Calif. takes a crack at climate’s effects — but first, a definition of success

Source: Debra Kahn, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, August 21, 2014

SACRAMENTO — California has been trying to mitigate climate change for more than a decade now but is just now getting down to business on dealing with its impacts.

At the state’s first-ever adaptation forum this week, experts ruminated on the meaning and utility of terms like “resiliency” and “readiness,” as well as “adaptation” itself, to refer to measures taken in response to the rising seas, fiercer storms, more-frequent wildfires and other phenomena expected to intensify as greenhouse gas levels rise.

California has a particularly robust set of circumstances to adapt to, including loss of snowpack, flooding from earlier-onset snowmelt, increased intensity and length of wildfires and insect-borne diseases, said the head of California’s Office of Planning and Research, Ken Alex.

“It can be depressing going to climate change events,” Alex conceded.

The state put out a report last month detailing the risks California faces in energy, agriculture, water, public health and other key sectors, and recommending ways regulators can address them through policies, planning and investments.

Figuring out the semantics and how to present the issue of adaptation is a necessary step to engaging governments and the private sector, conference participants said. Local governments are doing pilot projects on adaptation, like the Bay Area Rapid Transit’s effort to analyze the life-cycle costs of protecting its infrastructure against extreme weather.

Piecemeal approaches can be expensive

BART found that replacing a roof on a train control room so that it is less likely to flood would cost $1.64 million through 2050, compared to $1.7 million if the agency did piecemeal maintenance after each flood.

Agencies need to move beyond individual pilot projects to bigger missions that can be financed by third parties, experts said, but the business case is often complicated.

“We’re trapped in this no-man’s land between pilot and precedent,” said Shalini Vajjhala, CEO of Re:focus Partners, an advisory firm that is working with eight cities on infrastructure upgrades, including a seawall in Miami Beach, Fla., and stormwater capture in Hoboken, N.J.

Governments want to call their projects “pilots,” so they don’t look bad if they fail, she said, while private companies want to see proven results so they can feel comfortable investing.

Climate change researcher Susanne Moser is interested in how governments and people will define successful adaptation, where the very existence of the issue implies a certain degree of failure in staving off climate change.

Prepare for ‘a lot of suffering’

“If you’re thinking you’re going to save everything you currently love, you are down for a very depressing future,” she said. “That’s just the way it is. We are headed for 3, 4, 5, 6 degrees of warming, and there’s going to be a lot of suffering in that.”

Moser stressed the importance of mutual understanding among policymakers. She asked seven people what “readiness” meant to them, she said, and got seven different answers.

“I really object to using terms without knowing what they mean to the other folks,” she said. “From a communication point of view, you don’t want a word that means everything to everybody.”

Others were open to the ambiguity, arguing it could help cast a wider net among policymakers.

“To me, there’s a time for exactness and a time for not having exactness,” said Andy Gunther, executive coordinator for the Bay Area Ecosystems Climate Change Consortium, which raises awareness of the value of ecological functions. “Absolutely it means something completely different to people, but that’s what gets people talking, that’s what brings people to the table.”

But “adaptation” is too broad a term to engage people, Vajjhala said. “You need specificity and clarity,” she said. “Don’t bring folks in and talk about adaptation.”

Governments should host competitions with concrete goals in order to foster an environment permissive enough to encourage good solutions as well as failures, she said. And when agencies are ready to commit to a course of action, they should also consider a competitive solicitation process, she said.

“We think competition’s going to produce the best outcomes,” she said.