Climate change and environmental racism are burning the West Coast

California Fires

Valeria Rocca

Valeria is a final-year History with a European language undergraduate at UCL. Her interests include environmental justice, feminist thought, political history and international relations.

6th October 2020

Jason Doiy / iStock

Every year the west coast of the United States, in particular the state of California, is devastated by wildfires. Since the start of 2020, over 3.2 million acres of land in California were burned. In September alone, over 430,000 acres were destroyed, leaving thousands of people waking up to an orange sky and unbreathable air. Tens of thousands have been forced to flee their homes, while more than 30 have died in the whole US West coast; however the death toll is not accurate, as dozens are still currently missing.  Record breaking temperatures have only facilitated this process. In fact, just in mid August the highest temperature ever recorded on Earth was reached in Death Valley National Park, California.


Climate change has been indicated as the cause of this phenomena. A review of scientific research into the reasons for these fires has been recently published, suggesting that rising temperatures are playing a major role. However, President Donald Trump does not see it that way. In fact, he continues to underplay the extent of climate change, dismissing the environmental nature of these disasters and blaming it on the poor forest management of local officials – but the State of California only owns 3 % of the forest, while 58% is owned by the federal government. Wildfires are likely to increase in frequency and intensity in the following weeks, due to the heatwave


However, one should also highlight how the long history of colonialism and marginalisation of Indigenous communities in the state of California has contributed to this ecological disaster. Wildfires on the West Coast are not a recent phenomenon. Due to the characteristics of the territory, the preoccupation with wildfires can be traced back to the 1800s. At the end of the Gold Rush era,  inhabited centres grew exponentially in a short amount of time; the industrial apparatus and technological innovations developed, as did the incidence of wildfires. In order to find space for these new cities that were growing in place of the Gold Rush era towns, thousands of acres of forest were removed, without implementing the adequate safety measures that would allow big inhabited centres to exist there  (Pyne, 2016, pp 3-26).


At the beginning, one method that was implemented by colonisers to manage the forest was the Indigenous practice of regularly and lightly burning sections of it. However this practice was stopped in 1923, after a nationwide debate led the government to prefer the application of technological practices and reliance on fire departments.(Pyne, 2016, p 10) Wildfires, which had been managed by Indigenous communities for centuries, were now in the hands of the government alone. It could be argued that excluding Indigenous people from conservation practices  increased the dangers already posed by the colonial methods of conservation. 


In fact, before the 1800s, tribes would regularly use low-grade fires to shape the landscape. As explained by Ron Goode, tribal chairman of the North Fork Mono, the arrival of western settlers banning Native American practices, such as cultural burning, and their forced displacement by the early 1900s, changed the Californian landscape. He says “They came with their concepts of being afraid of fire…They didn’t understand fire in the sense of the tool that it could be to create and what it did to help generate and rejuvenate the land. So they brought in suppression.”  This is only an example of the damages that can be caused by colonising conservation and environmental racism. 


The government of the United States has a history of appropriating sacred territories from Native American tribes for alleged conservation purposes. The Yellowstone National Park is an example of that. But these practices, which are mere capitalistic ventures, have  very often resulted in major failures. Territories are appropriated to be deforested and exploited to extract resources. This feeds into capitalistic goals of industrial growth and expansion that cannot be balanced out by green-washed campaigns such as ‘planting more trees to save the planet’ – not as effective as protecting the natural state of forests. Finding new, clean and technological solutions to climate change will not be enough if one does not strive for a total reconfiguration of power dynamics and colonial relations. 


An intersectional environmental approach is necessary, as it is clear how the link between colonialism and climate change has damaged the West American territory profoundly. However, recognising and acting upon these problems will be challenging, as they revolve around dealing with the capitalist excesses and racial injustices that have defined the United States in a way or the other, from its foundation up until now. Environmental racism is just one of the infinite nuances of systemic racism, which expresses itself in the exclusion of people of colour from  environmental policy-making and failure at protecting low-income communities  from environmental health hazards. In spite of this, just  as with climate change, the approach of President Donald Trump to tackling systemic racism seems to be, once again, denial.


Together with other governments all over the world, it is imperative for the US government to admit that what has been done up until now, as far as environmental campaigns are concerned, is  not enough. Criticism of  these gluttonous  ventures by NGOs was left unheard, highlighting once again the staggering inequalities between the people and powerful world elites; promoting a campaign against plastic straws rather than dealing with the carbon footprint of big corporations is as profitable  as it is useless . The voice of environmental  activists and scientists that have condemned  these issues for years need to be listened to, as the state of our climate rapidly deteriorates . Unless action is taken, many North American territories , as well as thousands of other areas of the world, will become completely inhabitable in a few decades and cease to exist.


Bibliography and Further Reading

Pyne, Stephen J., 2016, California: A Fire Survey, University of Arizona Press

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