Is the Sacramento region prepared for the likely impacts of climate change?


It was so much simpler when kids just worried about nuclear annihilation. True, The Day After caused nightmares for a whole generation of youngsters. Still, the solution was relatively straightforward, wasn’t it? “Don’t push that button!”

But how does the average person, let alone a grade-schooler, get their head around the consequences of runaway climate change?

The Sierra Club suggests that parents and teachers talking to kids about global warming try to keep it age appropriate and remember to “Be positive, avoiding doomsday scenarios that will worry or depress them.”

And what about us adults? Should we be indulging in doomsday scenarios that will worry and depress us?

We’re not doomed, says Erik de Kok, a senior planner with the city of Sacramento. But we do need to be realistic about the likely impacts of climate change, and the cost to future generations. “I may be retired and maybe even dead and gone before a lot of these impacts come true. But my daughter is going to feel them,” de Kok said.

By now, we adults are familiar with at least the basics of climate change. The vast majority of the world’s scientists agree that an excess of carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse gases” in our atmosphere is causing the planet to slowly heat up. Much of that extra CO2 is the result of human industry: Cement factories, cars and trucks, airplanes and power plants (especially coal) are just a few sources of global-warming pollution.

This is well-established, despite the often toxic politics surrounding climate change. What’s less well understood is just how fast we can expect warming to proceed, and—much more unpredictable—just what the specific impacts are going to be on any particular part of the world.

It’s not too hard to imagine some of the possibilities. How about severe weather along the lines of Hurricane Katrina, or the Midwest floods of 2010? How about more and deeper droughts like those gripping Texas, Georgia and other parts of the South?

And it’s likely that climate change will hurt the developing countries worst, displacing millions of “climate refugees” and threatening already fragile food and water supplies in impoverished regions of the world.

Here in the Sacramento region and much of Northern California, scientists expect climate change will mean warmer summers and wetter winters. Anybody who’s lived here for a while knows that Sacramento’s biggest collective anxiety is that levees will be overwhelmed by the big storm and we’ll have our own inland Katrina.

Other impacts will be milder, though perhaps harder to avoid. Without some adjustments, we’ll likely experience worsened smog, more heat waves and heat-related fatalities for sensitive groups. We could see longer and more frequent periods of peak demand for electricity. We may find that our drinking water is harder to come by, and our farmland is less productive.

No one knows for sure when the impacts of climate change will become obvious in Sacramento. “It could happen in five years. It could happen in 25 years. The science is still maturing,” said de Kok. But over the next 20, 50, 100 years, we’ll have to change our behavior to suit changing circumstances.

In a word, we’re going to have to adapt.

If the word adaptation sounds a little sci-fi, don’t worry. We’re not going to grow scales and second eyelids over our eyes. Not for a long, long time, in any case.

Rather, we’ll need to make changes like those outlined in the city of Sacramento’s evolving climate action plan. Later this year, de Kok and his colleagues will unveil a new update of the plan, which he says will have a greater emphasis on adaptation.

He’s not alone. This Earth Day, SN&R talked to people around the region, working in the fields of public health, energy, air quality—the list goes on—who are trying to figure out what climate change is going to mean for our local communities, and what we should do to prepare.

It’s OK to talk about adaptation

Here in Sacramento, climate change is predicted to mean warmer summers and wetter winters, with an increased risk of overwhelming the levees as the sea level rises.

“Five years ago, there was backlash if you talked about adaptation. It was like you were giving up the game,” said Joan Clayburgh with the Sierra Nevada Alliance, a coalition of environmental groups, local agencies and activists that’s trying to plan for the eventual impacts of climate change in the nearby Sierras.

Up until now, public attention has mostly been focused on the debate over whether climate change is real, and the early, tentative efforts to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Little attention has been paid to what we’re actually going to do about the now-inevitable changes in store for us.

“There have been 20 or 30 years’ worth of attention paid to emissions reduction,” said Clayburgh, “but everybody is just figuring out how to talk about adaptation.”

That’s why her group put together the Sierra Climate Change Toolkit, a collection of strategies for adaptation that would likely be useful to any community, not just those of the Sierra Nevada. Just a few of the suggestions include water meters and other methods of pricing water to promote more conservation, setting aside habitat for vulnerable wildlife and planning new development to significantly cut down on car trips, among other strategies.

