Climate Impacts


12 Million Californians ‘Highly Vulnerable’ to Climate Change — Now What?

Color-coding climate risks in the Golden State

Wildfires can leave little to salvage for homeowners caught in harm's way.

Climate change will disproportionately affect California’s most disadvantaged and isolated communities, according to a recent report from the Pacific Institute.

By looking at a broad array of factors – from social indicators such as income and birth rates, to environmental ones such as tree cover and impervious surfaces – the Oakland-based think tank has found that 12.4 million Californians live in census tracts with high “social vulnerability” to climate change.

This vulnerability can play out in various ways, says Heather Cooley, co-director of the institute’s water program and a lead author of the report. “In low-income communities, many people may not have insurance,” Cooley told me. “So when a flood or fire hits their homes, they may not be able to rebuild. If they’re suffering from a heat-related illness, they may not be able to seek treatment and their health may deteriorate as a result.” Continue reading

Governor’s Climate Conference: Renewed Pledges But No New Initiatives

The one-day conference reinforced the need to prepare for coming climate impacts

Governor Jerry Brown.

Governor Jerry Brown says he wants to “intensify California’s leadership” on the climate front, but his climate conference at the California Academy of Sciences on Thursday offered no new initiatives toward that end.

The one-day event was a series of panel discussions emphasizing the importance of science and how it can reinforce policy decisions on climate change.

The invitation-only event included several noteworthy speakers, including Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, business mogul and biofuels-for-planes evangelist Sir Richard Branson, and White House environmental advisor Nancy Sutley. Continue reading

The Heat is On for Napa Valley Wines

Temperatures are rising for Napa Valley grapes. (Photo: KQED Quest.)

California’s prime wine producing areas could shrink dramatically over the next three decades of climate change. That’s according to a study released this week by scientists at Stanford University.

Author Noah Diffenbaugh and colleagues looked at how Napa and Santa Barbara counties could be affected by a one-degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) rise in average global temperature. They found that the land suitable for growing premium wine grapes could be reduced 30-50% by 2040. Continue reading

A Bottom-Up Climate Approach

Governor's Office

Photo: Governor's Office

The second Governors’ Climate Summit kicked off yesterday with a plenary on adaptation to climate change. Most of the climate policy we hear about has to do with mitigation; cutting emissions to reduce the rate of climate warming. Increasingly, though, policy makers are looking at ways to adapt to the effects that are already palpable.

Several international leaders had stories to tell:

– Premier Gordon Campbell of British Columbia said that due to warming winters, pine beetles will kill 80% of the mature pine forests in his province by 2013.

– Dr. Dessima Williams of the Alliance of Small Island States said rising sea levels make climate change “a case of life and death” for island nations.

According to a World Bank analysis cited by Michele De Nevers of the Bank’s Environment Department, adapting to climate change will cost $75-100 billion dollars a year for developing countries–and that’s with only 2 degrees (Celsius) of warming by 2050. That seems like a big number, but De Nevers reminded the crowd that it’s on par with the recent financial bailout.

I also spoke with Margret Kim, China Program Director for the California Air Resources Board and EPA, who has been working with the government of the Jiangsu Province in China.  She filled me in on the agreement that Governor Schwarzenegger is expected to sign today with leaders from the province to help them reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Based on this framework, California would develop an action plan to share expertise and research with the province.

This partnership is built on a 2005 agreement that California signed with the province, which was focused on energy efficiency. Barbara Finamore of the Natural Resources Defense Council says real progress was made on the first agreement with Jiangsu, which set several efficiency incentives and programs in motion. But they have more to do.  Ninety-five percent of the province’s electricity comes from coal.

