June 1, 2011 - From the May, 2011 issue

Adaptation to Climate Change: California Confronts Nature's Fate

With California's leadership on mitigating greenhouse gas emissions through the auspices of AB 32 now being implemented, the challenge of how best to adapt to climate change has been largely unaddressed. Gov. Schwarzenegger's only review of the impacts of climate change expected by the end of the century wasn't sufficient for the Pacific Council on International Policy. As a result, the Pacific Council established the Task Force on California's Adaptation to Climate Change with broader stakeholder involvement. In the following TPR/MIR interview, Dan Mazmanian, the executive director of the Task Force, details the group's efforts in collaboration with the state to prepare for the inevitable effects of climate change.


Dan Mazmanian

Elaborate on history of the state of California's approach to climate change adaptation.

In 2006, California adopted its climate change mitigation policy, AB 32, which focused on reducing greenhouse gasses across the state to 1990 levels It was a pace setting climate change mitigation policy among the states and garnered international attention as well..However, no matter how well we do at mitigating future emissions, the greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere emitted throughout the 20th century industrial era are going to change our climate for at least a century to come. The question now is, how are we going to adapt to the effects on our environment and the consequences to the state?

In 2008, Governor Schwarzenegger directed state agencies to assess the possible effects of climate change in their respective areas and suggest what each could do adapting to climate change. This was an internal administrative process that resulted in a report of over two hundred pages and four dozen or more major recommendations, released in December 2009. One of the criticisms of the report, however, was that some of the important interests in the state were not represented at the table, such as business, commercial and industries interests, since there is no cabinet business and commerce secretary to represent them in California government any longer.. Also, there were some environmental groups, local interests, and advocacy groups that felt their voice wasn't articulated in the report because it only focused on state agencies. Also, the report didn't specify who or of which agency should be responsible for seeing the recommendations were carried out. Finally, the agencies were also told that under the state's extended budget crisis they could not call for new or additional funding for adaptation.

Timing is everything. So we have a strong mitigate policy, adopted in 2006, and an internal mitigation strategy recommendation in 2009. What followed?

Three things followed. First, by the time the state agency report was issued the political winds were changing and the focus at the state was on the budget not climate change, and the report received little attention or publicity. Second, one of the recommendations of the state strategy was that an advisory body be established to advise the state on adaptation going forward. And this opened the door to the third.

In the summer of 2009 the Pacific Council on International Policy, headquartered in Los Angeles, pulled together a stakeholders group leader from across the state : business and civic leaders from across the California thought. The rationale: adaptation to climate change is too important a matter to go on without the voice of the broader public and without a broader public perspective. Thus, the Task Force on California's Adaptation to Climate Change came into being, and the Pacific Council asked me to be the executive director. The Task Force comprises 22 stakeholders representing interests from the California Chamber of Commerce, industry, the Farm Bureau, environmental groups, natural resources groups, local civic engagement groups, and environmental justice groups. These groups don't represent everybody in California, but they represent a broad swath of California interests in addressing the role of the state of California in adapting to climate change. In view of the Task Force mission, in December of 2009, when the governor released the state agency strategy document, he appointed our Task Force s the California Adaptation Advisory Panel to the State of California.

How significant for California is the challenge of having to adapt in coming years to climate change?

In some places, including California, it means a warming of the climate, with consequences for precipitation, health, forest fires, and, along our 1,100 mile coast, sea level rise. California is going to feel the effects of the current greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere over the next 50 to 100 years.

The Schwarzenegger agency-wide effort came up with many recommendations in 2009-how do those recommendations dovetail with what the Pacific Council's Task Force ultimately recommended?

Let's be clear what the executive order required of the state agencies: to look into itself and see what it could be doing in anticipating climate change effects. For the Department of Transportation: to what extent is climate change going to affect low-lying roads in areas that may be flooded by sea level rise? For the Ag Department: what is it going to mean for agriculture in terms of the kinds of crops we can grow and the kind of anchor posts we can have if we have seven to nine degree of warming in the Central Valley?

The executive order asked them to think through these issues, not to act. They came up with some 50-plus ideas of things they could be doing to plan for the future. There was nothing required by the statute to specify what kind of governing entity ought to be created-only that the agencies should all work together across units in thinking about the future of California. Note: The report resulting from the executive order, when issued, received almost no attention from the media and the broader public. It was just out here.

