Constellation of Climate Events Lifts State Spirits
By Isaac Pearlman
“We are seeing events we have never seen before,” said California Natural Resources Secretary John Laird to the over 750 attendees of the California Adaptation Forum on August 28th. Inside the cavernous ballroom of the Sheraton Grand in downtown Sacramento, Laird ticked off to the audience the evidence that climate change is present in California: wildfires burning faster and hotter, rainfall five hundred percent above normal, and longer lasting Central Valley heatwaves. “[Climate change] is happening, we’re experiencing it, and we’re in the middle of it right now,” concluded Laird. “What we’ve seen is frightening, but we can’t allow ourselves to be paralyzed.”
Far from paralyzed, many of the scientists, planners, and community organizers were at the three-day conference to take action. Dana Murray, a voluble new environmental sustainability manager for the southern California city of Manhattan Beach, was there to learn more about tools and resources for the city’s sea level rise vulnerability assessment she is spearheading. Philip Gibbons, a program manager at the Port of San Diego, came to learn about decision-making under uncertainty. Christina Snider, the tribal advisor to Governor Brown’s office, spoke on a panel to represent the voices and needs of native Californian tribal members in climate adaptation.
“I find events like this a good learning opportunity to hear what other people are doing, and pick up some new best practices to infuse into our work,” said attendee Bryn Lindblad, the associate director of Climate Resolve in Los Angeles. “A couple of years ago, climate adaptation was much more science-focused. There’s still that focus, but I’ve been very inspired by some of the practices at this conference that put people at the center of climate adaptation.”
The presentations ranged from wonky to practical, from session topics on the minutiae of how to codify climate adaptation into local government, to financing natural infrastructure, to restorative climate resilience for communities. Participants assiduously took notes and earnestly discussed climate impacts and solutions as they shuffled between 75 distinct sessions amidst the climate-conditioned Sheraton ballrooms, while Sacramento sweltered outside. “It’s like trying to drink out of a firehose,” commented one attendee on the dizzying amount information.
The forum’s first day coincided with the release of California’s fourth climate assessment, a statewide report summarizing the best available science on what Californians can expect in the state’s future climate (see “Hot and Cold Results” side story at right). In a nine-person panel, academics ranging from UC Riverside to UC Berkeley discussed findings for California’s nine regions and for the state overall – such as how future wildfires will burn 77% more area than today, how the average water supply from the Sierra snowpack will decline by two-thirds by 2050, and how downtown Fresno will go from about four extreme heat days (defined to be above 106.6 Fahrenheit) per year today, to 43 days per year by 2100 if emissions aren’t reduced.
“If the Paris climate agreement comes to pass [these impacts] ease off a bit, but suffice to say adaptation is in our future,” said Dan Cayan, a climate scientist at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography and one of the assessment’s lead coordinating authors.
“The basic message from these studies is a call to action,” said Robert Weisenmiller, chair of the California Energy Commission, to the audience of climate professionals. “The impacts on the ground are outpacing the science.”
Many speakers at the forum highlighted the urgent need to begin preparing for impacts already being felt today. California Ocean Protection Council executive director Deborah Halberstadt opened her presentation on coastal flooding with pictures of Hurricane Harvey, and deliberately mentioned the near 3,000 people dead in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria. “It’s easy to get lost in the sea level rise jargon on projections,” she said. “But I want to emphasize what we are talking about is extreme flooding and its human impacts.” Sheridan Enomoto, from the Bay Area’s Greenaction environmental justice organization, spoke eloquently about how sea level rise and flooding of contaminated land at Bayview Hunter’s Point threaten the health and safety of the nearby low-income community.
But few spoke as forcefully as James Gore, Sonoma County’s 4th District Supervisor representing much of the Santa Rosa area charred in the Tubbs fire last year.
“If you can’t tell, I’m fired up – pun intended,” Gore said with a straight face, staring intently at the gathered attendees during a panel. “We’re sitting here still talking about creating networks, and networks of networks,” he pointed out, to audience laughter on the climate geek nature of the forum and its topics. “Intentionality and campaigns are where we need to go,” continued Gore. “WAKE UP. This is go time. This isn’t time to be pessimistic, this is time to step up to show grit.”
