paying the price for our addiction to oil,” Bill Clinton intones on his campaign tour in the state exhorting Californians to vote yes on Proposition 87 on November 7. “With one vote you make California America’s leader in alternative fuels.”

“There’s a reason the American Lung Association, and the Nurses Association, and all the asthma and lung caner experts are for Prop 87…America has to change, but you can lead the way. There is nothing more important.” Clinton delivers the lines with perfect timing and pitch in the radio ad, but the notes seem incredibly discordant as we drive through the artificial dusk and gloom of these needless, state-sanctioned fires.

We were silent as we wended through the hills toward Clear Lake, California’s largest natural body of water. Banks of yellow-leafed aspens in full fall splendor rolled out before us on the road. Though the air was quickly clearing, and autumnal scenes soon supplanted the memories of the inferno, the experience remained, like the smell of smoke on one’s clothes. It takes more than a proposition to raise the pall from Princeton village.

If passed on November 7, Proposition 87 means that California will impose a tax on oil production, generating up to 4 billion dollars to promote alternative energy technologies. Given that oil companies pay next to nothing in drilling fees in California, while paying billions in Alaska and even Texas, the proposal is novel only in the redirection of the revenues.

I hope it passes, but driving down out of the hills into the wine country, we consider the contradiction. Huge amounts of fuel are being wasted each fall, while injecting lung damaging, atmosphere heating smoke into the air because it's still more cost-effective to burn the agricultural residue in the fields and orchards.

The US Federal government has gone missing on global warming, but it will take more than Slick Willie for the States to take up the slack.


- Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He has been publishing in North America, Latin America, Africa, and Europe (and now New Zealand) for 20 years. Email: The author welcomes comments.

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