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
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
from cars. That decision achieved the same end - and
was the first move in the United States to control greenhouse gases.
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
, 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
, 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
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.
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
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 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
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 see how latest projections
play out in their jurisdiction.
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."
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 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.