This is a guest post from Louise Bedsworth, research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California. She and PPIC Research Director Ellen Hanak are co-authors of the report: “Preparing California for a Changing Climate,” which we wrote about here last month. The report discusses the challenges that climate change poses for a number of the state’s environmental and resource institutions and how well prepared we are for addressing these challenges.
What is adaptation to climate change and why do we need it now?
We have discussed our report on preparing for climate change with a variety of audiences over the past several weeks, beginning with a half-day event in Sacramento on December 2nd that included state leaders, representatives from environmental organizations, and city officials from all over California. We found that while the topic of adaptation can seem to be all doom and gloom, there are several programs in place and underway that should help California prepare for the effects of climate change that we can’t prevent. One important question that keeps coming up at these events is why we need to be thinking about adapting to global warming now that the state has focused on fighting it.
Adaptation, or climate change preparedness, refers to the adjustments that can be made to help to cope with the effects of climate change. These impacts include higher temperatures, accelerated sea level rise, and disruptions to the state’s water supply, all of which have real consequences for California. For example, the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission has prepared maps showing what the Bay would look like with one meter of sea level rise. These maps show the significant impacts on San Francisco Bay communities and infrastructure, including inundation of the region’s airports and Silicon Valley.
Ideally, adaptive actions will help to reduce vulnerability in the face of change or to improve resiliency. Even under the most optimistic scenarios (e.g., successful emission reductions globally), some amount of climate change appears to be inevitable.
Adaptation goes in hand-in-hand with efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Generally speaking, the more successful efforts to reduce emissions are, the less adaptation will be needed. And, some efforts to reduce emissions – such as energy efficiency – will also help us adapt by lessening energy use under high demand conditions. But, adaptation and mitigation efforts can be in conflict – for example, planting non-native trees either to store carbon or provide shade can help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but could place additional stress on efforts to protect native species in a changing climate. To avoid such conflicts now and in the future, adaptation needs to be well-defined and integrated in the current climate policy discussion in California.
A recent report from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies found significant obstacles to climate change adaptation in the United States. These were similar to barriers that we observed for California – uncertainty in the science of climate change, lack of funding or resources, regulatory and legal obstacles, and lack of political will or incentive.
But, we also found some reasons to optimistic about the prospects for adaptation in California. Water and electricity agencies appear to be out in front on adaptation and overcoming these obstacles. As service providers, both water and electricity providers have an incentive (and an obligation) to be considering adaptation. They are used to doing long-range planning and weathering supply uncertainties. Finally, and very importantly, water and electricity providers have a rate-payer base that can provide funding for undertaking adaptation. In addition, there are tools in other sectors that can help with adaptation. There are public health programs such as disease tracking and heat emergency plans that can provide a starting point for developing climate change preparedness.
As the California Resources Agency develops the state’s Climate Adaptation Strategy, the knowledge and experience from these programs should provide a solid starting point.