CITY HALL — Californians are encouraged to be prepared for flash disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis, but are they ready to adapt to something more permanent?
That was the question taken on by the State Senate Select Committee on the Environment, the Economy and Climate Change Thursday when it met at City Hall to discuss the impacts of climate change on Southern California.
The answer, as presented by an array of scientists and policymakers, was a resounding “not yet.”
The challenges facing the global population are staggering, Dr. Tony Haymet, director of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego, told lawmakers.
With the seven billionth person due in the near future, humans are putting pressure on global resources more than ever in the history of civilization, and the impact on the natural world is devastating.
“I’m going to tell you the good news and the bad news,” Haymet said. “The good news isn’t going to take very long.”
On the positive side, humanity has the ability to use mountains of collected data to make decent predictions of how the world’s climate will change, and California still has the wealth to put behind the infrastructure changes that will be needed to cope with it, Haymet said.
It was all downhill from there.
As greenhouse gases, recognized by many scientists as an agent in climate change, build in the atmosphere, Mediterranean climates like California’s will begin to heat up and become more dry, Haymet said.
The snowpack, where much of the state’s water is naturally stored, will melt earlier, which some studies suggest lead to greater incidence and severity of wildfires.
Matthew Heberger, a senior research associate with the Pacific Institute in Oakland, Calif., described the dangers of rising water levels both in terms of threatened homes and infrastructure and the price tag it will take to protect them — $14 billion per 1,000 miles of built out coastline.
When asked by State Sen. Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles) where that kind of money could come from, Heberger was direct.
“I don’t think we can or should protect it,” Heberger said.
And, in the face of such dire predictions, there is nothing that could be done even on a global scale to stop it.
According to Haymet, even if every person, power plant and car stopped polluting tomorrow, the amount of built up greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and ocean would take thousands of years to dissipate.
That fact steered the dialogue away from quick fixes and toward putting a stop to polluting practices and how Californians and the rest of the world could adapt to their new reality.
Climate change has arrived, said Julia Levin, deputy secretary for Climate Change and Energy at the California Natural Resources Agency, and now it’s a matter of making sure California’s population can cope.
“It is here and now,” she said. “It’s hard for any rational, science-based person to deny.”
Still, Levin sounded the most positive note of the two hours of presentations, saying that many of the things that Californians will need to do to cope with climate change are efficiency boosting policies that will create jobs and spur on the lagging economy.
The emphasis will lie on conservation, new technologies and an “efficiency first” motto to make sure scarce resources go the distance for the whole state.
“If we make smart, strategic investments, we will be a stronger state,” Levin said.
California’s government and state agencies are finally past the planning stages on an approach to climate change and are working on outreach and education, Levin told lawmakers.
The change of focus represents a big shift for many Californians who, just a decade ago, were skeptics, said State Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Santa Monica).
“In 2001, 2002, we were still having the conversation if there was climate change or not,” Pavley said.
Assemblywoman Betsy Butler (D-Marina del Rey), who was also invited to the panel, asked what there was to do about the remaining residents who think climate change is a myth.
“I thought all of those people lived in Texas?” Levin responded.