The idea behind the tool kit is that planning now will be cheaper and easier than waiting for a crisis. “If the worst-case scenarios don’t come true, great!” said Clayburgh. “Most of these changes will actually save us money.”

California is still at the very beginning stages of an ambitious experiment to try and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and build a “post-carbon” economy. That experiment is called “A.B. 32” for short, and includes a suite of initiatives aimed at reducing CO2 and other global-warming pollutants to 1990 levels by 2020.

Some key parts of the plan include rules requiring electric utilities to use 33 percent renewable electricity by 2020, regulations requiring automakers to sell cars that produce dramatically fewer tailpipe emissions in the state and dozens of other rules intended to chip away at our overall greenhouse-gas output.

Many of the measures proposed to reduce greenhouse gases also have other benefits. For example, saving energy saves money. Reducing pollution from manufacturing certainly can’t hurt the communities downwind.

Still, climate change is deeply divisive. Despite overwhelming scientific consensus, much of the U.S. population doesn’t believe global warming is real, and some are quite passionate in their disbelief, as though it were an article of religious faith.

It’s partly because of this cultural divide that the possibility of serious global action on climate change seems so remote.

Last year, federal energy legislation that would have begun to address climate change broke apart in the undertow of the GOP’s recent congressional tidal wave.

The worldwide climate talks in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2009 unraveled because of disagreements about the relative responsibilities of developed and developing nations. The same divisions played out in the U.N. climate conference in Bangkok, Thailand, earlier this month.

In California, things are a little more promising. But congressional Republicans are threatening legislation that would take away the California Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases. And lawsuits by California environmental-justice groups—which are otherwise friendly to the purposes of A.B. 32—are stalling the state’s just-launched cap-and-trade plan, which state regulators says is a crucial piece of California’s overall climate-change strategy.

Assuming California muddles through with A.B. 32 intact, the state is just a small piece of world economy and contributes just a sliver of the world greenhouse-gas burden. The entire California economy—every factory, car, train, person and cow—produces about 480 million metric tons of carbon dioxide every year. But that’s just about 1.5 percent of the greenhouse gasses that are warming the planet.

Though A.B. 32 is an important development in climate change policy, it won’t do much by itself to actually stop global warming. And even if the politics of climate change in Washington were to change suddenly—climate change is still coming, thanks to the amount of CO2 already built up in the atmosphere.

As part of A.B. 32, a Climate Action Team of experts assembled by the state now issues biennial reports summarizing and refining our understanding of how climate changes will impact California.

The CAT’s 2010 report proceeds from the most recent models by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—which predict an increase in global temperatures of up to 11 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century.

The IPCC says we can keep temperature rises in the lower range (between 0.8 to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) if the world’s governments take serious steps to reduce carbon emissions. That’s a long shot, requiring developed nations to reduce their emissions by 80 percent, compared to 2000 levels, by the year 2050.

Researchers predict the California thermometer will rise along with global temperatures and that our triple-digit days, historically concentrated in July and August, would likely extend extreme high temperatures more to June and September.

So what’s that mean for you, sitting in Midtown Sacramento? Or Roseville or Davis?

Global warming is bad for your health

Sacramento County’s Dr. Glennah Trochet on possible local public-health impacts of climate change: “We are thinking about it a lot, and trying to educate ourselves on what the impacts are likely to be.”

Photo By larry dalton

All that extra heat the climate change promises has some troubling implications for public health. In 2006, a terrible summer heat wave was blamed for 140 deaths in California. A dozen deaths in Sacramento were attributed to the heat that July.

Scientists caution that you can’t attribute any particular weather event to global warming. Rather it’s the pattern of heat waves, or hurricanes, or droughts, added up over time where researchers expect to see changes.

Still, public-health professionals are increasingly concerned about the possibility of more heat waves like the deadly 2006 event.

“We are thinking about it a lot, and trying to educate ourselves on what the impacts are likely to be,” said Dr. Glennah Trochet, Sacramento County’s public health officer.

Another possible public-health impact: the introduction of new diseases to the Sacramento region, or the return of some that have previously been beaten.

“We might see a resurgence of malaria, which had been endemic in Sacramento until the 1940s,” Trochet explained. Similarly, the steady march of the West Nile virus across the country—finally arriving in Sacramento in 2002—may be also related to global warming. “We can’t say that now, but in 30 years we may be able say that,” Trochet said. She was concerned about the possibility of dengue fever coming to Sacramento. Luckily, Sacramento doesn’t have the kind of mosquitoes that can carry dengue.