Some of the loudest applause went to Kat Taylor, the CEO and co-founder of Beneficial State Bank. In the forum’s closing plenary panel on financing resilience, the tattooed and backwards ballcap-wearing Taylor garnered repeated cheers with her rapid-fire rejection of the capitalist banking system and its role in our unsustainable system and unstable climate.
“The best thing we can do in the private banking system is discipline lending practices,” said Taylor, mentioning the choices banks have about underwriting projects like the Dakota Access pipeline. “We [at the Beneficial State Bank] are not going to use our deposit funding to trample on indigenous rights, destroy a local resource called water, and accelerate global climate change.”
An oft-repeated mantra across the climate adaptation practitioners was the need for everyone to come together to tackle climate change and protect those in its path. However it was easy to see that for some, there is still a long ways to go in order to include all Californians in the effort to adapt to climate change. “As California Indians, we are largely invisible,” said the governor’s advisor Christina Snider, pointing out that native tribes have generations of knowledge living with changing environmental conditions, yet often aren’t deemed experts or involved in adaptation. At a youth-led session on restorative climate resilience for communities, a dozen or so people discussed the colonizer implications of referring to communities as vulnerable to climate and noted in frustration how many people had left the room in order to wander to other sessions. At the panel discussion of California’s regional climate impacts, Francesca Hopkins of UC Riverside asked the hundreds of attendees how many were from the inland Imperial Valley region that she focused on – and pointed out to the audience that the only ones raising their hands were her collaborators.
Despite the long path ahead, there was no shortage of inspirational examples of disparate actions, large and small, that Californians are doing today to make the state resilient. Up in Humboldt Bay, Ryan Bartling from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife formed a partnership with the local Wiyot tribe in order to monitor ocean acidification and its impact on the locally important oyster population. Lucas Zucker from the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy told how his community successfully fought to prevent a new shoreline fossil fuel power plant near Oxnard. Beneficial bank’s Kat Taylor pointed out that her institution pays employees 150% of their area’s living wage. Beverly Scott, CEO of Beverly Scott Associates, Parker Infrastructure Partners, noted that Vallejo was the first city in the country to establish true participatory budgeting (in which community votes govern a portion of public spending), and is now on its sixth round. Many pointed to various California state policies and executive orders mandating inclusion of climate change and adaptation in public planning and investment.
“It’s really exciting to see the work that’s already being done, and how we can lift up those solutions,” said Julia Kim, a senior project manager with the Local Government Commission and one of the principal organizing forces behind the forum.
At the forum –the first affiliate event for September’s star-studded Global Climate Action Summit (see “Hothouse Earth” sidestory above right for the Editor’s Perspective) — many of the anonymous climate professionals working on the ground to protect California remained optimistic.
“In 2014 we had dozens of people working in adaptation at the state level,” said Michael McCormick, a senior planning advisor at the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research. “Now we have hundreds. The discussion has shifted from ‘you know, we should do this because it’s really important and we all need to come together’, to now being ‘we must do this in California, it’s required by statute’.”
“Honestly, I consider myself very hopeful when it comes to [climate adaptation],” said Philip Gibbons. “If you look at the San Diego skyline 80 or 100 years ago; it’s very different than what it is today.
In 80 to 100 years in the future, it’s going to look very, very different too. I have great belief that we can help design a better and more resilient waterfront.”
“I find hope in a lot of places,” said Julia Kim. “I find hope in the technological solutions, I find hope when I see the coalitions of people of different disciplines and backgrounds come together. I find hope in our youth coming up with creative approaches, and in the different community engagement strategies out there. I find hope all around me.”
“People preserve what they love,” said Jacquelyn Dupont-Walker, President of the Ward Economic Development Corporation, to the forum’s attendees. “This is the story of each one of our lives.”
Isaac Pearlman covers sea level rise, flooding, and other topics for ESTUARY. A Bay Area native, Isaac's writing is informed by his master's degree in environmental science, as well as many adventures from living and working in South America, Europe, and Southeast Asia. His stories and essays have been featured in Earth Island Journal, the Progressive Populist, and Ecosystems among other outlets. https://isaacpearlman.wordpress.com