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When Climate Change Gets Personal

AP Photo / Noah Berger

A firefighter runs while trying to save a home as a wildfire tears through Lakeport, Calif. on Tuesday, July 31, 2018.

AP Photo / Noah Berger

In California, wildfires are growing bigger and more destructive. The Mendocino Complex fire this year is the largest recorded fire in California history and there are still at least two months left in the season.

Ian Monroe is a researcher at Stanford University who studies climate change and market-driven climate solutions. He’s also a co-founder of Etho Capital, an investment firm that focuses on climate efficiency and sustainability.

Insight producer Bert Johnson sat down with Ian to talk about the role that climate change plays in California’s growing wildfires, including the Redwood Complex Fire that destroyed his family’s farm in Mendocino County last year. Here are some highlights from their interview.

Interview Highlights

Would mega-fires like The Mendocino Complex be possible if the climate weren't changing?

This definitely is something that has the fingerprints of climate change all over it. I work with a number of top climate scientists at Stanford and colleagues elsewhere around the world and this is essentially what they've been predicting for decades now. Unfortunately it seems to be coming to pass even faster than a lot of the scientific models predicted.

Climate change is influencing wildfires [and] making them bigger, faster and more destructive in a few different ways. And the most obvious one is climate change, on average, is making things hotter and drier in California. So obviously when things are hotter and drier, you've got more fuel that can burn that's really at a temperature that can combust quite quickly.

Your family home in Mendocino County was burned down in 2007 and then again in 2017. How did it feel to be personally victimized by something you've studied for a long time?

The first fire that burned down my family's home in 2007 wasn't linked to climate change, it was a structure fire. It was definitely devastating as you would imagine; we lost three generations of family history and essentially everything we owned. But then the silver lining was we had an amazing outpouring of support from the community to help us raise money and just donate labor to rebuild.

Last year, we had essentially that happen to us again. But the difference with what happened in the Redwood Complex Fire [was] that destroyed about a third of the Redwood Valley community where I grew up. I think over 500 homes, it killed nine of our neighbors [and] we have over 20 family members in that fire alone that lost their homes. So you can just understand the magnitude of that is so much greater.

And it's really heartbreaking for us not just for our own experience but the fact that so many of our extended wonderful community members that really helped us get through our own home burning down for the first time in 2007, now they've all lost their homes as well. And we're really struggling to figure out how to collectively rebuild as a community still a year later. There's a whole lot to do. I think it's going to take decades before things start feeling normal there again.

What can people who have investments do to support businesses that pursue sustainable practices?

This is one of the big, neglected pieces that we can all focus on: we can all be part of the solution to climate change by simply moving our money into companies that are being part of the solution to climate change. And that doesn't just mean clean energy companies. It can mean any type of company: a tech company, a healthcare company, different types of consumer products companies that are getting more efficient and sustainable in their supply chains and incorporating renewable energy.

With Etho Capital, a really cool thing that we've seen is that when you invest in these more climate-efficient, sustainable companies they just tend to financially do better in the market. The status quo, unfortunately, is that the vast majority of us are invested in oil companies, gas companies, coal companies [and] unsustainable agricultural companies, because most of us in our retirement funds have invested in a broad-based index fund. Maybe an advisor put us into [one] that's filled with all those companies that are pretty substantial causes of the climate problem. They they do that because they still have this misconception that if they divest from fossil fuels they're going to lose money.

But we've shown pretty convincingly with Etho Capital that you can invest in a climate-friendly way and actually have it benefit your portfolio. So that is something that gives me hope that we can solve climate [change]. I think the realization that we can essentially profit people and the planet at the same time as our financial portfolios is going to be a big driver of climate solutions moving forward.

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