But it does have terrible air quality, which may get worse in hotter summers.

For example, ozone pollution may get worse. Ozone is great in the ozone layer high in the upper atmosphere. But it’s a problem at ground level, where it forms when car exhaust and other pollution cook in the summer sun.

High levels of ozone can contribute to bronchitis, trigger asthma attacks and even cause heart attacks in people with heart disease.

The Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District has plans in place to keep ozone and other air pollution at manageable levels—that’s required by the federal Clean Air Act. And anyone who’s lived here long enough is very familiar with the occasional summer “bad air days” and warnings to stay inside.

It’s possible that without reductions in car emissions and other air-pollution sources, hotter summers will mean more and worse bad air days. But so far, the AQMD doesn’t take climate change into account in its plan to attain the clean-air standards. “The modeling just isn’t there yet,” said Larry Greene, executive director of AQMD.

In the meantime, the air district is tentatively venturing into other new territory. With some prodding from the state’s attorney general, the agency has begun reviewing new development proposals for their contributions to greenhouse gases.

The public-health effects of climate change may also include its toll on our mental health. “We know, anecdotally at least, that children are already worried about climate change,” said Dr. Linda Rudolph, with the California Department of Public Health.

Other likely psychological impacts could arise when people have their lives disrupted by floods or wildfires. Likewise, Rudolph said, “People often become stressed about rising prices for essentials,” like food and gas, one possible outcome of the economic impacts of climate change.

System check

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People might also become stressed if they spend too much time looking at dramatic maps showing California coastal cities battling a rising Pacific Ocean. They’re not hard to find; try the interactive one recently released by the University of Arizona. Yikes.

The IPCC estimates show up to 3 feet in sea-level rise by 2100. But in its 2010 report, California’s Climate Action Team cites some models that show nearly 5 feet of sea-level rise by the end of the century.

A study by UC Berkeley and the nonprofit group Next 10 estimates that $2.5 trillion in the state’s real-estate assets are at risk from sea-level rise, and other possible outcomes of climate change, like wildfires and severe weather.

“Climate refugees” is a term we’ve been hearing more lately, describing the human toll caused by sea-level rise, flooding and severe weather around the world. It evokes images of monsoons and far-off islands, but we forget sometimes that even here in the middle of California’s Central Valley, we have a strong connection to the coast, through the Sacramento Delta system.

If you doubt it, spend some time at the Cosumnes River Preserve near Elk Grove. There, the little river falls and rises throughout the day depending on the tides in the bay.

Locally, the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and local governments go around and around over flood control, development and levee repair.

But climate change doesn’t usually figure into the equation when Sacramento officials approve development in the flood plain. Warmer, wetter winters could strain the flood system. And river levels may run even higher as sea-level rise backs up through the bay, through the Delta and further upstream. Maybe.

“Climate change is going to affect everything having to do with water,” explained Kathleen White, with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Institute for Water Resources.

Problem is, White and her colleagues don’t yet know just what those effects might be in the real world. That’s going to take time to sort out.

Meanwhile, you know those new levees SAFCA is building to protect the Natomas basin in Sacramento? Well, the planning for those levees didn’t necessarily take climate change into account. Is that a problem? Too soon to say.

“We can’t tell everybody to stop all their work until we’ve made some determination. Not until we have a method we apply to evaluate projects, and determine whether or not they are more or less vulnerable to climate change,” White explained.

Another key system in our infrastructure—the electrical grid—is likely to be affected by climate change, though perhaps in ways that are less obvious.

California has been remarkably successful at cutting energy use over the last few years. But researchers on the Climate Action Team predict a coming “climate-change penalty” in energy use.

Hotter summers could mean more power to keep homes and offices cool. This would likely erase some of the gains in energy efficiency that California has made, according to the Climate Action Team.

But Jim Tracy, chief financial officer with SMUD, says that the impacts of climate change on energy demand are likely to be gradual.

In fact, the energy system is already affected by environmental changes. Wet and dry years, heat spells and cold snaps happen constantly, and make energy planning very tricky. Over the next 20 years or so, Tracy said, the effect of climate change on SMUD’s energy load “is going to be relatively small compared to normal variations in temperature and rainfall.”

