The results of this week’s United Nations climate report warn that the effects of climate change are severe, and coming faster than expected. In California, warming temperatures are already worsening drought conditions, rain storms and wildfires.
To combat these impacts, it’ll take fast, aggressive action toward cutting greenhouse gas emissions. And researchers say cities are key to these efforts.
In recent years, more local governments than ever have taken on the work of climate adaptation – especially in California, where dozens of cities and counties have created plans to combat climate change.
The latest U.N. report, published on February 28, is led by a group called the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Its work is one of a series of assessments that the IPCC has published since 1990. Written by 270 researchers from 67 countries, the report warns of catastrophic, global consequences if climate change worsens unabated.
CapRadio spoke with Eric Chu, a UC Davis assistant professor who co-directs the university’s Climate Adaptation Research Center. He led research for the report that focuses on the role urban centers play in climate change and efforts to adapt.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
So much of your research focuses on how cities are reacting to climate change. Why do you think it’s important to take on this issue from that angle?
On the science side, thinking and looking at cities is really important because that's where most of our people live. If you think globally, more than half of our global population live in cities. And by 2050, two-thirds of us will live in cities.
So thinking about climate change, its effects on cities and how cities can be more resilient to climate impacts, is really key just because most of us live in some sort of urban neighborhood. Whatever risks and vulnerabilities that we're facing day to day, climate change risks magnifying that. Multiplying that.
And if we're talking about severe drought, heat, precipitation, all impacting those critical infrastructures, the cost and the losses that come from those impacts are really concentrated in urban areas as well.
Do you think more people are paying attention to this part of the conversation about climate change?
I think the short answer is yes. There has been growing scientific research emphasis, but also practitioner focus, on the role of cities, local governments, county governments as the site of climate change adaptation.
One [reason] is sort of an obvious, shall we say, policy gap or lag at the federal level for many years around climate change action. And I won't name names or anything here, but it's just that many city governments over the past two decades… have sort of stepped up and said, “You know what? Some of our state leaders, some of our federal leaders, are not moving as boldly or as quickly as we would like given the sorts of impacts that we're seeing in our own backyards. Sea level rise, extreme heat, extreme precipitation. We're going to take the lead here and do something about it.”
That work seems as necessary as ever after looking at the latest IPCC report. Can you tell me about some of your biggest takeaways?
One is sort of the fact that the science behind climate is, at this point, indisputable. The evidence is really, really overwhelming.
And the new part here is that the risks and impacts that we thought were going to happen several years ago are actually happening quicker and in more extreme levels than we had anticipated.
Another thing to pick up on is that climate change risks are showing themselves in compounding ways… affecting our transportation infrastructure, our energy infrastructure, our food and agricultural systems. [It’s] a threat multiplier, compounding the existing stressors in addition to the social inequalities that our societies are facing.
You mentioned that more cities have tried to get a handle on that in the last couple decades. It sounds like in this report, you studied the fruits of those efforts.
Yes, exactly. Now, we have a good database of these existing efforts. We can say something about those efforts in general. What are the big trends? What are the potential gaps in some of these efforts?
We have evidence of [local governments] trying to work and implement efforts around adapting to climate change. So that’s fantastic and great, that governments are making time and intention to plan for climate change risks.
However, the insight here is that many of those efforts tend to be uncoordinated, under-resourced, underfinanced and are facing limitations.
What do those limitations look like?
A lot of these limitations come from the amount of money that's required, the amount of political leadership that's out there, the amount of grassroots awareness of how climate change multiplies threats across different sectors.
But there's also another important point about limits. If we are not aggressive enough in controlling and reducing carbon emissions, our [opportunities] to do adaptation reduces.
Because you're talking about adapting to higher and higher average temperatures. You're talking about adapting to not five to 10 centimeters of sea level rise, but more like 15, 20, 30 – if we're talking about high-end scenarios. And for this part of California, we're talking about adapting to multiple degrees of extreme heat.
The report is pretty high-level. But as someone who lives in California, how do you think a person here might conceptualize these impacts?
While the IPCC report doesn't have anything specific on California, it has a chapter on North America which is broken down into a couple of regions.
It does talk about particular kinds of risks that Californians face day to day. We talk about heat, drought and its compounding effects on health. We have limits to how much we can adapt to extreme heat.
One example that comes out in the North American chapter that is really relevant for us is about outdoor workers. Agriculture is big in the state and we have a lot of outdoor workers that work outside in the middle of summer. Their health and well-being is a limit. They cannot be working outside when it's really, really hot.
And so that's what I'm talking about with adaptation limits. In order for outdoor workers to be able to work outside in safe environments, we need to limit warming. That's a really obvious example.
It sounds like there’s only so much we can adapt to as the climate warms up.
We have a lot of strategies and innovations to help us adapt over the next 20 years. But what happens if we don't do anything to reduce our emissions now and climate gets worse? Starting from 2040, 2050, our tools and our options … are reduced just because certain options are no longer technically or financially feasible.
In terms of human and financial capacity, a lot of that [depends on] policy decisions. But the science says that we have a gap. A lot of it is uncoordinated.
Now is the time for us to really think about really substantial, really big radical actions to reduce emissions and coordinate with others because we need global emissions to come down as well. California can be a leader in that.
CapRadio provides a trusted source of news because of you. As a nonprofit organization, donations from people like you sustain the journalism that allows us to discover stories that are important to our audience. If you believe in what we do and support our mission, please donate today.