Climate Lessons from California

Stanford, Calif. — California faces serious risks from climate change. Some are already being felt, like the severe heat this summer and recent episodes of extremely low snowpack in the mountains, which the state depends on for much of its water. Those are among the key messages in a new climate science report now under review in the White House. The good news is that California has been working hard to catch up with the climate change that has already happened, and to get ahead of what is still to come.

The past five years have painted a clear picture of what is in store for California, according to numerous scientific studies that underpin the new assessment: Rising temperatures will bring more frequent and severe hot spells, intensifying heat stress; more precipitation will fall as rain rather than snow, increasing storm water runoff; snow that does fall will melt earlier in the year, leaving less for the warm, dry season; and more moisture will be drawn out of soils and vegetation, increasing stress on crops and ecosystems. All of this will lead to more frequent and severe water deficits, punctuated by wet periods with increasing flood risk.

Add rising sea levels, more extensive flooding during storm surges and the acidification of the coastal ocean, and California faces a phalanx of climate-related dangers to human health, agriculture, industry, economic productivity, and terrestrial and marine ecosystems.

As the new report makes clear, California is not the only state facing such risks. However, California has been particularly ambitious in its efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to build resilience in the face of climate change uncertainty. The state’s hard work over the past two decades has yielded several lessons for cities, states and countries that face intensifying climate-related stresses.

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The first is that it is possible to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while also enjoying a thriving economy. Since 2001, California’s economy has grown, while its greenhouse gas emissions have fallen. The state recently renewed its landmark cap-and-trade program, which limits total statewide emissions while allowing a marketplace to determine the price polluters must pay. The goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.

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This goal is ambitious and provides a powerful example for those seeking to simultaneously create jobs, stimulate innovation and reduce emissions. But the reduction still won’t be enough to stabilize the climate. That will require bringing global greenhouse gas emissions effectively down to zero, so still greater reductions will be needed to meet the United Nations targets.

The second lesson is that adapting to climate change requires understanding how the climate is changing. California has mandated regular scientific assessments of historical changes and possible future trajectories. This scientific process has yielded deep insights about the nature of what’s happening in California. And those insights have provided a foundation for decision making, like incorporating trends in temperature, snowpack and runoff into managing the state’s crucial groundwater reserves, and the planning and operation of its infrastructure.

In contrast to the obfuscation and denial about climate science by the Trump administration and much of the Republican congressional caucus, California has invested heavily in understanding climate change and in finding “climate-smart” solutions that can create jobs, improve energy efficiency and decrease emissions, while also building resilience to the climate change that has happened and to a range of possible future outcomes.

The third lesson is that, despite all of the progress, we need to work harder to ensure equity and justice for all residents in the face of a changing climate. It is well documented that poverty increases vulnerability to climate-related stresses. For example, during severe heat events, those who cannot afford air-conditioning or who must labor outdoors are considerably more vulnerable than those who have access to indoor air-conditioning. Likewise, during the recent drought, thousands of Californians suffered without running water for months, highlighting the severe inequality and associated vulnerability in the state. The government has sharpened its focus on ensuring that revenues from the cap-and-trade program benefit disadvantaged communities, but environmental justice remains a critical concern.

The United States recently officially informed the United Nations that it plans to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, as President Trump vowed to do. His rejection of climate science and the international community’s efforts to address the intensifying risks of global warming stands in stark contrast to the extensive scientific evidence that climate change is now being felt across America.

In response to President Trump’s abdication of international climate leadership, many states, cities and corporations are searching for ways to fill the void. California offers lessons of what has worked, and what is still left to be done.

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