Op-Ed: There’s one big climate fight that California is losing

A house partially buried in boulders and mud
After a fire, part of Montecito, Calif., was especially vulnerable to a flood-induced cascade of boulders and debris in 2018.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

It has been demoralizing to witness in Santa Cruz, my hometown, the destructive power of waves and water on our beaches, piers, roads, homes, businesses, rivers and levees. But we knew this was coming, and we’re overdue to adapt to the new realities of our climate.

In 2015, global leaders resolved to cut carbon emissions in an effort to keep the planet from heating more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. California has played a significant role in that campaign, with world-leading policies and innovations on technologies such as solar power and electric vehicles and in the development of carbon markets, which reduce emissions through caps and tradeable credits. All of this has been aimed at averting a future climate challenge. That challenge is here now.

Mitigation must continue, but adaptation has become urgent as well. California should step up once again.


It’s not enough to invest just in strategies to protect future people, property and nature. The risk of climate change to people here and now has become quite clear. It’s clear in California’s historic drought, epic fires and the recent deluge. It’s clear nationally in the supersizing of hurricanes such as Sandy, Dorian, Michael and Ian. It is also clear in the increasing costs of storms. In 2017, Harvey, Irma and Maria caused an unprecedented $300 billion in damages.

Recovering from climate-fueled disasters will take an ever-greater bite out of national and local budgets. The United Nations lauds countries’ mitigation commitments, but finds an ever-widening “adaptation gap” between what is spent, around $29 billion annually, and what is needed, around $71 billion a year now and $340 billion in 2030. For many developing countries, particularly island nations, falling behind on adaptation is an existential crisis.

Californians have done a lot to contribute to this crisis. Among U.S. states, we rank second only to Texas in total carbon dioxide emissions.

So we should help solve this adaptation crisis — as innovators and leaders.

First, that means experimenting with more solutions to adapt to climate change across the state, innovations that we can export elsewhere. This responsibility falls not only to the state government but also to cities, counties, nonprofits, businesses and academia. Many states and countries are already doing more than California has, especially when it comes to nature-based solutions such as the restoration of wetlands and reefs. The U.S. government is ahead as well. For example, the Department of Defense is working on oyster and coral reef restoration to help defend military bases against erosion and flooding.

California can’t afford to lag behind in the race to adapt to existing climate dangers. Catastrophic collapses along our open coasts this month are a reminder that we must greatly expand efforts to reduce risks on our coastlines. For example, we should be working with our rocky reefs to reduce wave energy, erosion and flooding. Enhancing the height and roughness of rocky habitats in shallow nearshore waters could provide risk reduction and conservation benefits and reduce investments in artificial armoring, which has no habitat value. Innovations here could be replicated along rocky coasts worldwide.

Second, California should lead in the development of an adaptation marketplace. California helped build carbon markets, and we need the same leadership for an adaptation marketplace that gives benefits and credits for reducing present climate risks to people, property and nature.


One key step will be to measure risk and the benefits of adaptation solutions, and then we must price them. We already know how to price risk; that’s the basis for the insurance industry. With a little prodding, the risk industry could do more to measure adaptation benefits.

We also need incentives or government requirements to advance adaptation projects. Such incentives are already emerging from the private sector. Companies are increasingly being pushed by investors to report on the risks of climate change to their balance sheets, which has led to voluntary compliance with reporting developed by the business-led Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures.

Starting this year, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is requiring companies to disclose financial impacts of climate-related risks. As businesses increasingly report on risks, they will have more incentives to look for actions to reduce exposure and harm.

Governments already have plenty of incentives given the costs of recovery after disasters. The Federal Emergency Management Agency estimates that funding spent ahead of time to reduce hazards provides a 6-to-1 return on investment.

It makes sense for businesses and governments to get out in front with voluntary adaptation commitments. At the U.N. climate conference in Egypt in November, one of the few points of agreement was that developed nations will increasingly have to take responsibility for the losses and damages that climate change is already driving in developing nations.

California is likely to soon become the world’s fourth-largest economy, and we reap many benefits from that. Californians have also been willing to take ownership of problems we have helped create. We must continue to lead on cutting carbon emissions to protect the future, and we must develop the same leadership on climate adaptation — because Californians and vulnerable nations need those protections now.


Michael W. Beck is a professor and the director of the Center for Coastal Climate Resilience at UC Santa Cruz.