Monday, November 23, 2015

Thankful for that Thing with Feathers (Thoughts on the NorCal Climate Mobilization)

I thought about writing this post about all the good new climate change reports that have recently come out. The top two in my mind:
  • "The Baylands and Climate Change: What We Can Do" (AKA the Baylands Ecosystem Habitat Goals Science Update 2015), a massive multi-multi-party collaboration three years in the making, released on October 19th, 2015, with the main takeaway that we have time to do what needs to be done to preserve important marshland for wildlife habitat and human community protection if we act now; and,
  • "States at Risk," a co-production of ICF International and the illustrious and media-savvy Climate Central, released on Nov. 18th, 2015, giving scores to U.S. states for their climate change readiness, with the main takeaway being that almost no state is preparing anywhere near adequately for extreme heat events.
...Both are highly promising in their readability and practicality of approach. I could go on.

But instead I'd like to write about a moment that happened on Saturday morning as I entered the crowd at the Nov. 21st NorCal Climate Mobiliation, a march starting by Lake Merritt and ending in a rally at city hall in Oakland, California. This was the first of many marches organized by around the country to bring attention to the 10 days of climate negotiations in Paris called COP21 (the 21st meeting of the "Conference of the Parties" to international negotiations on limiting climate change), starting Nov. 30th, 2015.

This, above, is Samba Funk, a carnaval drum/dance corps, entering the street at the start of the march. It's not a great photo, but if you look you can see the leader-- King Theo (Theo Aytchan Williams)-- pointing at someone behind me to my right with his red-ball-tipped drumstick. (Read more about this group at their under-construction website, hear them here). 

As I stood there, I was struck all at once with the energy of their drumming and the sight of the banner-flags flying, and the "Carbon Tax Me" stickers on everyone around me-- and a lump formed in my throat and a tear came to my eye. It felt like a sob rising in me. I didn't recognize it at first. Yes, that was the "thing with feathers," as Emily Dickinson says.

No number of scientists and media experts sitting in front of their laptops in florescent-lit offices will save us if there isn't also HOPE. Hope, expressed in music, collective dancing in the streets, prayer, high-flying banners that say "Water is Life," and the inclusion and support of movements tangential to the climate change awareness movement-- such as support for refugees:

And support for all the ways and reasons to move away from a fossil-fuel economy:

We need all hands on deck, and that moment, being washed in drumbeats, was the first time I thought-- REALLY THOUGHT-- yes, we might be able to get all hands on deck. With the strength of a multi-level/media/cultural/lingual, intersectional movement we might get there.

At least one friend who helped organize the event corroborated my thoughts, that this was a much stronger showing with better representation of different kinds of activists than previous climate marches. She said, "it's catching on." 

Especially after the recent series of catastrophic strikes by the Islamic State, this Thanksgiving I am thankful for this past weekend's march and the profound moment of hope it gave me. It will carry me.

I hope my friends and colleagues who are traveling to COP21 in Paris go safely and hold on to their own sense of hope, and dance in the street every chance they get, despite the government's ban on the Nov. 29th Global Climate March.

Some coverage of the Nov. 21st NorCal Climate Mobilization march and rally in Oakland:
Note that estimates of Saturday's attendance varied from this "hundreds" to "thousands" to a specific number I saw on a Tweet somewhere-- 2,450?-- to 5,000 (that from an organizer who said their goal was 10,000). The Contra Costa Times says over 100 groups were represented.

Lastly, a favorite sign from the march:

...a basic tenet of my life. (Photo credit: Green Bean.) With flowers and hearts, I also give thanks to you my readers. Hope you have a happy and peaceful Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Government Folly in the Face of Climate Change (the re-post)

The following  was published March 19, 2015, on the WWF ClimatePrep blog ( -- which now appears to have gone defunct. Just in case it's gone for good, I'm going to re-post my ClimatePrep articles here. You can still see the original on

I followed this piece for WWF with  items here in March and April about some new instances of  folly -- governments constraining their own climate/environmental scientists in Florida and Wisconsin.

