The impacts of Hurricane Sandy brought national attention to the potential devastation of coastal areas from a storm surge event, and it seems our climate is changing faster than anyone could have imagined. A newly released NOAA report says that scientists have very high confidence (greater than 90% chance) that global mean sea level will rise at least 8 inches and up to 6.6 feet by 2100. Although debates ensued about whether Hurricane Sandy was directly related to climate change, New York City Mayor Bloomberg afterwards said: “…while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of [climate change], the risk that it might be — given this week’s devastation — should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.” Truer words could not be spoken.
What are some impacts of climate change we can expect locally? Farmers will face dwindling water supplies and seawater intrusion, fishers will face the decline of essential coastal ecosystems that support fisheries such as wetlands and kelp forests, dramatic impacts from sea level rise will occur (with approximately a 3 feet+ rise in sea level predicted for the Central Coast area by around 2100 according to the best available science), and our marine environment will become increasingly acidified. Add to this an increase in fires and drought, coastal erosion, heat waves, damage from storms and storm surges during high tide events, and increased flooding. Already, the Santa Barbara Cemetery is moving graves due to coastal erosion. We have lost bluff frontage at Shoreline Park, and will continue to lose ground there. Many homes will be threatened by coastal erosion. The SB Airport, built on fill, has historically experienced major flooding in 1969 and 1995, even prior to the major onset of sea level rise. Our wastewater treatment plants, railroads and highways will be affected by sea level rise and flooding.
Our communities can proactively address dangers we will likely face as sea level rises, structures and beaches are lost, flooding becomes common, species become increasingly threatened and disappear, and a range of other threats become clearer and more pronounced. Excitingly, the Ocean Protection Council has just authorized disbursement of up to $2,500,000 to fund grants in California to create vulnerability assessments, data collection and updates to Local Coastal Programs to help local governments plan for adaptation to sea level rise and associated climate change impacts.
How can we move towards the next needed steps? We can ask our local governments to help prepare us by updating our General Plan and Local Coastal Program with “adaptation” measures to handle public safety threats and how land uses might be impacted. These can include things such as planning for retreat (moving land uses away from areas prone to flooding or erosion), and including policies that don’t allow for artificial revetments that will ultimately reduce beaches in our area. We need to cultivate political will and leadership that can prepare us for the coming changes scientists are confident will occur. We need to plan for a new future.
This is not just an issue of science. It will take a renewed effort at all levels to plan for a different future. At the Environmental Defense Center, we are consistently applying state and federal law to ensure that offshore and onshore developments do not emit harmful greenhouse gas pollution, working to support appropriately sited renewable energy production and energy efficiency, and partnering with local governments, agencies, other community organizations and the public to advance local climate change impact research, planning, and mitigation. And on a personal level, we all need to commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by thinking about our level of energy consumption, and considering how we might plan for the predicted impacts of climate change.
As the famous saying goes: if not us, who, if not now, when? Together, our community can address this critical issue.
Christina McGinnis of the Environmental Defense Center is the OPEN Program Director