SAN FRANCISCO — When Gov. Gavin Newsom said this week that California would ban the sale of gas-powered cars by 2035, he left no doubt about why he was issuing the order now.
“Our cars shouldn’t make wildfires worse,” Newsom, a Democrat, said in his announcement.
It was the clearest sign yet that this year’s destructive wildfire season had shaken up the debate over what to do about climate change. And there may be more change to come, especially if a new sense of determination can carry forward after the season is over.
People who have devoted years to climate activism said in interviews that they believed this year’s devastating wildfires — which are far from over in the Western United States — have become a turning point in the debate, with residents more energized and politicians such as Newsom feeling compelled to pursue bold policies.
“That would not have happened if California didn’t live on Mars for a day,” Mary Creasman, CEO of the California League of Conservation Voters, said after Newsom’s announcement.
The sky in parts of the West Coast turned orange for a day this month, as wildfire smoke blocked out the sun and left people with a feeling they were on another planet or living through an apocalypse.
And that was only one of the dramatic scenes in this year’s vivid wildfire season that has seen millions of acres burned. People across multiple states have been forced to evacuate by the thousands, and smoke has filled the air for weeks at a time, trapping people in their homes because it’s too dangerous to be outside.
At least 33 people have died, according to the official count, though the number may be in the thousands when the effects of smoke inhalation are considered.
“There’s this sense of urgency that the time is now. It’s happening. We’re no longer talking about climate change in the future. We’re living it,” said Sarah Rose, executive director of the bird-and-wildlife-focused nonprofit Audubon California.
Gabrielle Wong-Parodi, a Stanford professor of earth system science, said changing public perception is beginning to show up in surveys.
“We are observing a shift, I would say, in terms of what people are attributing these events to, and the shift is more toward climate change,” she said.
A flurry of action and discussion around climate change following major disasters has become more common in recent years. But some well-earned skepticism persists that this does little to bring about the kind of broad and long-term change necessary to fight climate change.
Climate scientists say that global warming is contributing to longer and more intense fire seasons around the world, even though some fires have seemingly unrelated direct causes like unsafe utility equipment. Fires in far-flung spots such as Australia and the U.S. are starting earlier in the year and feed on drier conditions.