Climate change is happening—how prepared is Santa Cruz to deal with the impacts?
When Chuck Tremper wrote his book “As the Oceans Rise: Meeting the Challenges of Global Warming” in 2008, he had hopes that the tome would soon be outdated.
But, three years later, seated on the sunny deck of Ecology Action’s new headquarters (Tremper is the nonprofit’s vice president of general services), he laments that his earlier vision proved too optimistic. “The remarkable and sad thing about the book,” he says, “is that almost nothing has changed—I could write that book today and it wouldn’t be very different.”
We may not be a sustainable “Civilization 2.0” quite yet, as the book anticipated, but Tremper admits that the Santa Cruz area has made some strides. Among them was the 2007 Climate Action Compact, a commitment to leadership on climate change signed by the city and county of Santa Cruz and UC Santa Cruz, and its subsequent effects.
The Compact’s original signatories and a slew of new partners from well beyond county lines met on Friday, June 3 for the first Monterey Bay Regional Climate Action Summit. The group patted themselves on the back for what they’ve done well since 2007—like achieving unprecedented regional collaboration and working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which are down to pre-1996 levels in the City of Santa Cruz—and took notes on areas where they’ve failed, such as by not bringing the agriculture community to the table.
The group also agreed to dedicate more energy toward “adaptation” planning—a concept that was largely absent from the 2007 dialogue. Tremper, who participated in the Summit along with many other Ecology Action representatives, says this was because, “[reducing emissions] was what really captured people’s attention and motivated the first Compact.” Now that local governments have set forth reduction goals, they’re ready to look beyond preventative measures.
“Now there is increased recognition of the distinctive, if not unique, vulnerability of Santa Cruz to the effects of climate change and recognition that we need to prepare for those changes,” says Tremper. ˛
Adaptation recognizes that climate change is already happening, and will continue to happen—it’s just a matter of how severely, and how rapidly. It maintains that doing everything we can to lessen our environmental impact is essential, but that we will also have to prepare ourselves to deal with changes that are coming regardless. What these changes will look like, and how drastic they will be, remains to be seen. Over the next century, California’s sea levels could rise by four to five feet, according to the National Academy of Sciences. And, according to the website Caladapt.org, a project of the California Energy Commission, Santa Cruz will see a jump in average June temperatures from 62 degrees in June 2010 to 68 degrees in June 2090 in a “high emissions scenario” (a “low emission scenario” would still mean a jump to 64 or 65 degrees).
“The projections are that we are already committed to at least another degree or two of warming,” explains Tremper. “And while that may not seem like much—the difference between an 80 degree summer day and an 82 degree day—and it’s barely noticeable to us, other species are much more susceptible to the changes.”
He points to the emblem of Santa Cruz’s natural beauty: the redwood tree. “Ask yourself why they are here and not elsewhere,” he says. “It’s because we have the very specific conditions that redwoods need to thrive and meet their immense heights. Our redwoods are at great risk.”
He goes on to say that a worst-case scenario would be a combination of rapid sea level rise and a drying of the local environment. “It’s our wonderful fog that allow many species to live here, some of which live nowhere else,” he says. “There is certainly the probability that we will dry out and lose much of what makes Santa Cruz such a special place.”
Adaptation isn’t a brand new concept, but it is still largely undefined. Nationwide, places like New York and Miami are leading the pack in terms of taking action. In California, the 2009 Climate Change Adaptation Strategy report made some headway on this front, and AB 752, the sea level action plan bill currently making its way through the legislature, would require local trustees of public lands to enact plans for coping with sea level changes if passed.
At the local level, County Supervisor Mark Stone says that the county’s Commission on the Environment is currently studying the adaptation issue, but that it’s still very much so in the beginning stages—not unlike the greenhouse gas emissions discussion was a few years ago.
“It’s taken us a long time to start to see some real solutions on the mitigation side, and we’ve got some small projects that are putting us in the right direction–carbon inventories, Zip Cars, being more responsible about energy usage,” Stone says. “People are getting their heads around that.” But he expects the next area of focus—adapting to looming changes—to be far more challenging. “How, now, do local jurisdictions adapt to the fact that the climate is changing—sea level rise, small changes in the micro climates, if storms get more violent, or air gets warmer, or there is less rain or more rain?”
He sees it as a bigger obstacle because of the elusive nature of how climate change will actually manifest (“Some of that data does exist, but it’s not exactly broken up to be that useful for local jurisdictions,” he says), as well as potential difficulty in getting constituents on board with the adaptation solutions. “I’m concerned about the adaptation side because it’s politically and functionally harder to implement,” he says. “My fear is that, the more it looks like the state making mandates and local jurisdictions having to meet those standards, it becomes top down. And I think that’s a big mistake. I want to make sure the voices of my constituents are heard.” For now, he wants the county to concentrate on “getting our heads together, getting the data, and having those conversations.”
City of Santa Cruz Vice Mayor Don Lane says that the city “is quite far along” in crafting an adaptation plan. “We have completed a vulnerability study to identify specific locations and infrastructure that are at higher risk as a result of sea level rise and changes in local climate [and] rainfall,” Lane tells GT. “With [that information], all the city departments are working together to develop a city adaptation strategy.” The high-risk locations include low-lying coastal areas, coastal bluffs, and the low-lying parts of downtown and along the San Lorenzo River. “Perhaps less obvious would be the open space areas that could become even more vulnerable to wildfire if climate change led to lower rainfall,” Lane adds. To gauge what changes to plan for, city leaders are looking at research from The Pacific Institute, the work of the Bay Area Conservation District, and to local experts like Gary Griggs, director of the Institute of Marine Sciences and Long Marine Laboratory at UCSC.
Another step Santa Cruz has taken came in form of the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County’s recently released 25 Year Conservation Blueprint. “Climate change has become an overarching filter influencing how conservation organizations, foundations and public agency funders view conservation strategies and ultimately, projects,” explains Executive Director Terry Corwin, adding that they took future climate changes into consideration when mapping out the next quarter century of conservation efforts.
“There is a great deal of uncertainty as to specific temperatures and impacts on specific species,” she adds. “We will need to continually refine our conservation strategies as the science evolves. We do know that reducing stressors on species from such things as invasive species will enhance their ability to adapt to climate change.” Other efforts include creating wildlife corridors that allow species to migrate as their habitat climates change.
The Conservation Blueprint predicts increased pressure on water resources, as the seawater level rises and increases seawater intrusion into local aquifers. And, as for our beloved redwoods, Corwin says that, “over time, as the climate changes, we would expect that our southernmost redwoods would shift to brush.” Stressing the importance of conserving these forest giants, Tremper says that Santa Cruz’s biggest contribution to carbon reduction will not be from reducing emissions, but rather from preserving its numerous trees.
“It is incumbent upon us, if we want to preserve the quality of life we’ve enjoyed here in the Santa Cruz area, to start thinking about how to adapt to predictable changes in our local climate,” he says. “The sooner we start realizing that tomorrow’s environment will be different than today’s and start incorporating that in planning decisions, the better off we’ll be.”