A lot of the talk here at the California APA Conference in Squaw Valley is about climate change – and, more specifically, about how to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. But there's more and more talk – important but poorly attended – about the other side of the coin, which is dealing with sea level rise and other consequences of climate change.
I attended two panels today where speakers dealt with adaptation and sea level rise. Both had a handful of people – in contrast to the throngs that went to the emissions reduction panels, which is what we're used to thinking about in regards to climate change.
We've written about adaptation before, but the difference really struck me this time around. Maybe I'm oversensitive, because I live in a beach town, but this strikes me as illustrative of the gap between practice and reality these days. Any greenhouse gas emissions reductions we accomplish in California will be a drop in the bucket and won't prevent climate change. It is going to happen anyway, and it will profoundly affect both our natural and built environments, which means it will probably be the single most important thing planners in California will deal with during the decades ahead.
So why all the empty seats? Probably because no state or federal regulators are telling you you've got to do something about adaptation.
Yet, increasingly, the policy wonks in the climate change arena are recognizing that mitigating global warming impacts and adapting for the future are more or less the same thing. And they also recognize that, at the first sign of sea level rise, the initial impulse of most people is to destroy the environment further by building huge structures to protect the coast and the bays.
The most compelling presentation of the day came from Steve Goldbeck, the deputy director of the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, who presented the results of BCDC's recent analysis of sea level rise in the Bay Area. Everybody knows that the San Francisco Bay has been reduced by a third this century because of the practice of filling it. But Goldbeck said that a 16-inch rise in the sea level – the high end of estimates for 2050 – simply puts the bay back where it was before the Gold Rush. No big deal, except that close to 300 square miles, hundreds of thousands of residents, and 22 sewer plants will be inundated. (If you think 16 inches is a lot, bear in mind that the Bay has risen 7 inches in the last hundred years.)
And separate presentations from Abe Doherty of the Ocean Protection Council and Joan Sollenberger of Caltrans highlighted the need to start figuring out how to work adaptation into the infrastructure equation. There has been no lack of studies on the importance of adaptation techniques, and the state does have a draft adaptation strategy out, yet the state's approach to adaptation is clearly still in its infancy.
Doherty, for instance, went on at length about the policy guidance the state is beginning to create regarding when and whether to build hard-infrastructure protections against inundation. And the list of issues is long. Should you permit hard infrastructure when a soft, green solution is available? Should you protect existing wastewater plants or move them? Which is more expensive in the long run? Should you protect developments or facilities along the coast if protecting them costs more than their value? Implicit in a lot of this guidance is the sea-level-rise equivalent of fires. A lot of the development along the coast, especially private development, is very valuable and controlled by wealthy people. I could almost imagine author Mike Davis stepping to the podium with a presentation called "The Case For Letting Malibu Drown."
Apparently there will be plenty of time for urgent action, difficult decisions, and class warfare later. There certainly doesn't seem to be much interest now. We'll just have to wait until the next generation – like my daughter, who turns 19 next week – takes over, because we middle-aged California planners are punting the problem past our lifetime.
– Bill Fulton