The great historian Barbara Tuchman took a hard look at governmental policy missteps in her 1984 book The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam. As someone studying modern climate change policy, it is hard not to draw parallels to her definition of folly: The pursuit of policy contrary to the self-interest of the constituency or state involved.

She uses these criteria to zero in on the most serious instances of government folly:

  1. The policy must have been perceived as counter-productive in its own time, not just in hindsight.
  2. A feasible alternative course of action must have been available.
  3. The policy in question should be that of a group, not an individual ruler, and persist beyond any one political lifetime (“collective government” folly is the more significant problem).

How is hiding climate change science “folly”?

Many governments are acknowledging climate change, even creating new positions to work on the problem. Governments taking slow and measured steps—perhaps too slow and measured—can be viewed as insufficient action, but it is not folly; governments ordering their scientists to study climate change and then burying the results? I call that a classic example of Tuchmanesque folly, and the U.S. federal government and three U.S. states— Nebraska, South Carolina, and North Carolina—have all done it. The press and science-friendly politicians have widely called out the counter-productivity of governments burying climate science. Incorporating the science into planning is (to some degree or another) feasible, since other governments are doing it. The subterfuge is not being done by one person, but government decision-making bodies. Governments burying their own climate science is the definition of folly.

When did the U.S. government bury climate science that it itself ordered?

The details about three states’ climate follies were recently published by the Business Insider’s science desk (read: These States Have Reportedly Tried to Hide Scary Climate Data from the Public [Oct. 30, 2014] and This Is the Climate Report South Carolina Spent Years Hiding [Dec. 29, 2014]). The author points out that “good climate reports were ultimately made public in the above three states, even if the reports are not currently being utilized to their full potential.” While that is true, North Carolina’s infamous official denial of sea level rise data will hamper planning for at least another year.

North Carolina’s House Bill 819, passed in June 2012, prevents the state from basing coastal policy on anything but historical data, ignoring any emerging climate change science through 2016. The governor failed to veto the bill, and it became law in August 2012. Almost simultaneously, in June 2012, a scientific article by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) placed North Carolina’s coast within a 600-mile “hotspot” for sea level rise. North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue, a Democrat, had the input of the legislature and the USGS put in front of her at the same time, and she let the political current pull state policy away from where science was pointing. Meanwhile, in 2013 she was replaced by a Republican, Pat McCrory, who installed an oil developer as head of the state’s Coastal Resources Commission and believes in responding to climate change by “cleaning up the environment in a cost-effective way.” Besides this, coastal Carolinians might also worry about the lagging constraints on public safety planning caused by the May 2014 vote by the North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission to ignore sea level rise impacts projected too far out. Adaptation to sea level rise will—by collective government vote—only prepare for the next 30 years of impacts.

What about the U.S. federal government? Didn’t official climate science denial get voted out in 2008?

There are many ways government can delay or bury the release of inconvenient scientific findings. Many are familiar with the second Bush administration’s direct censorship of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on the topic of climate change. The U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) was also censored, leading to its senior official Rick Piltz turning whistleblower in 2005. He founded and directed the Government Accountability Project’s Climate Science Watch initiative from 2005 until his death in October 2014 (read his obituary from the NYT). In March 2013 Mr. Piltz told students during a speaking tour that:
[T]he chief of staff for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, a former energy lobbyist, would hand-edit reports, deleting references to the ecological impact of climate change and adding passages that exaggerated the uncertainty of climate-related findings.
In January 2009, Barack Obama promised in his inaugural speech, “We’ll restore science to its rightful place,” and two months later issued a memorandum to agency heads to improve scientific integrity. Under his administration, the direct White House interference with the EPA and USGCRP may have stopped, but Congress has found ways to delay action on EPA findings about dangerous chemicals, and in the same manner may be playing shell games to delay action on rational, climate change science-based adaptation planning.