Tracy said the bigger challenge will be trying to figure out how to power an economy using a lot less carbon.

As of this month, state law requires utilities to be using 33 percent renewable electricity by 2020. SMUD’s actually not going to find that all that difficult—the utility has already nearly enough energy contracts locked in to meet that goal, said Tracy.

Beyond that, the task gets harder. “By 2050, we’re assuming we may have to go down to 10 or 20 percent of our 1990 carbon emissions. What will that world look like?” Tracy asked.

Not only will SMUD be trying to generate more electricity from low-carbon renewable sources, it will likely also be trying to meet the increased demand created when more people start driving electric cars. “You’re going to have an entirely different electrical system and grid.”

This summer, Tracy and his staff will present the SMUD board of directors with some possible scenarios for the future. In addition to the utility’s present strategy of continuously adding new small renewable generation capacity, like wind and photovoltaic energy, SMUD may build some very big and ambitious new power projects.

One possible project is a massive “hydro-pumping” facility, which would build on SMUD’s existing networks of dams on the upper American River. Water would be pumped uphill during the night (off hours, when electricity is cheap), and stored in a reservoir. Then at peak times, when demand is high and power is more expensive, the water would be released downhill to power electric turbines.

Another option is major investment in a new network of more efficient natural-gas turbines. Yet another, more exotic possibility is a large solar thermal project, using mirrors to heat molten salt, which would in turn boil water to produce steam to turn turbines.

Each of these new “asset sets” would cost about $1 billion—about the same as building a new Rancho Seco nuclear power plant today, says Tracy. The future is expensive.

Community resilience and climate change

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Polar bears are probably the poster children of climate change globally. Closer to home, it’s the pika that stands in as the emblem of ecosystems stressed by global warming.

The pikas, which are rodents that are related to rabbits, love it cold. Historically, mountainsides at about 6,000 feet were pretty comfortable for these creatures. As temperatures have gotten warmer, many scientists believed the pikas have been compelled to move up to find cooler places to live.

Before long, the pika was being described as the “canary in the coal mine” of California climate change, likely preceding a long string of animal extinctions.

But then, last year, new research came out suggesting that the pika was actually doing pretty well in the Sierra, and may be better able to adapt than previously thought.

On the other hand, studies show that many of California’s native plant species will see their range shrink dramatically over the coming century. And research cited by the Climate Action Team predicts that the total area burned annually by wildfires in the Sierra will increase by more than 100 percent over the next century.

This is crucial, because if wildfires increase, it means more carbon released into the atmosphere, undercutting efforts to reduce emissions. It also means more bad air days in nearby air basins like Sacramento.

While pikas and polar bears are in serious trouble, we people may have some more time to adapt.

Dr. Rudolph, with the California Department of Public Health, talks about the need to build “community resilience.” In way, that means making communities healthier. But it also requires us to take climate change into account when we develop and redevelop our communities.

“Active transportation” should be promoted in local transportation and development plans, says Rudolph. Walking, biking and other alternatives to driving help make the community healthier, but active transportation also cuts down on “vehicle miles traveled” and emissions from cars.

Increasing “urban greening” can cut down on heat effects, while community gardens and fruit trees can increase community resilience by supplementing the availability of fresh local produce—which might otherwise become more expensive under future climate-change scenarios.

Erik de Kok also talks about community resilience when he describes his work. He and his colleagues will present the next phase of the city of Sacramento’s climate action plan later this summer.

It’s the continuation of a plan that was first drafted in 2005. Phase one of the climate action plan dealt mostly with internal city operations, laying out things the city can do to cut emissions from its own fleet vehicles and buildings. Phase two will broaden the plan’s scope to include ideas to cut carbon communitywide.

And there’s a growing awareness that we need to be making plans that include adaptation as well as reducing emissions. “A local climate action plan should acknowledge that those impacts are going to be felt,” said de Kok.

To take just one example, the updated climate plan may discuss issues whether the city should start recycling gray water and begin to capture and reuse rainfall. Another likely topic will be a proposed citywide “green building” ordinance to require lower energy use in new buildings.

But de Kok says the climate action plan is going to be focused on Sacramento saving money and becoming more efficient—regardless of whether the worst predictions of climate change come true.

The idea is to be prepared for whatever is coming, in the next 10 years or the next 100. “It doesn’t have to be a bleak future,” said de Kok. “It can be a better future if we can pull it together.”