Hold climate change activists accountable for Maui wildfire missteps
by Jeff Stier, Washington Examiner, October 02, 2023
Embers had barely cooled, and tears hadn’t yet dried, in Lahaina when the first lawsuit was filed. In August, Maui County filed suit against Hawaiian Electric for negligence it alleges was responsible for the deadly Lahaina wildfire .
Regardless of how that case plays out, experts agree that, like in most wildfires, the devastation was caused by a confluence of natural conditions and human decisions.
Hawaii’s attorney general’s office has opened an investigation into what caused the tragic wildfire. Hawaii News Now reports that experts “will look at possible causes, government missteps and even whether there is any criminal wrongdoing that the state should pursue.”
One “government misstep” that warrants scrutiny is the decision to ban an age-old fire mitigation practice, prescribed burns. These tightly controlled and highly regulated burns intentionally remove spent agricultural or forest growth so that even if there is a fire, it won’t have fuel to grow out of control.
Hawaii’s burn ban came about as a result of lawsuits and lobbying campaigns waged by activists and organizations, including Earthjustice and the Sierra Club. The effort succeeded in ending prescribed agricultural burns, which contributed to the demise of a historic 36,000-acre sugar plantation in 2016.
It’s no coincidence that there weren’t any wildfires comparable to this year’s Lahaina event during the many decades that the plantation operated and managed risk with prescribed burns. Had the 145-year-old sugar plantation been able to continue to manage the land, the fire, whatever caused it, certainly wouldn’t have been fueled to burn as destructively as it did.
As Bloomberg’s Zahra Hirji explained , in the absence of the sugar plantations’ land management practices, “you’ve had these grasses, these plants … grow out of control, they’re invasive, they are fuel for fire.” Hirji summed up, “Layer on top of that climate change, which has brought drier, hot, windy days. And so that means you had the climatic conditions to start a fire, and then you had the fuel … to perpetuate it. And that’s what happened in Lahaina.”
The clean-air campaign against prescribed burns in Hawaii mirrors similar efforts playing out across the country, from California to Florida . And now, a proposed amendment to the federal farm bill would exclude sugar growers who engage in prescribed burns from participating in the federal government surplus buying program. As a free-market critic of the farm bill, I’m all for shrinking it. But mischievous proposals such as this aren’t the way to do it. In fact, it illustrates the very danger of injecting the government into markets.
A 2017 Hawaii court decision that granted Earthjustice on behalf of the Sierra Club the right to intervene in a case before the Public Utilities Commission may have been the final straw for a sugar-growing industry already under siege.
The case was not about prescribed burns but rather about a sugar plantation’s permit to burn up to 25% coal and petroleum together with sugarcane waste to generate partially renewable energy. But the dissenting opinion in that case was especially prescient. The justices wrote that “the path taken by the Majority here — finding that Sierra Club’s members had a property interest that entitled them to intervene — expands the limits of due process in ways that could have unintended consequences.” Indeed, forcing out the responsible steward of the land, all in the name of clean air, without balancing that consideration against unintended consequences, led to this unthinkable, tragic consequence in Maui.
Although groups such as the Sierra Club would rightfully never be held liable in a court for their possibly critical role in this disaster, the court of public opinion must take note of the familiar fact pattern. All too often, the public, media, and policymakers give do-gooders a free pass from scrutiny. So long as we continue to weigh only the advertised features and not the unintended but not unpredictable consequences of these types of initiatives, we’ll repeatedly regret speeding down that road paved with good intentions. It’s time that we begin to factor in the always costly, often harmful, and sometimes deadly outcomes of their agendas.
Jeff Stier is a senior fellow at the Consumer Choice Center.
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