Case in point: according to a Center for Public Integrity 2014 report, the EPA has been prepared since 2008 to assert that arsenic is 17 times more potent as a carcinogen than it now reports. However, its arsenic report was delayed procedurally at the Office of Management and Budget for two years. Then, in 2011, Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho, with arsenic-laden pesticide companies among his campaign donors, ordered the EPA to have its findings reviewed by the National Academy of Sciences within a House Appropriations Committee report. In 2015 the review is still ongoing, and nothing has changed in federal regulations regarding arsenic in drinking water.

Eventually the “safe” levels of arsenic may be adjusted and avoidable cases of cancer duly avoided. But evidence is mounting that there is no way to be adequately conservative in our emissions of greenhouse gases or adequately liberal in preparing for climate change hazards. According to a Princeton study published in 2013, even if we halted all greenhouse gas emissions today climate change would proceed unabated for centuries—not decades, as previously thought— because of the ocean’s decreasing ability to absorb heat. And this is not accounting for intersecting hazards and feedback loops causing exponential worsening of conditions, difficult to project with today’s climate models.

The EPA’s arsenic case is awful, but the burial of scientific findings about climate change is potentially catastrophic.

Are there any cases of the U.S. government actually adapting to climate change, despite political pressure to delay?

The U.S. Navy has been at the forefront of actually adapting to climate change since before Obama’s restoration of “science to its rightful place.” A Feb. 12, 2015, article by Jeff Goodell in Rolling Stone describes how the military has long seen the security threat represented by climate change and taken measures—as long ago as 2003, when the report “An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security” (by Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall, downloadable here) was published by the Pentagon under Donald Rumsfeld, then President George W. Bush’s defense secretary. The home of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet, Norfolk, VA, is within the sea level rise “hotspot” called out by the USGS in 2012 (running from Cape Hatteras, NC to north of Boston, MA). So the Navy has been busy planning for climate change, despite occasional Obama-era interference from Congressional climate denialists. The Navy started with replacing critical piers that were becoming submerged in the late 1990’s. Goodell asks the officer in charge of mid-Atlantic Navy facilities, Capt. J. Pat Rios, about the rationale for replacing them:
“We didn’t raise the piers because of climate change” […]. He doesn’t quite wink, but almost.
“Then why did you raise them?” I ask.
“Because we needed new piers. And as long as we were building them, it didn’t cost much more to build them higher.”
Thus, the Navy’s climate change adaption planners find their ways to work around a government bent on folly.

Photo: Capitol Building, Washington, D.C. © U.S. Government

Friday, October 9, 2015

Red-Letter Day for California Adaptation Planning: SB 379 is Law (and Some Other Good Legislation, Too)

Yesterday (Oct. 8, 2015) California's Governor Jerry Brown signed into law Senate Bill 379, requiring cities and counties to include planning for climate change impacts in their general plans starting in 2017.
SB 379 was proposed by Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson of the 19th Senate District (including all of Santa Barbara County and western Ventura County).

The title of the bill reads like a strange little haiku:
Land use: general plan: 
safety element.
Last night I attended a sea level rise planning discussion (part of the Here. Now. Us. project) in Marin County, a county where you could say the default political persuasion was left of "Hippie," and found myself sitting next to not one but TWO climate change denialists. These people spent every minute of airtime they were allowed expressing concern that people are concerned about climate change (because of its illegitimate science, it is too expensive, we are already doing enough to respond to flooding, etc.). So I think this bill takes a bold stride forward. It explicitly uses the words "climate change" and "climate adaptation" -- phrases that provoked loud scoffs from the vocal duo I met last night. Let me offer the strangely titled-with-a-haiku SB 379 my own haiku in thanks:
With a clear task list
you ask us for foresight so
our children are safer.
The Governor also signed two other bills by the same senator yesterday, both concerning oil spill protections: SB 295 Pipeline safety: inspections  and SB 414 Oil spill response.

