California Legislature urged to prepare for drastic effects of climate change

Flames from the Woolsey Fire near a lifeguard tower
Flames from the Woolsey Fire behind a lifeguard tower near Malibu in 2018. Courtesy of OnScene.TV

By Rachel Becker and Julie Cart | Cal Matters

Painting alarming scenes of fires, floods and economic disruption, advisers to the California legislature released a series of reports this month that lay out in stark terms the impacts of climate change across the state.

The generally reserved and nonpartisan Office of the Legislative Analyst described the dire consequences for Californians as climate change continues to alter most aspects of daily life. Much of the six-part series released Tuesday details the economic cost as climate change alters where and how Californians build, grow food and protect the most vulnerable residents.

  • Wildfires, heat and floods will force more frequent school closures, disrupting education, childcare and the availability of free school meals. More than 1,600 schools temporarily closed due to wildfires each year between 2017 and 2020, affecting nearly one million students per year.
  • Workers in outdoor industries like agriculture, construction, forestry and recreation — 10% of California’s workforce and mostly made up of Latinos — will continue to bear the brunt of extreme heat and smoke .
  • Smoke from wildfires may have killed about 20 in every 100,000 older Californians in 2020 and is expected to become more deadly. A 50% increase in smoke could kill nine to 20 more people out of 100,000 each year.
  • Homes, railroads, bridges, ports, power plants, highways and other structures are vulnerable to rising seas and tides. “Between $8 billion and $10 billion of existing properties in California will likely be underwater by 2050, with an additional $6 billion to $10 billion at risk at high tide.”
  • Extreme heat is expected to cause nine deaths per 100,000 people each year, “roughly equivalent to the 2019 annual death rate from California auto accidents.”
  • Low-income Californians, who live in communities more exposed to heat and flooding due to discriminatory housing practices, will be particularly hard hit by climate change and have fewer resources with which to adapt.
  • Homes will be lost: For example, in the San Francisco Bay Area alone, 13,000 existing homes and 104,000 jobs “will no longer be usable” due to rising seas over the next 40 to 100 years .
  • Beaches will also disappear: up to two-thirds of Southern California’s beaches could be completely eroded by 2100.

The unspoken but unambiguous conclusion of the report: climate change could change everything and spare no one in California, so lawmakers should consider preparing for drastic impacts.

“These hazards will threaten public health, safety and welfare, including through life-threatening events, damage to public and private property and infrastructure, and degradation of natural resources,” analysts say in their report.

The pain and costs will be shared between the state, regional, local, private and industrial sectors, according to the report.

Scientists say it’s not too late to stop the worst effects, even if time is running out. According to an international scientific report published on Monday, technologies and other solutions already exist to reduce greenhouse gases from fossil fuels and other sources and prevent more irreversible damage. But international agreements and plans continue to fall short, with emissions expected to continue to rise.

California legislative analysts did not conduct new research; instead, they compiled existing data and projections, providing a comprehensive clearinghouse for lawmakers as they pass policies and approve budgets.

State Sen. Bob Wieckowski, Democrat of Fremont and chairman of the budget subcommittee on resources, environmental protection and energy, said he plans to look to the reports as references and justification for the budget proposals from the sub-committee.

“It’s impressive,” he said. “(It) turns the climate conversation into a discussion on deck as opposed to ‘Oh, he’s just a tree flayer here. “”

The analysts make no explicit policy recommendations, but they advise lawmakers to consider questions such as: how can the state avoid worsening climate impacts? How can lawmakers protect California’s most vulnerable? And how should California pay to prepare for and respond to climate change?

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, a Democrat from South Gate, asked the Office of the Legislative Analyst to assess the impacts of climate change on various policy sectors, and reports have multiplied from there. They define climate change as a complex, multidisciplinary problem that requires a response from all state agencies.

Project leader Rachel Ehlers said the goal is to help lawmakers integrate climate change into decisions outside of traditional environmental areas, including housing, health and education. For example, would a new housing policy “have the potential to inadvertently worsen the impacts of climate change? she says.

Last year’s budget package reflected the global scale of the problem, proposing to spend $9.3 billion over three years to strengthen state responses to drought, floods, fires and rising sea levels.

The reports come ahead of California Governor Gavin’s Newsom review of his January budget plan, when the administration can reframe and update its proposals. So far, the proposed budget has included more than $22 billion for climate change efforts, including protecting communities from wildfires and extreme heat.

Despite the state’s reputation on climate, critics and many lawmakers note that California’s tracking has been inconsistent.

“I don’t feel like we run the world at all anymore,” Rendon, a South Gate Democrat, told CalMatters last year.

Despite the state passing a $15 billion climate budget, California Environmental Voters, an advocacy group, gave California its first “D” grade for what it called its climate inaction the last year.

“We’re plagued by ‘climate retardants’ in Sacramento — members of the Legislative Assembly who talk about climate change but don’t back those words up with action,” CEO Mary Creasman wrote in a CalMatters commentary.

Last month, a coalition of California environmental justice organizations pushed for a fossil fuel phase-out and warned that clean air regulators had failed to adequately consider public health in the process. development of the state plan to reduce greenhouse gas pollution.

California already reeling from climate change

The analysis clearly showed that many of the worst consequences are already here, although it noted that future impacts were happening sooner and could be worse than scientists had predicted.

Summer temperatures broke records as the state’s second-largest wildfire ripped through Northern California in the third-driest year on record for both rain and snowfall. California must prepare for even more climate risks, reports warn, from extreme heat and more severe wildfires to drought, flooding and rising sea levels along the coast.

Drought hits California and a statewide heat wave this week is about to undermine the remaining snowpack that provides about a third of the state’s water. California’s firefighting arm is warning that a dry and record start to the year could herald a devastating fire season ahead.

It’s a disastrous drumbeat that Californians have heard time and time again. The Office of the Legislative Analyst has released report after report assessing the state’s climate policies and spending. He warned that sea level rise will swamp billions of dollars in homes, roads and businesses by 2050, and that the state must accelerate planning to protect state assets, including including college campuses, prisons and even state workers from heat, floods, fires and extremes. weather.

Newsom’s administration launched a preemptive response to the reports, with the release of its updated climate adaptation strategy on Monday. The guidelines bring together plans from 38 departments and address priority issues, such as protecting communities vulnerable to climate change and addressing health and safety risks.

California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot said the strategy is “to protect our residents and our communities, our natural places, from the climate threats that are already here.”

State officials regularly recalibrate the official response to climate change, often in response to dire reports. Four years ago, California’s fourth climate change assessment released under former Governor Jerry Brown warned that climate change would cause deaths and property damage in the tens of billions of dollars by 2050. .

Although the reports largely focus on how California must adapt to the ravages of climate change, the Office of the Legislative Analyst has also repeatedly warned that the historic greenhouse gas market of the California, cap and trade, would fail to meet California’s emission reduction targets.

CalMatters is a public interest journalism company committed to explaining how the California State Capitol works and why it matters.

Teresa H. Sadler