The shift in the region’s conversation is showing up in local media. Days before Newsom’s announcement about gas-powered cars, the editorial board of The Sacramento Bee in the state capital harshly criticized the governor for a “lack of zeal” on climate action.
“Is Gov. Gavin Newsom a climate leader — or just a climate tweeter?” the newspaper asked, specifically noting the recent wildfires.
Not everyone believes that natural disasters are especially consequential for public opinion.
“During the last couple decades, we have had Hurricane Katrina, we have had Hurricane Sandy, we have had wildfires out west — various kinds of episodes where people hoped, ‘That’s going to do it,’” said Jon Krosnick, a Stanford University political scientist who lives a few miles from one of this year’s fires. None has made a fundamental difference, he said.
Krosnick said measures of political activism like donations to environmental groups usually run in cycles, as the perception of threats rises and falls. Regular surveys he has conducted on climate change since 1997 show mostly stable overall views, though there has been a rise in the share of Americans who said global warming was “extremely personally important” to them, from 13 percent in 2015 to 25 percent this summer.
Wong-Parodi, also at Stanford, said people’s reactions seem to depend on the type of environmental cue they pick up on. In surveys of people in hurricane-prone areas, experience with higher winds is not linked to changing views about climate change but experience with higher temperatures is, she said.
“These types of acute events, if you’re unsure, can help provide evidence that climate change is happening and make it seem more real and more vivid,” she said.
“And in that respect it represents a window of opportunity to talk about ways forward.”
Environmentalists have a list of items they’d like Newsom, the state legislature and regulators to tackle next. They’re asking for a bigger state budget for forest management, new investments in public transit and a speedup of an existing deadline to reach 100 percent clean electric power, from 2045 to 2030.
And they said newly energized activists are poised to make it all happen.
“We’re not going to have to manufacture the urgency on this,” said Creasman, of the California League of Conservation Voters. “Things are going to get horrible in our state because of our systemic lack of action, and that is going to create the urgency.”