These other two good bills were also signed over the last two days, upping the ante on the state's GHG reduction goals and inaugurating representation of vulnerable populations on the board that oversees the state's main GHG reduction measures:
So now in the article of California's Health and Safety Code that deals with the make-up of the Air Resources Board, Section 39510 (e) reads:
"The Senate Committee on Rules and the Speaker of the Assembly shall each appoint one member to the state board who shall be a person who works directly with communities in the state that are most significantly burdened by, and vulnerable to, high levels of pollution, including, but not limited to, communities with diverse racial and ethnic populations and communities with low-income populations."
That is indeed another step in the right direction. Part of my 2009 Master's thesis was devoted to the "lessons learned" from the failed Environmental Justice Advisory Committee (EJAC) mandated by AB 32, the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006. That committee's participation in the initial roll-out of AB 32 resulted (as of 2009) in a lot of anger on both the EJAC and the ARB. A lot of the roll-out process was already determined by the time the EJAC was formed, setting the committee up for failure. Having actual front-line community representation on the ARB should improve trust, and hopefully the health outcomes of our state's most vulnerable populations.

Other legislation of note signed this week:
Also noteworthy in state adaptation news-- today the California Natural Resources Agency released the 199-page draft document "Safeguarding California: Implementation Action Plans" for which it is holding public comment sessions in Oakland, Sacramento, and Los Angeles.

Mon. Oct. 12: Bay Area Listening Session on Climate Adaptation
6-8 PM, MetroCenter Auditorium, 101 Eighth Street, Oakland (right above the Lake Merritt BART Station). 

Mon. Oct. 26: Sacramento Public Workshop on Safeguarding California Implementation Plans
10 AM- 12 PM, Rosenfeld Hearing Room, California Energy Commission, 1516 9th Street, Sacramento, CA 95814

Tues. Oct. 27: Los Angeles Public Workshop on Safeguarding California Implementation Plans
1:30 - 3:30 PM, Carmel Room, Junipero Serra Building, 320 W. 4th Street,, Los Angeles, CA 90013

Monday, October 5, 2015

In the Heat of the Moment

The following  was published Dec. 2, 2014, on the WWF ClimatePrep blog ( -- which now appears to have gone defunct. Just in case it's gone for good, I'm going to re-post my ClimatePrep articles here. You can still see the original on

Many of us are versed in the primary hazards of climate change – from the cost of disasters in lives and resources to the disappearance of low-lying island nations. Something we hear about less often is the direct influence of climate on human behavior, and the implications for the future under climate change.

Climate change and civil conflict

Academics have only been putting the climate change-conflict link to close examination for about five years. Solomon Hsiang (UC Berkeley), Marshall Burke (Stanford), and Edward (Ted) Miguel (UC Berkeley) are pioneers in this field. Last year they unveiled the results of an analysis of 60 studies using 45 data sets from all regions of the world showing a correlation between heat, rain, and conflict. Last month they released a refinement of this study. In their working paper “Climate and Conflict” (summary here) they show significant increases in both interpersonal and intergroup conflicts (e.g., fist fights and wars) with greater heat and more extreme rainfall.

Some of the background studies cited by these researchers include a 2011 study that shows major league baseball pitchers are more likely to retaliate for their teammates being hit by the rival pitcher when it’s hotter. In their talk “Quantifying the Impact of Climate on Human Conflict” at UC Berkeley in April 2013, Miguel and Burke described fascinating experimental psychology studies showing that police are more likely to shoot at a simulated intruder in higher temperature rooms, and people are faster to lean on their horns behind a car stopped at a green light on hotter days.

Climate change and crime

In February of this year a journal article by Matthew Ranson described a correlation between crime and weather and speculated on the potential impact of climate change on crime. The author looked at 2,997 U.S. counties’ monthly crime and weather data over 30 years. He looked at FBI statistics for murder, manslaughter, rape, aggravated and simple assault, robbery, burglary, larceny, and vehicle theft. He states bluntly, “[a]cross a variety of offenses, higher temperatures cause more crime.” His rich data set appears to have established a strong link between heat and violent crime. Specifically, he shows a linear relationship between heat and violent crime and a nonlinear relationship with non-violent crime (property crime, e.g., burglary): he doesn’t see heat affecting property crime in any consistent way. Heat specifically exacerbates violence.

