Capitol Alert

‘It can become unlivable.’ How Jerry Brown is planning for raging fires and extreme heat

As massive fires that would kill more than 40 people ravaged his state last month, California Gov. Jerry Brown met with state emergency officials, jabbing at culprits of the latest disaster.

“That’s the way it is with a warming climate, dry weather and reducing moisture,” Brown warned. “These kinds of catastrophes have happened, they’ll continue to happen, and we have to be prepared to do everything we can to mitigate.”

California efforts to prepare for climate change already have begun.

In the Sierra Nevada, scientists and forestry management experts burn and thin acres of forest to cut back on fuel for intensifying wildfires. Down south in San Diego County, they replenish beaches, repair sand dunes and plant thousands more shade trees.

In some of the hottest parts of the state like Sacramento, they train outdoor workers to avoid the anticipated rise in deaths during extreme heat waves.

Los Angeles’ leaders are passing laws to install more “cool roofs” and laying the groundwork for “cool streets” that can reduce temperatures by double digits.

“This is one of those moments in history where what we do now will be influential for decades to come on the subject of climate adaptation,” said Jonathan Parfrey, executive director of Climate Resolve, a nonprofit working on solutions to meet the challenge.

California’s attempts to fight climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and curbing pollution are internationally recognized. Throughout the year, Brown has set out to fill the void left by President Donald Trump, who is pledging to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement and rolling back scores of Obama-era regulations.

But the rash of fires, floods and drought has focused attention on a less apparent element of the environmental legacy Brown will leave when he steps down next year. As the Democratic governor sets off this week for climate talks across Europe, California is whirring into action with strategies to adapt to the compounding impacts.

Bruce Riordan, program director of the Climate Readiness Institute at UC Berkeley, said a growing collaboration of state and local governments, universities, foundations and community groups are banding together to protect the health and well-being of nearly 40 million residents and future generations.

“It’s going to require a well-financed ‘all hands on deck’ campaign because sea level rise, heat waves, wildfires, drought are a huge threat to critical infrastructure like roads and hospitals, natural resources that sustain and support us and the world’s six-largest economy,” Riordan said.

Scientists acknowledge that extremes have long marked the state’s climate. But they contend climate change will exacerbate those natural swings.

If climate change isn’t arrested, Brown told reporters at a bill signing ceremony last year, “It’s not going to be 110 (degrees) in Imperial County. It’s going to be 130, 135, not for a few days or a few weeks, but for months on end. It can become unlivable.”

Brown has called for a robust confrontation.

His executive order establishing targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 – later adopted in law – also included the requirement that state agencies integrate climate change into all of their planning and investment.

Collaboration is important

In 2009, the state developed the first-of-its kind climate adaptation strategy that analyzed impacts across the economy on everything from public health and forests to biodiversity, temperature and wildfire. Officials now also track indicators of climate change like spring water runoff times, extreme heat events and health impacts to the public.

Much of the policy work is happening on the ground as part of Brown’s preferred organizing principle that such matters ought to be handled by locals. As attorney general before he was governor, he challenged cities over their refusal to include greenhouse gas cuts in their long-term urban plans.

Legislation he signed requires local governments to consider climate change when adopting general plans. Another bolsters Brown’s Office of Planning and Research to align it with local governments and set common goals and standards. A new mandate says that Safeguarding California, the state’s extensive adaptation planning document, must be updated every three years.

Parfrey is part of a regional climate action and sustainability collaboration at the University of California, Los Angeles, where professor Alex Hall led a groundbreaking study that found climate change will push up temperatures by an average of 4 to 5 degrees by the middle of the century. The number of days where temperatures climb above 95 degrees will roughly double on the coast, triple in downtown Los Angeles and quadruple in the valley.

Climate Resolve worked with Los Angeles to update the city’s building code to require that new and refurbished roofs be “cool roofs” that reflect the sun’s rays into space so they aren’t absorbed by the shingles and the heat isn’t transferred into the home. The city of Pasadena took after Los Angeles, and the county is considering a similar ordinance. Similar urban heat-island policies are being contemplated around Sacramento.

The technology cools a home by 5 degrees to 20 degrees, depending on the time of day, insulation and other factors. On average, proponents of the technology say, it reduces a utility bill by 12 percent because homes require less air conditioning, and major appliances, such as refrigerators, can labor less.

