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California unveils ‘Plan B’: A strategy for adapting to climate change

By Ted Greenwald

When it comes to environmental regulation, California doesn’t wait for the Feds to ride in and lay down the law. The Golden State led the way on mandating emissions-control equipment in motor vehicles in 1961. It pioneered tailpipe emissions standards in 1967 and ratcheted them up into the 1990s, prompting the federal government to follow. When the Environmental Protection Agency proved reluctant to tighten fuel-economy standards, California outmaneuvered it in 2002 by limiting carbon dioxide from cars. That decision achieved the same end – and was the first move in the United States to control greenhouse gases.

And so it goes with climate change. By the mid-2000s, when the rest of the country was waking up to the challenge of global warming, California was already pursing an aggressive program to assess the likely damage. According to the state energy commission’s climate research, the U.S. west coast faces sea level rise of 12 to 18 inches by 2050, and as much as nearly six feet by the turn of the century. Precipitation is projected to fall increasingly as water rather than snow, draining into the sea rather than laying in cold storage until the long, dry summers. Higher-than-average temperatures and more frequent extreme weather promise heat waves, wildfires, droughts, and floods.

The sense of impending crisis sent California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger into action-hero mode. In 2006, he signed the Global Warming Solutions Act, capping carbon emissions statewide throughout all activities and sectors. Then, last December, he stood on Treasure Island — an expanse of landfill in the San Francisco Bay that stands to be inundated by the upwelling of glacial melt — and unveiled the 2009 California Climate Adaptation Strategy, a plan to prepare for what many scientists regard as inevitable changes. “We have the responsibility to have a Plan B just in case we can’t stop the global warming,” he said, apparently missing the document’s emphatic assertion that mitigation (making efforts to minimize the onset of climate change) and adaptation (learning to live with it) are equally necessary and inherently complementary undertakings.

The California Climate Adaptation Strategy

The California Climate Adaptation Strategy

The strategy document is 200 pages of meticulously footnoted, thoroughly bureaucratic prose that directs state agencies to take climate change into account. Individual chapters are devoted to seven critical sectors: agriculture, biodiversity, coastal resources, energy and transportation, forestry, public health, and water supply and flood protection. The plan outlines the range and severity of potential impacts — eroding coastlines, flooded freeways, extended wildfire seasons, devastating disease outbreaks. The executive summary lists a dozen action items and an appendix of 163 further recommendations.

Mostly, these directives call for better coordination between federal, state, and local regulators; updating of existing resource-management plans in light of the latest scientific findings; ongoing research to sharpen estimates of impending change; and funding to accomplish these aims and, presumably, the more concrete actions that would follow. Perhaps most interesting is the recommendation to create a web site called CalAdapt that would mash up government data with Google maps, providing officials with up-to-date visualizations of rising waters, increasing temperatures, and other risks.

Not all of this is new. California’s coastal and water agencies have been planning for the impact of climate change since the mid-1980s. Until the turn of the century, though, adaptation was a dirty word in Sacramento. “You got slapped on the head if you mentioned it,” says Anthony Brunello, who worked for the Pew Center for Global Climate Change from 1999 to 2001. “It equated to giving up.” But evidence began to mount that the effects were already being felt, particularly a 7-inch rise in sea level at the Golden Gate over the past century, which convinced even hard-core advocates of mitigation that it wasn’t too early to consider, say, building sea walls. In late 2008, Schwarzenegger ordered the California Natural Resources Agency to look into what it would take to adapt to the changes wrought by global warming.

By then, Brunello had become California’s Deputy Secretary for Climate Change and Energy — and the state was deep into a fiscal crisis. He directed state agencies to form sector-specific working groups that invited business leaders, academics, and NGOs to help hash out the strategy. The governor released the plan just in time for the Copenhagen climate summit – only to see it swept off the front pages when leaked emails from eminent climate scientists sparked the Climategate scandal.

That was a pity because — lack of bold proposals notwithstanding — the Climate Adaptation Strategy is a significant step forward in the U.S. response to climate change. “Of the dozen states that have published or are working on plans that include adaptation measures, California stands out for the breadth and depth,” says Terri Cruce, a climate researcher with the Pew Center for Global Climate Change and the Georgetown Climate Center. (Cruce maintains a web site detailing climate-change adaptation initiatives on a state-by-state basis.) The report covers every state agency and reaches into every vital sector that’s touched by climate change. Most important, it establishes a permanent task force to guide implementation, so the effort won’t die when Schwarzenegger leaves office. And although it may seem trendy, the CalAdapt web site looks like an especially smart move, creating a convenient, cost-effective way for officials to see how latest projections play out in their jurisdiction.

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