Measuring vulnerability to climate-related violence

Some analysts are trying to map out the world’s general vulnerability to climate-related violence. On Oct. 29, 2014, the 2015 “Climate Change and Environmental Risk Atlas” was released, naming 32 “extreme risk” countries where climate change might increase violence. Bangladesh was named most at risk. The author of the report, UK-based Maplecroft Global Risk Analytics, has produced this atlas annually since 2008. In 2011, its report included results of an analysis of 42 factors using the Climate Change Vulnerability Index (CCVI), intended to help corporations and governments identify vulnerabilities in their operations, supply chains, and investments. (Note: it is not to be confused with the tool of the same name launched by the Nature Conservancy in 2009 to evaluate wild species’ vulnerability.) Maplecroft’s tool incorporates social, economic, and environmental factors to assess vulnerability both at a national level and down to a resolution of 22km², looking 30 years out (as described in the 2014 Risk Atlas).

Over recent years other indices of vulnerability have been created (check out an annotated list of indices of climate change vulnerability from Other institutions have taken other approaches to identifying climate-driven violence risks.

The Pentagon and the Institute of Peace agree: climate change is bad for peace

As reported by James West in Mother Jones, the U.S. Department of Defense (in its 20-page Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap released Oct. 13, 2014) and the U.S. Institute of Peace (in a 2011 report on Nigeria) are both worrying about weak governments, already fostering terrorism, being further weakened by impacts from climate change. While lacking adaptation policy recommendations, both institutions clearly and concisely describe the “threat-multiplier” facet of climate change.

What can we do?

People developing climate impact response plans in the security, defense, and risk management fields should take into account the results of recent studies linking climate change and conflict. Extreme climate events can be tracked and direct and immediate security fallout projected. Also, the still under-researched indirect and long-term impacts of climate on conflict—such as a heat wave destroying a farming community’s livelihood, driving the community’s young men to migrate, potentially inflaming territorial and sectarian violence— can also be projected and anticipated by security and defense forces.

A very readable 2007 journal article by Barnett and Adger discusses the underlying causes of conflict and how climate change could drive conflict. They propose a basic 3-prong research regime of identifying livelihoods vulnerable to climate hazards, examining the consequences of damage to these livelihoods, and understanding the role of institutions in managing climate hazards so that they do not become security problems (e.g., by protecting livelihoods).

Who else should pay attention to climate’s link to conflict?

Those working on economic, social and international development policy, human rights organizations, and those working in the capacity of a negotiator should anticipate the impact of extreme heat and other climate stressors on their constituents, both individuals and communities. People working in the field of restorative justice and other disciplines focused on reducing violence and criminalization of historically disadvantaged communities should also track the effect of climate stressors on their project outcomes, and adapt programs accordingly. Those working for non-violent solutions within urban conflict zones might ramp up their mediation efforts in particularly hot summers.

You also can watch your own behavior in response to climate-induced stress. On the next hot day you might take a second to breathe before honking at a car stopped at a green light… you might just be behind an experimental psychologist with a stopwatch.

Feature photo by Kim Seng © Creative Commons

Monday, September 28, 2015

Some Good News from the Southern Ocean, the Arctic, and Republican Pollsters

Since most news about climate change falls in the two categories of "confirming our worst fears" and "creating new, more depressing fears" I thought I'd share a few tidbits of recent good news.
The downside mentioned by one of the study's lead scientists, Nicolas Gruber - "One has to recognise that despite this remarkable increase in the Southern Ocean carbon sink, emissions have gone up even more."
The downside of this good news is that it describes the attitudes of potential voters, not Republican elected officials or candidates for the top office of the country. Potential voters are not the same as political party influencers, unfortunately. The more extreme voices are appearing to win the day in terms of how the elected/ would-be elected leadership is positioning itself on climate change.
I don't see any downside here!

This Sept. 28, 2015, BBC article has some helpful maps illustrating the location of the Shell test drilling site with respect to the ice extent and international boundaries.

The Arctic will never be safe from the threat of oil drilling as long as we use oil in our energy stream, but for "the foreseeable future" it is safe from Royal Dutch Shell.