On the heals of the Governor's Agency Assessment, the Pacific Council's Task Force on Adaptation to Climate Change began it's work. What did they/you focus on?

The Task Force was premised on the belief that California, having taken the lead in mitigation, should take the lead in adaptation. So the group asked the question rhetorically, "What do we think are the most important issues that we should speak too?" Three impacts were thought most important for the purpose of our recommendations; sea level rise; precipitation and the effect on climate change, and; forest fires.

Why those three issues?

One, we have the best science and modeling about these effects. They are believed to be very real, and it would be apparent to Californians that they will be important to us all. Part of this was conveying to our fellow citizens that there are very serious issues that everyone can understand and appreciate viscerally. Two, the group decided that whatever we decided, we would have to emphasize the importance of understanding climate science, not only understanding what the science says today, but the -range of uncertainty around that science today, and given that uncertainty, what concrete actions were nonetheless required. . Three, it was clear that whatever we did had to be discussed widely among the people of California than had heretofore been the case.

What's the threat that will compel adaptation to climate change at the local or state level?

Let's look at the risks faced if public officials don't anticipate climate change. I'll use each of the three areas we looked at. First, sea level rise: to the extent that you deny or ignore the highly probable consequence of sea level rise, you might authorize building right along the coast or on the sandy beaches that will be underwater in the next couple of decades. You might say that we're not going to let people build without a ten-foot sea wall, which would be probably inappropriate given what the science says we're going to face over the next 100 years. Or you might go with a one-foot sea wall, which would be inadequate within the next ten or 20 years. You wouldn't want to make a major public investment assuming that sea wall will protect you. We want to get the science as accurate as possible, understanding that we're looking out over 50 to 100 years in making long-term investments.

Comparably, in the forested area, particularly in Northern California, if people move into the forest areas and the exurbs, which is already taking place, you want them to be aware of the existing and future fire threat. There are ways to address the threat of fires, but it requires urban planning and design, vegetation management, and very different approaches to how we manage the forested areas of California.. That requires planning and management with climate change in mind.

Likewise with water, if you take at all seriously the prejected changes in precipitation and snow pack, you rapidly come to the conclusion that not only is the precipitation cycle going to change, which will affect us, but also, quite seriously, the available snow pack, which serves right now as about 25 percent of the state's water reserve reservoir, will dissipate substantially by the end of the century. We'll have to think of alternative ways of providing potable water for our population, for agriculture, and for other uses. All of that is possible and weneed to start planning with this in mind.

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What are the actionable recommendations and policies put forward by this Task Force?

The question we posed to ourselves was, what path forward for the state? The Task Force members were educated on the projected threats, appreciated the uncertainties about them, but we believed that to the uncertainties did not mean that were unlikely; they needed to be anticipated and acted upon accordingly in the interest of all Californians. In particular, the recommendations focused on the importance of anticipating climate change effects on the state's in infrastructure. Why infrastructure? In infrastructure, you're making 30-, 40-, 50- 100-year investments.. That's why you need to be aware of climate change-it isn't going to completely manifest tomorrow, the next year, or even the next years, but over the next 50 or even 100 years. That's the challenge. What should the state be doing to find a path forward?

The first and most important of the decisions was the extent to which a path forward could meet the approval of every stakeholder in the room: from the Farm Bureau to the Chamber to the environmentalists to the social justice people. What things could they agree upon to tell our respective colleagues in the state and the citizens of California? There is unanimity about the importance of going forward in this area, which turned out to be a fairly challenging decision rule. The Task Force focused on those issues with the deepest conviction of all at the table. We spent 15 months going over a variety of issues and possible paths forward. We came out with four recommendations.

The first recommendation was to establish a Climate Risk Council (CRC) in the state, directly under the office of the governor, akin to the Office of Planning and Research and, in the federal government, the Council of Environmental Quality.The council would have two major functions. First, to keep track of and synthesize the rapidly unfolding science of climate change, making that science available to all of those on the ground in regions and cities, private developers, public developers, and public agencies, who have to authorize and permit projects. Second, the decision to act has to be based on consideration of cost effectiveness. Therefore, the CRC should develop protocols for understanding cost effectiveness analysis.. This is really important because there are thousands of planners at cities and counties throughout the state who don't have the expertise in either climate science or cost-effective analysis.. Is it fair to say that you did not come up with operational recommendations? Instead, you came up with a process that would legitimize other governmental entities and other private sector entities to take action based on the best science and criteria that were justifiable and practical.

