By Rachel Becker, Julie Cart
Painting alarming scenes of fires, floods and economic disruption, the California Legislature’s advisors on Tuesday released a series of reports that lays out in stark terms the impacts of climate change across the state.
The typically reserved, nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office outlined dire consequences for Californians as climate change continues to impact most aspects of daily life. The six-part series focuses on the economic impact of climate change on California’s ability to build, grow and protect its most vulnerable residents.
Schools will be forced to close more often due to heat, floods, wildfires and heat. This will disrupt education, child care and free school lunches. Nearly a million students are affected by wildfires every year, with more than 1,600 schools closing temporarily due to wildfires between 2017-2020.
Workers in outdoor industries such as agriculture, construction, forestry and recreation — 10% of California’s workforce and mostly made up of Latinos — will continue to bear the brunt of extreme heat and smoke.
Wildfire smoke may have caused 20 deaths among the 100,000 Californians over 65 in 2020. It is expected to get worse. A 50% increase in smoke could result in nine to twenty more deaths per 100,000 people each year.
Rising seas and tides can cause damage to buildings, bridges, roads, ports, power stations, freeways, and other structures, including housing, rail lines, bridges and rail lines. “Between $8 billion and $10 billion of existing property in California is likely to be underwater by 2050, with an additional $6 billion to $10 billion at risk during high tide.”
Extreme heat is projected to cause nine deaths per 100,000 people each year, “roughly equivalent to the 2019 annual mortality rate from automobile accidents in California.”
Californians of lower income who live in areas that are more at risk of flooding and heat because they have been subject to discriminatory housing practices will be especially hard hit by climate changes and will need to adapt.
Housing will be lost: For example, in the Bay Area alone, 13,000 existing housing units and 104,000 job spaces “will no longer be usable” because of sea rise over the next 40 to 100 years.
Beaches may also disappear: By 2100, up to two-thirds (or more) of the beaches in Southern California could be completely eroded.
The report’s unsaid but unambiguous conclusion: Climate change could alter everything, and spare no one in California, so legislators should consider preparing for sweeping impacts.
“These hazards will threaten public health, safety, and well-being — including from life-threatening events, damage to public and private property and infrastructure, and impaired natural resources,” the analysts say in their report.
According to the report, the pain and costs will be shared by state, regional, national, local, private, and industry sectors.
Change your course
Scientists say it’s not too late to stop the most severe effects, although the clock is ticking. According to Monday’s landmark international scientific report, technologies and other solutions exist to reduce greenhouse gasses from fossil fuels and other sources. This will help prevent irreversible damage. Despite international agreements and plans falling short, emissions are expected to continue rising.
California’s legislative analysts did not conduct new research; instead, they compiled existing data and projections, providing a comprehensive clearinghouse for legislators as they enact policies and approve budgets.
State Sen. Bob Wieckowski, a Democrat from Fremont and chair of the budget subcommittee on resources, environmental protection and energy, said he plans to turn to the reports as references and rationale for the subcommittee’s budget proposals.
“It’s impressive,” he said. “(It) turns the climate conversation into an all-hands-on-deck versus, ‘Oh, this is just some tree hugger over here.’”
Although the analysts do not make any specific policy recommendations, they recommend that legislators consider questions such as: How can the state prevent exacerbating climate effects? How can legislators protect California’s most vulnerable citizens? How should California pay for climate change preparation and response?
Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, a Democrat from South Gate (Los Angeles County), asked the Legislative Analyst’s Office to assess the impacts of climate change on a variety of policy sectors, and the reports grew from there. They frame climate change as a complex, multi-disciplinary problem that requires response from all of the state’s agencies.
Rachel Ehlers, project manager, said that the goal is to help lawmakers incorporate climate change into other areas than traditional environmental realms like housing, education, and health. For instance, would a new housing policy “have the potential to inadvertently worsen climate change impacts?” she said.
Last year’s budget package reflected the overarching scope of the problem, proposing to spend $9.3 billion over three years to bolster the state’s responses to drought, floods, fire and sea level rise.
These reports are in preparation for California Gov. Gavin’s Newsom’s May revision to his January budget blueprint, when the administration can reframe and update its proposals. The budget proposal has so far included more than $22 million for climate change, which includes protecting communities from wildfires or extreme heat.
Despite the state’s climate-forward reputation, critics and many legislators note California’s follow-through has been inconsistent.
“I don’t at all feel that we are leading the world anymore,” Rendon told CalMatters last year.
Although the state passed a $15 billion climate budget, California Environmental Voters, an advocacy group, gave California its first “D” grade for what it called its climate inaction last year.
“We’re plagued by ‘climate delayers’ in Sacramento, members of the Legislature who talk about climate change but don’t back up those words with action,” California Environmental Voters CEO Mary Creasman wrote in a CalMatters commentary.
Last month, a coalition of California’s environmental justice advocacy organizations pushed for a phase-out of fossil fuels, and warned that clean air regulators have failed to adequately consider public health in crafting the state’s blueprint for curbing greenhouse gas pollution.
California is already feeling the effects of climate change.
The analysis revealed that many of these worst consequences are already here. However, it noted that future effects may come sooner and be more severe than scientists anticipated.
Summer temperatures scorched records as the state’s second-largest wildfire tore across Northern California during the third-driest year on record for rain and snowfall. California must be prepared for climate hazards such as extreme heat, wildfires and whiplash from drought, flood, and sea level rise.
Drought clutches California and a statewide heat wave forecast this week is poised to sap the remaining snowpack that supplies about a third of the state’s water. California’s firefighting arm warns that a record-dry start to the year could spell a devastating fire season ahead.
It’s a disaster drumbeat that Californians have heard many times before. The Legislative Analyst’s Office has released report after report assessing the state’s climate policies and spending. It has warned that sea levels rise will cause billions of dollars to be lost in homes, roads, and businesses by 2050. The state must also accelerate its planning to protect state assets, including college campuses and state workers, from extreme weather, flooding, fire, and soaring heat.
Newsom’s administration launched a preemptive response to the reports with the Monday release of its updated climate adaptation strategy. The guidelines are a collection of plans from 38 departments. They address priority areas such as protecting communities from climate change and reducing risks to safety and health.
California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot said the strategy is “a matter of protecting our residents and our communities, our natural places, from climate threats that are already here.”
State officials frequently reevaluate the official response to climate changes, often in response of dire reports. Four years ago, California’s Fourth Climate Change Assessment released under former Gov. Jerry Brown warned that climate changes would cause property damage and death in the tens of billions by 2050.
Though Tuesday’s reports were focused largely on how California must adapt to the ravages of climate change, the Legislative Analyst’s Office also has warned repeatedly that California’s landmark greenhouse gas market, cap and trade, will fail to meet California’s goals to reduce emissions.
CalMatters is an independent newsroom that aims to explain California politics and policy.