Meanwhile, the Russian oil production project by Gazprom Neft is still active in the Pechora Sea, drilling at the Prirazlomnoye Arctic field, apparently unaffected thus far by sanctions, unlike the Rosneft/Exxon joint drilling project in the Kara Sea.

Still further north from the Gazprom Neft project, the "Goliat" platform, owned by the Italian energy group Eni and Norwegian company Statoil, is in place at the border of the Barents Sea and Norwegian Sea. According to the BBC article cited above, it "could soon start producing oil ... within weeks." So, the Arctic Oil Rush is underway, just without one of the world's biggest oil multinationals.

Friday, September 25, 2015

California’s Adaptation Clarion Call (updated)

The following  was published Sept. 2, 2014, on the WWF ClimatePrep blog ( -- which now appears to have gone defunct. Just in case it's gone for good, I'm going to re-post my ClimatePrep articles here. You can still see the original on

Two updates:

First: the California Adaptation Forum that I am reporting on below is scheduled to be held again September 7-8, 2016, in Long Beach, California. To subscribe to get updates on the conference go here. Find the presentations from the 2014 conference here.

Second, Alicia Torregrosa (USGS), the convener of the panel that I moderated at the 2014 California Adaptation Forum, and our two other panelists, Travis O'Brien (Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory) and Ian Faloona (UC Davis), have since published an article encapsulating the topic of our panel: Coastal Fog, Climate Change, and the Environment (Dec. 2014, Eos Earth and Space Science News). Not behind a paywall!

"Decision makers must expect to be surprised with increasing frequency."
-National Research Council 2009 report, Informing Decisions in a Changing Climate, as paraphrased by Alice Hill, Senior Advisor for Preparedness and Resilience, White House National Security Council.
“Plan for surprises” is a sentiment I’ve seen expressed in various contexts regarding climate change, and it was repeated last week at the California Adaptation Forum’s second day opening plenary by Obama adviser Alice Hill. It was a laugh-line. Surprises, by definition, can’t be planned for.

In a graduate seminar on climate change adaptation in 2010—amid complaints about the popular denial of climate change—I asked my classmates: who has an earthquake kit at home? Two out of ten. I would revise the National Research Council’s order: “decision makers must expect human denial of the element of surprise.”

The California Adaptation Forum (CAF) was a clarion call organized in Sacramento (Aug. 19-20, 2014) to shake California’s political decision makers out of denial and into action.

California has been a world leader on climate change mitigation, aggressively regulating and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, a push initiated by State Senator Fran Pavley with her landmark bills in the Assembly, AB 32 (2006) and AB 1493 (2009). I visited Senator Pavley in her office in 2012 to ask her if she had heard anything from her constituents about climate change impacts or was otherwise aware of these impacts and considering any legislative responses. From her response, I got the impression she is still at square one fighting the “climate change is real” battle in her political circles.

So, two years later at the CAF, a few blocks from Senator Pavley’s office, I was pleased to hear eminent state leaders on greenhouse gas reduction like the California Air Resources Board’s Chair, Mary Nichols, and the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research Director, Ken Alex, talk about the importance of preparing for climate threats. The 816 registrants from a breadth of sectors and local to international-level organizations attended 38 sessions and four plenary panels over two days, organized by the Local Government Commission, a private non-profit, in partnership with the State of California. One third of the attendees represented either local or state government offices. Another third represented nonprofit organizations, many of which work closely with local government. Academic representatives came in at 5% of the attendees.

Of the four large adaptation-specific conferences I’ve attended in recent years this was the first emphasizing local solutions at every opportunity. The others I’ve attended (Three Degrees in 2009; the Second International Climate Change Adaptation Conference in 2012; the first U.S. National Adaptation Forum in 2013) all featured an initial presentation of the scariest, latest scientific findings with the bottom line “Did you think we were screwed? Well now you know we are.” We dwelt in the shadow of those projections through the rest of the conference.  Rightly or wrongly, the CAF downplayed the role of climate science.

