The realization is setting in among planners that climate change is going to affect planning practice – especially environmental review practice – very deeply. As a result, planners at this year's California Chapter, American Planning Association conference are anxiously seeking guidance.  

At last year's CCAPA conference, planners embraced the issue of climate change this gusto. They clearly saw climate change as their issue, and the conversation was very enthusiastic, even somewhat heady at times.

A year later, cold reality is setting in, and planners are full of questions. How does one actually address climate change in a general plan update? Which policies will truly be effective? How do I keep from getting sued by Jerry Brown? What the heck does my city do with the applications that keep coming across the front counter? How should an environmental review document address a project's potential greenhouse gas contributions? Can I still use a negative declaration? And what about the potential impacts of climate change on a project?

This year's conference has numerous climate change sessions, and they are generally drawing upwards of 200 people apiece. But practitioners looking for hard answers are generally having to settle for suggestions and hints. The state of the art is evolving, state officials are still drafting rules and guidelines, and case law is nearly nonexistent.

At one panel discussion, Terry Roberts, from the Governor's Office of Planning and Research, and Kirk Miller, general counsel of the Resources Agency, said right up front that they were not going to provide specifics.

"It's in the works everybody. I don't have anything to show you today," said Roberts, eliciting both chuckles and sighs.

At another panel, Sally Magnani, supervising deputy attorney general for the AG's environment section, emphasized the need to address climate change at the plan – rather than only the project – level. And she urged practitioners to be candid and forthcoming in environmental review documents.

Magnani tried to downplay her office's role in climate change litigation, noting that the AG has actually filed only one suit himself – over San Bernardino County's general plan update. One reason the suit was filed, she explained, is that the county ignored a comment letter the AG filed regarding the county's dismissal of the climate change issue in the plan update and EIR. That was obviously a poor strategy. Since then, the AG has filed about 40 more comment letters. The clear implication from Magnani is that your agency better pay attention if it gets one.

Anthony Eggert, science and technology advisor to the California Air Resources Board, said that the revised AB 32 scoping plan due out next week will call for more greenhouse gas emission reductions from land use and transportation than were in the preliminary scoping plan. How much he wouldn't say.

If there is one thing that everybody agrees on it is this: Agencies may no longer dismiss a plan or large project's contributions to climate change as too speculative to study.

"If you're not addressing climate change, you're going to get sued," said CCAPA Vice President for Legislative Affairs Pete Parkinson.

– Paul Shigley