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Wildfires Raise Accountability Questions For Corporates

What’s happening? Several locations in California saw record-high temperatures on 6 September as wildfires continued to burn across the state. Woodland Hills in Los Angeles County and Chino, near Los Angeles, both reported a high of 49.4C, while San Luis Obispo recorded a temperature of 48.8C. Since 15 August 2020, 1.6 million acres have burned in California, compared to 310,000 acres during an average season, according to state firefighting agency CalFire.

Why does this matter? As the prevalence of climate change-enhanced wildfires rises, there is a need to recognise how corporates fit into the conversation.

Utility firms, for instance, have found themselves in hot water over their direct influence on fires in the US. Electrical equipment belonging to Portland General Electric was linked to triggering some Oregon fires in early September, which lead the company to cut power distribution in areas considered high risk for further fires. This mirrors actions taken by utility firm PG&E, which slashed power to 800,000 homes in the San Francisco Bay Area last year to dodge wildfire risk, after its poorly maintained electrical lines were blamed for setting off significant blazes in 2017 and 2018 – events it is only just financially recovering from.

Aside from raising questions of why similar incidents seem to be repeating themselves without improvement or solutions being implemented, the increasing risk of future fires might affect California’s wider plans for decarbonisation. Magnified by climate change, the sizeable emissions released by the fires could threaten to offset the state’s reduction targets, and the financial damages to utilities like PG&E could stymie plans to achieve a full transition to clean electric power by 2045.

More widely, if we are to tackle this problem, other firms need to consider their indirect contributions to climate change-heightened extreme weather events through supply chain activities, which are often key drivers of wildfires. Outside the US, recurring fires in Brazil’s Amazon and Indonesia’s Borneo rainforests follow substantial land clearances for agriculture, cattle farming and palm oil plantations.

Lateral thought from Curation – Bright orange skies, record-high temperatures and megafires may become considered to be the “new normal”.

While climate science indicates this is likely to be the case, our predisposed responses to events suggests acceptance that these large catastrophes will be overcome and followed by a return to normality despite experts warning otherwise.

Perhaps this highlights the need to rethink how we view such disasters – these should no longer be viewed as anomalies, rather warnings for what’s to come.

Nick Finegold is Founder & CEO of Curation Corp, an emerging and peripheral risks monitoring service.

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