An aside: there was one science-focused session in the program— I was proud to be the moderator of a panel on the connection between fog and climate change, focusing on its importance as a source of water and cooling. The four scientists on the panel were determined to keep the mood light and positive, featuring fog special effects from a block of dry ice and carafes of hot water, but still got down to the question of whether winds driving upwelling and intensifying fog will outrun climate warming, which may be reducing fog (a trend that has been traced over the past 50 years on the California coast by Johnstone and Dawson, 2010).

Mainly, the CAF sessions presented stories from the field—active projects, lessons learned. The sessions I attended were accessible and interactive, all allowing between 10-30 minutes for questions. Colleagues echoed my impression that attendees had their ears open, were using their beginner-mind (not expert-mind), and didn’t push individual agendas. Their attitude was “I’m here to learn if I can. I’m here to help if I can.”

The California Secretary for Natural Resources John Laird’s morning address on day two was the highlight of the conference for me. Secretary Laird described specific situations from his past as a local politician when he had to push back against angry constituents to make the right decision for the long-term health and safety of his community, such as closing a structurally vulnerable community services center in anticipation of a storm despite strong protests; the storm caused the roof to collapse and his constituents thanked him for not backing down. Laird also communicated a vivid framework for organizing in anticipation of climate change by talking about his time as executive director of the Santa Cruz AIDS Project in the early 1990s, having to assemble resources in advance of things getting worse. Think about it: what did community organizers do in the AIDS crisis? They did mass, urgent, public education targeted to the most vulnerable; created a professional specialization to push research to the edge; made community art—like the AIDS Quilt—displaying visible, clear, accessible representations of the losses already happening, warning against complacence; and aggressively raised funds to create institutions to support the victims and their loved ones. What if we did the same for climate change? What would our quilt look like?

As for what’s next for California, Michael McCormick from the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research, one of the state partners who developed the CAF with the Local Government Commission, reports:
…[t]he State will be working with the Local Government Commission to distill what we heard into some near term actions that focus on cross-sector/cross-organizational strategies. We’ll also continue working together to ensure the momentum started here will continue towards the 2015 National Adaptation Forum and the 2016 California Adaptation Forum.
Read the Twitter stream from the CAF (#CAF14), and check out the CAF presentation PowerPoint slides. The presentations are listed in alphabetical order, so you’ll find the California Coastal Fog presentation under “C.”

Feature photo by TD Tillman - the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta at flood stage (2009). © Creative Commons

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Farmland in Flux

The following  was published July 8, 2014, on the WWF ClimatePrep blog ( -- which now appears to have gone defunct. Just in case it's gone for good, I'm going to re-post my ClimatePrep articles here. You can still see the original on

Farming may be the most adaptable industry, but are farmers reacting to the right signals?

“I have an idea that a lot of farmers have gone through a lot of trouble merely to be self-employed to live at least a part of their lives without a boss.”
– Wendell Berry, Bringing it to the Table: Writings on Farming and Food
I don’t know all the reasons why people go into or stay in farming. I grew up in a rural, isolated farming region of Northern New York where dairy farming was a family tradition, providing a stable (not booming) income for many. It isn’t my impression that farmers go into farming for the large profit margins. But neither do farmers farm in order to stay poor: they are market-savvy. They respond—perhaps first and foremost— to price signals. For example, right now almond prices are soaring because of increased demand (especially from China) and the collapse of bee colonies: even with the ongoing threat of bee colony collapse, the increasing price of almonds translates to fields of row crops being converted to almond orchards.

The other main signal that governs decisions is weather. Farmers watch weather, or the present condition of climate variables and their interactions over the short term, measured in minutes to months; but not necessarily climate, the pattern of weather over the long term, often measured in 30-year averages. Right now the main source of almonds for the world, California, is experiencing an epic drought. 2013 was the driest year in the state’s recorded history. As a result, almond trees are being turned into wood chips. And yet where irrigation is possible the transition from row crops to almond orchards continues, such as in the north of California’s Central Valley, according to Eric Parfrey, Yolo County’s principal planner. It’s a constantly shifting balance of variables, with long-term climate considerations given relatively little weight.