That is what we did. The members may not have agreed on whether there ought to be a sea wall along the seashore in Monterrey Bay was a good state policy, but they could agree that there need to be a systematic method of assessment to decide whether it should be, in view of the options of retreating from the ocean front, building resilient-type structures on floatable foundations, or other ways of mitigating the probable sea level rise that is going to occur along Monterrey Bay.

To whom are you addressing these recommendations on process? Whom do you want to take the action within the state of California to address the adaptation challenges raised by climate change?

The Task Force saw its audience as twofold; policymakers in Sacramento, beginning with the governor and including the Legislature, and the general public.. You weren't aiming at cities or counties or regional entities or special districts? You were talking on a higher level of abstraction-public awareness.

Actually, the ultimate audience is those decision makers in special districts, cities, and counties, who aregoing to have to make the concrete decisions going forward. The Task Force wanted to give them the information and the capacity to make their decisions on the best possible scientifically informed judgments of how climate change will affect what they do.

What has been the public reaction to the Task Forces's report?

The public reaction to that report has been rather muted for or at least two reasons. First of all, the governor's executive order and the Task Force worked in the shadow of the promise of an international accord on mitigation. The meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December of 2010 was a high point of expectation for the nations of the world to agree on a strategy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The thought was that with that in place, adaptation would be addressed. As it turns out, Copenhagen proved to be a significant disappointment for climate change policy. The nations of the world did not come together. A few things occurred, but nothing nearly as aggressive or focused as even AB 32.

There was a real let down, and the Republican Party in the United States Congress moved from recognition of climate change to rejection of climate change, to denial. Forty new members of Congress elected in 2010 said they didn't believe in climate change. Then California's mitigation strategy was challenged through an initiative, Prop 23, in 2010, funded by primarily oil and refinery interests in Texas. They had business reasons for doing so, but Californians voted them down. Basically, they hijacked the agenda of adaptation by undermining the mitigation.

Second, we are facing a huge budget deficit in California, so even though Jerry Brown-who I think is sympathetic and concerned about climate change-has been elected governor, he has been preoccupied with the budget and has not spoken to the issue of adaptation. We are basically flying below the radar screen right now, waiting for a window of opportunity to re-engage the conversation about what California should do to adapt to climate change.

What will re-engagement look like? What is the opportunity?

Re-engagement is going to look different than mitigation, which is a statewide strategy that prescribes a goal for the reduction of greenhouse gases. An adaptation strategy is going to look sector by sector-in the water area, the land use planning area, and the coastal zone management area. The strategy will devolve, if you will, into the regional and physical characteristics of the state, and it's going to be different across the whole state. The need for adaptation is going to be felt and dealt with in dozens, if not hundreds, of ways. But adaptation needs to be guided by the science, and it needs to be guided by criteria that are politically acceptable and scientifically accurate.

Lastly, you spend much of your time and academic research on "change within organizations". We're asking for a lot of societal and organizational change in pressing your recommendations re adaptation. What have you learned from your research about our public capacity for change? And, what works in incenting and encouraging significant changes in public behavior?

There are three parts to the answer to that question. One is that policy directs us to what we should do. The extent to which we talk about setting identifiable impact parameters for sea level rise, precipitation changes, and forest fires, suggests the problem-not the solution but the problem-indicating that problems leads to policies. Two, we really need to think about how to incentivize each and every Californian as individuals or businesses that it is in their own self-interest to take initiative. If you live along the coast, what are you going to do? Do you develop some resilience in your living area, or do you retreat a bit? Over the long term, how are you going to deal with your vulnerability? Same with people who live in the forested areas or if you are dependent on a lot of water. How will your behavior respond to that vulnerability? People are actually doing that right now.

The third part of this is that we have to figure out how to empower communities to deal with several of these problems simultaneously. Communities have to deal with land use planning and sea level rise-they have to think of their strategies and how to pay for them as an integrated system response as opposed to initial, separate responses. That is very difficult. I don't think we have the capacity yet to do that sort of integrated strategy and response.

Keep in mind this is going to be with us for the next 50 years. We're just beginning down this path.

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