The announcement comes on the heels of President Hu Jintao’s declaration less than two weeks ago that China would make notable reductions in its carbon intensity by 2020.  Carbon intensity isn’t quite as simple as a straight emissions cut. It measures the amount of carbon dioxide produced for each dollar of economic output.  And fixed targets aren’t part of the expected Jiangsu agreement either. But Finamore says this is a landmark agreement since it shows an important shift in China’s willingness to tackle climate change. As she said, “I’ve been working in China on energy issues for more than 20 years, and there has been a tremendous amount of recent progress.” And a bottom-up approach–with states piloting environmental policies before national governments adopt them–is certainly something we’re familiar with in California.

Parsing the White House Climate Report

At least one researcher cited in the 196-page climate impacts report issued this week by the Obama administration is not impressed with the final product. Roger Pielke of the University of Colorado’s Center for Science & Technology Research has written a blog post critical of the report and in particular, the way in which his work was interpreted. If you’d rather not plow through the entire post, John Tierney has an overview of Pielke’s critique on his blog for the New York Times.

California heat wave, from the Aqua satellite. Image: NASA

2004 California heat wave, from the Aqua satellite. Image: NASA

The report was arguably the first to break down both observed and projected effects of climate change into coherent regional summaries. For the purposes of the report, California was considered part of the Southwest region, which included states as far east as Colorado and New Mexico.

Not surprisingly, many of the points raised in the Southwest section (beginning on p. 129) have to do with water supply. Most have been reported or discussed in our Climate Watch coverage, either here or in our radio reports. Selected “highlights” include:

– Past climate records based on changes in Colorado River flows indicate that drought is a frequent feature of the Southwest, with some of the longest documented “megadroughts” on Earth.

– The prospect of future droughts becoming more severe as a result of global warming is a significant concern, especially because the Southwest continues to lead the nation in population growth.

– Human-induced climate change appears to be well underway in the Southwest. Recent warming is among the most rapid in the nation, significantly more than the global average in some areas.

– Projections suggest continued strong warming, with much larger increases under higher emissions scenarios compared to lower emissions scenarios. Projected summertime temperature increases are greater than the annual average increases in some parts of the region, and are likely to be exacerbated locally by expanding urban
heat island effects.

– Water supplies in some areas of the Southwest are already becoming limited, and this trend toward scarcity is likely to be a harbinger of future water shortages. Groundwater pumping is lowering water tables, while rising temperatures reduce river flows in vital rivers including the Colorado.

– Projected temperature increases, combined with river-flow reductions, will increase the risk of water conflicts between sectors, states, and even nations.

– Increasing temperature, drought, wildfire, and invasive species will accelerate transformation of the landscape.

– Under higher emissions scenarios, high-elevation forests in California, for example, are projected to decline by 60 to 90 percent before the end of the century.

– In California, two-thirds of the more than 5,500 native plant species are projected to experience range reductions up to 80 percent before the end of this century under projected warming.

– Projected changes in the timing and amount of river flow, particularly in winter and spring, is estimated to more than double the risk of Delta flooding events by mid-century, and result in an eight-fold increase before the end of the century.

– A steady reduction in winter chilling could have serious economic impacts on fruit and nut production in the region. California’s losses due to future climate change are estimated between zero and 40 percent for wine and table grapes, almonds, oranges, walnuts, and avocados, varying significantly by location.

By the way, Pielke’s critique does not directly address anything in this list, though his work does involve weather-related disasters, which would include floods. Asked by a commentator on his blog if he thinks the entire report should be dismissed based on the flawed interpretation of his research, Pielke replied: “I wouldn’t think so and would certainly hope not. At the same time the section which covers my research does not give me a lot of confidence in the process that led to the report.”

No Shockers in White House Climate Report

The Obama Administration released a much-vaunted update on climate change today. In its nearly 200 pages, the report contains no new data and few new conclusions on the pace and impact of climate change across the U.S. Rather it affirms the core findings of recent research and sounds the alarm for rapid, definitive action to reduce carbon emissions and prepare for changes already on the way.

In a statement from Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, Evan Mills, one of the report’s 28 co-authors, calls it “the most thorough and up-to-date review ever assembled of climate-change impacts observed to date as well as those anticipated in the future across the United States.” Mills is one of two northern California scientists listed in the report’s credits, along with Ben Santer of Lawrence Livermore National Lab.