Constantly playing the short game, weighing a spiking price against a diving water table and disappearing pollinators, may leave farmers unprepared for long-term climatic shifts.

That is where government might step in. Governments could provide guidance and protection for farmers wanting to take risks in the interest of preparing for future climate, perhaps acting counter to their short-term interests.

However, one researcher, UC Davis’ Meredith Niles, finds that in California’s Central Valley some farmers consider “climate policy risk,” or possible losses from government policy intervention, a greater threat to their way of life than physical climate risk (Niles, Lubell, & Haden, 2013).

In fact, Niles’ study shows that past negative experiences with government environmental policies affecting their farms is highly correlated with farmers’ skepticism about climate change. Even if they have seen evidence of climate changing, negative past policy experience makes some farmers more concerned about climate change policies than climate change impacts.

Given the fact that farmers are primarily engaged in autonomous or spontaneous adaptation (because of the relative strength of short-term price and weather signals), how can farmers be encouraged to prepare for the long-term climate future? Given farmers’ resource constraints it may not be possible.

But things might not be as bad as they seem. The ongoing adaptation required of farmers may be enough to carry them successfully into the future, as long as they are willing to plan flexibly, transition crop type and variety, change irrigation practices, and otherwise change practices in response to conditions. An empirical study published in May 2014 shows that over the long-term farmers’ autonomous adaptation may be sufficient to maintain or even increase profits in some cases (Moore & Lobell, 2014). Stanford researcher Frances Moore looked at profit and yield reports in Western Europe (12 countries) between 1989 and 2009. She and her research team studied five crops (wheat, maize, sugarbeet, barley, and oilseed), comparing fluctuations over the short term versus the long term, presuming that the long-term period would capture the effect of more permanent adaptations (such as selling off increasingly unproductive land or investing in new irrigation technology), and considering projected climate change with and without those long-term adaptation effects. In all cases, yields show a decrease under climate change, even with all adaptation options in play. Adaptation moderates the negative impact of climate warming on yields, but doesn’t completely erase it. However, farmers respond more to price signals than yields, and in the projected future climate, average farm profits are shown to decrease 2.3% without adaptation – and increase 1.5% with adaptation. Farmers may not be farming for the large profit-margin, but they should be influenced by news of the possible increased profits from long-term adaptation.

Talking to Frances Moore about her results, I gathered some of her “take-aways” and thought about them in the context of California:

Farmers are interested in profit more than yield, so if the wheat yield goes down because of climate change, that doesn’t mean they will stop planting wheat (reminiscent of the phenomenon of the almond orchards in the Central Valley); costly adaptation actions or costly losses from heat will balance out if the price of the crop is high enough;
Farmers generally are more accustomed to adapting to rainfall fluctuation than long-term rising temperatures;
Whatever farmers say they believe about climate change may not line up with actions they take in response to climate change.
“Farmers are sensible people. They are going to respond to changes,” states Moore, “and to the extent they do, that’s adaptation.” But will they anticipate change enough? Will climate projections bear enough weight for them (relative to price and weather) for them to keep their farms going over the next fifty years of climate disruption?

The answer will not likely come in the form of a desktop study, but in farmers being engaged in the process of assessing climate risk and ways to act in anticipation of losses or opportunities for gain. If farmers are shown ways to increase long-term profits through long-term adaptation, it may avert costly investment in crops that cannot survive under the future climate. They just—somehow— have to be allowed to come to those conclusions on their own terms.

The California Climate and Agriculture Network, which works closely with Central Valley growers, has issued a set of comments in response to the state’s draft climate adaptation strategy Safeguarding California, imploring the state to shift its emphasis from research to outreach and technical assistance. You can read their recommendations here.


Top photo by Neil Palmer (CIAT). From the Two Degrees Up a 2012 series of case studies on the effect of climate change on agriculture. © Creative Commons.

Second photo by Ainhoa Goma, Oxfam International. Candelario Beh, a farmer from Tabi, an indigenous Mayan community affected by climate change. © Creative Commons.