Now, sustainability advocates are moving on to “cool streets,” where the city lays down a coding in its asphalt slurry that similarly reflects the sun’s energy, dropping surface temperatures by 10 to 15 degrees compared with traditional asphalt.

Around Sacramento, the Capitol Region Climate Readiness Collaborative, led by Kathleen Ave, covers six counties and includes cities and air districts. Members meet quarterly and focus on developing strategies for regional heat pollution, flooding and emergency response.

An immediate focus is on local laws that require more shade, which remain largely unenforced.

“It can he hard to get people to really think about that this is something they really need to pay attention to now,” Ave said of the need for urgency.

Through her work with SMUD, Sacramento’s municipal-owned electric company, they are launching a project to encourage more builders to take up the most ambitious green standards in the world. In such structures, all of the energy is generated on site, all water treated on site and the buildings rely on natural light and are “fossil-free” – meaning there is no combustion of fossil fuels.

Another collaborative is laboring across the Sierra Nevada to curtail forests that are far more dense than before European settlement, when more frequent small fires prevented the hotter, larger blazes that are seen today.

Trees are so dense in some areas that snow gets stuck in the canopy rather than falling to the forest floor, leading to quicker evaporation in a region that accounts for 60 percent of California’s annual precipitation and feeds a large portion of its total water supply. Active management of the forests calls for selective burns and thinning of trees based on their ages.

“Big fire years followed by flooding push the particulate matter into the watershed, damaging water quality,” said Diana Madson with the Sierra Business Council, who directs the Sierra Climate Adaptation and Mitigation Partnership.

Placer County Water Agency is teaming with several groups – including Tahoe National Forest, The Nature Conservancy and UC Merced’s Sierra Nevada Research Institute – on the French Meadows forest resilience project at one of its two major reservoirs. Organizers say the goal is to increase the pace and scale of forest restoration at the critical municipal watershed.

One of the strategies drawing significant attention, but far less agreement, is assisted migration, or physically relocating species that may not be able to survive global warming.

Dealing with rising sea level

The San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, meantime, is focused on the potential consequences of current and future flooding in the nine-county region, with the goal of making the area more resilient to sea level rise.

The commission’s Adapting to Rising Tides Program uses mapping and science to determine what is going to get wet, and when.

They found that the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge near the toll plaza remains susceptible to overtopping and flooding. Officials used that information to develop near-term solutions like fortifying the low spots and obtaining water pumps.

Along Highway 37, a major commuter corridor between Solano, Marin and Sonoma counties that was closed because of winter flooding, the group is helping transportation and planning officials analyze water flow patterns. Among the options under consideration is a raised causeway.

Much of the adaptation planning across San Diego County, home to some of the top researchers on oceans, is tied to acidifying and rising seas. Its climate collaborative represents 12 of 18 cities, the county, airport, regional planning agency, main utility and major universities.

Laura Engeman, who leads the group, has spent years mulling coastal resilience. Historic projects like harbors and breakwaters, combined with big coastal storms, have led to what environmentalists and planners call a “sand deficit.” Cities will pull sand from offshore; and some have lagoons that they dredge to shore up beaches.

The cities of Carlsbad and Del Mar are looking at additional beach nourishment – and ways to use sand deposits to protect homes or infrastructure. On Cardiff State Beach in Encinitas, a dune restoration project is designed to keep sand on beach and protect a low-lying area of Highway 101 that was closed dozens of times because of flooding.

Engeman said San Diego’s climate action plan has an urban tree canopy goal of going from 10 percent to more than one third. The city’s international airport designed a “holistic” plan for its water system. Instead of sending it all to the ocean, they are investing in infrastructure upgrades to capture the water and pump it into other parts of the facility to use it to flush toilets and water landscaping.

Riordan, of UC Berkeley, said the key as Brown and the state take on a broader coordinating role is to “take it out of the science.”

The hope is that Californians will begin to weigh the issue as, for example, they buy a new roof.

“How do we translate that into impacts on people and things people care about?” he asked.

Christopher Cadelago: @ccadelago

Brown’s travels

Gov. Jerry Brown, who is taking a more active role in adapting to climate change after holding out the state as a leader in greenhouse gas and pollution controls, is traveling across Europe this month.

The Democratic governor will give a keynote address Saturday at the Vatican at a climate summit hosted by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

Brown then heads to meetings across Europe, before attending and speaking at several events at the United Nations Climate Conference in Bonn, Germany.

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