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

Which is not to say the document is perfect. “It’s a strategy, not a plan,” Cruce notes – a set of general directions, not a detailed roadmap. Generally, action items are divided between politically low-cost/low-impact maneuvers (such as adding agricultural inspection stations to catch pests following warmer temperatures northward) and more ambitious goals (a host of measures to restore wetlands that would absorb storm surges) with no deadline, budget, or process attached. The milquetoast language of many recommendations (“Consider requiring applicants to address how sea level rise will affect their project…”) leaves officials with any number of ways to avoid taking action. Moreover, economic analysis is almost entirely absent. Given that both adaptation and mitigation will have a price tag, it’s impossible to know which is more expensive in any given case. Is it more costly to cut emissions or relocate San Francisco International Airport on higher ground? And where will the money come from?

The strategy’s harshest critics believe that such flaws render it ineffectual. Susanne Moser, a geographer who worked as a consultant on the project, dismisses the near-term goals as merely “best practices” and the long-term objectives as unattainable without a more forceful mandate. But she finds some good in the effort. The most important outcome, she says, isn’t the document itself but a cultural shift in Sacramento: The disparate agencies, accustomed to competing for jurisdiction and funding, have discovered the value of cooperation. “They realized they needed to work together if they were going to get beyond business as usual,” she says. “That’s a huge shift — from ‘I don’t want to talk to these people’ to ‘let’s work together.’ It will make all the difference moving forward.”

Despite weaknesses in the plan, most observers view it as an important first step. “There’s a broad range of decision makers,” says Matt Vander Sluis, who contributed to the effort as global warming program manager at the Planning and Conservation League, an environmental lobbying group based in Sacramento. “Some get it, but others need this type of guidance to wrap their heads around the problem.” One immediate result, he points out, is that officials will think twice about approving proposed San Francisco Bay Area developments that would stand below sea level. “It’s a useful set of recommendations,” he says. “Now state and federal decision makers need to make the investment in carrying them out, because without resources, it’s going to be like trying to put out a fire without a fire hose.”

The follow-up is already underway, starting with the top-line directive: formation of a task force to establish future priorities. William Reilly, who served as the first President Bush’s head of the Environmental Protection Agency, leads the group, which is due to report its recommendations to the governor by summer. Meanwhile, the strategy will be updated every two years. By the time the first biennial review rolls around in late 2011, the short-term goals should be complete and presumably the roadmap to the more politically challenging recommendations will have been sketched in. That is, unless California finds that adapting to the new politics of climate change is even harder than responding to the change itself.

This piece was produced by The Atlantic as part of the Climate Desk collaboration. Ted Greenwald is a writer and editor in Northern California.

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