Southern California stands at the front lines of climate change adaptation. Los Angeles County alone is home to 10 million people in 88 cities — and has the state’s largest number of residents who will be exposed to the detrimental impacts of global warming.
Nowhere in California is a population so vulnerable: fronting a rising ocean, supplied by distant sources of water and power and annually fighting scourges of fires and floods.
But until recently, the state and many of our cities and counties have focused primarily on reducing earth-warming carbon emissions, not on what it will take to protect us from the effects of climate change.
The state’s Little Hoover Commission on government efficiency, of which we are both members, has studied the climate threats and California’s budding efforts to adapt — and found the responses to the perils wanting.
California’s continued success in global trade, innovation, entertainment, agriculture and manufacturing depends on California being synonymous with stability. Our international stature and economic competitiveness could collapse if infrastructure for travel, goods movement, public safety, communications and energy become or are perceived as unreliable or vulnerable to repeated disruption.
After a year-long review of this issue culminating in a report, “Governing California Through Climate Change,” the commission found that California lacks an accountable administrative structure to govern the state’s response to climate change impacts. No single authoritative source of standardized information on climate risks in California currently exists. Cities, counties, regional governing agencies and even the state lack reliable, consistent information to guide long-range infrastructure investments and land-use choices.
That’s why the commission recommended the governor create a new, dedicated function in his administration to establish the best state science on anticipated climate change impacts and help decision-makers accurately assess their climate risks. This organization should be advised by an independent science board to assess and establish the best possible statewide, regional and local standards by which to measure anticipated climate impacts and risks.
The commission also learned that California has a great opportunity to minimize property losses as the higher temperatures and drought conditions of climate change contribute to longer and more dangerous fire seasons. Stronger enforcement of “defensible space” statewide would dramatically cut losses. The commission learned that Ventura County’s strictly-enforced program of brush clearing within 100 feet of houses has increased compliance and reduced property losses. Few other counties have learned this common sense lesson.
Likewise, the Little Hoover Commission learned of a particularly thorny private property issue for Southern California cities. As the mean high tide line of a rising ocean moves onto private property the state’s Common Law Public Trust Doctrine will convert that property to public ownership. This portends difficult legal and political conflict for heavily developed beachfronts throughout California. The commission urged the governor to work with key state agencies to begin clarifying the legal dimensions of sea level rise.
The governor and Legislature must assume the same leadership role in climate change adaptation as they have for addressing carbon emissions. Making a focused commitment to adapt to the long-term effects of climate change is not an impossible task.
After all, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration created a comprehensive adaptation plan, “A Stronger, More Resilient New York,” that will serve as a blueprint for addressing future climate-caused challenges. California should aim for the same commitment — before facing our own Hurricane Sandy.
Originally published in Los Angeles Daily News.