One clear signal from the report is that it’s time to move adaptation strategies to the front burner; preparing for climate effects already in the pipeline.

Louis Blumberg directs the California climate change team for The Nature Conservancy, and told me in a telephone interview this morning, “I would say it’s a very clear signal that even if we dramatically reduce emissions immediately, which we need to do as soon as possible, we’ve already put enough CO2 into the atmosphere where we’re going to have have significant changes to our way of life. And we need to begin now and plan to adapt to these unavoidable impacts and I think this report underscores that urgency.”

But neither Blumberg nor Mills have given up on the mitigation side. Mills says “the good news is that the harshest impacts of future climate change can be avoided if the nation takes deliberate action soon.”

Here is a summary of  “key findings,” taken directly from the report:

1. Global warming is unequivocal and primarily human-induced.

Global temperature has increased over the past 50 years. This observed increase is due primarily to human-induced emissions of heat-trapping gases.

2. Climate changes are underway in the United States and are projected to grow.

Climate-related changes are already observed in the United States and its coastal waters. These include increases in heavy downpours, rising temperature and sea level, rapidly retreating glaciers, thawing permafrost, lengthening growing seasons, lengthening ice-free seasons in the ocean and on lakes and rivers, earlier snowmelt, and alterations in river flows. These changes are projected to grow.

3. Widespread climate-related impacts are occurring now and are expected to increase.

Climate changes are already affecting water, energy, transportation, agriculture, ecosystems, and health. These impacts are different from region to region and will grow under projected climate change.

4. Climate change will stress water resources.

Water is an issue in every region, but the nature of the potential impacts varies. Drought, related to reduced precipitation, increased evaporation, and increased water loss from plants, is an important issue in many regions, especially in the West. Floods and water quality problems are likely to be amplified by climate change in most regions. Declines in mountain snowpack are important in the West and Alaska where snowpack provides vital natural water storage.

5. Crop and livestock production will be increasingly challenged.

Agriculture is considered one of the sectors most adaptable to changes in climate. However, increased heat, pests, water stress, diseases, and weather extremes will pose adaptation challenges for crop and livestock production.

6. Coastal areas are at increasing risk from sea-level rise and storm surge.

Sea-level rise and storm surge place many U.S. coastal areas at increasing risk of erosion and flooding, especially along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, Pacific Islands, and parts of Alaska. Energy and transportation infrastructure and other property in coastal areas are very likely to be adversely affected.

7. Threats to human health will increase.

Health impacts of climate change are related to heat stress, waterborne diseases, poor air quality, extreme weather events, and diseases transmitted by insects and rodents. Robust public health infrastructure can reduce the potential for negative impacts.

8. Climate change will interact with many social and environmental stresses.

Climate change will combine with pollution, population growth, overuse of resources, urbanization, and other social, economic, and environmental stresses to create larger impacts than from any of these factors alone.

9. Thresholds will be crossed, leading to large changes in climate and ecosystems.

There are a variety of thresholds in the climate system and ecosystems. These thresholds determine, for example, the presence of sea ice and permafrost, and the survival of species, from fish to insect pests, with implications for society. With further climate change, the crossing of additional thresholds is expected.

10. Future climate change and its impacts depend on choices made today.

The amount and rate of future climate change depend primarily on current and future human-caused emissions of heat-trapping gases and airborne particles. Responses involve reducing emissions to limit future warming, and adapting to the changes that are unavoidable.

On KQED Public Radio’s Forum for Wednesday, 6/17

9am Forum with Michael Krasny
White House Climate Report
We discuss the report, as well as federal climate change legislation from Congressmen Henry Waxman and Ed Markey. Guests include Dan Kammen, professor of energy at UC Berkeley and co-director of the Berkeley Institute of the Environment; and Katharine Hayhoe, professor of geophysics at Texas Tech University and a lead author of the climate study.