Climate Change is Here. Now We Must Adapt.

Failing to act now will only cost us more down the line.

By Angela Ortega Pastor

This article was originally published on SIPR Forum’s website.

On the morning of September 9, San Francisco residents woke to a burnt orange haze that blanketed the Bay Area overnight, blocking the sun and shrouding normally blue skies. Photographs depicted a scene of utter dystopia, and news reports described the phenomenon as “a scene from Mars.” Far from the Red Planet, Bay Area residents were in fact living on a distorted planet Earth.

California’s wildfires cast an eerie glow over the Bay Area on September 9, 2020. Photo: Ankita Banerjea.

Poor air quality and extreme heat continued to cast a pall over the Pacific Coast for days. Those lucky enough to be able to work from home spent days spared from the smoke; those who were not so fortunate reported smoke so thick it ‘hurt [their]sinuses.’ This unsettling phenomenon was the result of the latest rash of wildfires to ravage the western United States. Later in September, the Glass Fire besieged Napa and Sonoma counties through most of October. As of October 20th, the fire was finally contained, leaving in its wake 70,000 burnt acres. Tens of thousands of residents were evacuated, and 1,500 structures were damaged or destroyed by the flames, including more than 600 residences. At the time of this writing, there are 23 active wildfires in California including the most recent to make headlines in Silverado Canyon. Since the beginning of 2020, 1.4 million acres — an area larger than Rhode Island — have burned in California, and 31 people have died.

While California suffers, some 2,000 miles away, the Gulf Coast is still recovering from the devastating effects of Hurricane Delta while preparing for the next storm to make landfall. Delta was the 10th named tropical storm to hit the U.S., beating the previous record of nine U.S. landfalls recorded in 1916. Hurricane Delta left six dead and at least $2 billion in damage. Delta made landfall a mere 12 miles from where Hurricane Laura landed six weeks earlier. Hurricane Laura claimed 32 lives.

These two seemingly disparate regions of the U.S. are united by a common threat: climate change. In the West, warmer temperatures and drought conditions have dried out the forest floor, leaving it ripe for ignition. Decades of forest mismanagement and rising populations living within the wildlife-urban-interface are a recipe for increasingly destructive fire seasons. During the 20172018 California wildfire season, nearly 150 lives were lost. In the southeastern United States, rising ocean temperatures have contributed to stronger wind speeds, heavier rain, and more devastating storm surges. Climate vulnerabilities are not confined to the U.S. coasts. Last year, historic flooding cost the Midwest $10.8 billion in damages and claimed three lives, and wildfires in Alaska razed 2.5 million acres. July 2019 was the warmest month ever recorded in Alaska, with an average temperature of 58.1ºF, surpassing the previous record of 57.3ºF set in July 2004 and standing at 5.4ºF above the typical average temperature for July.

The last decade has been unprecedented for these ‘billion-dollar’ climate-related disasters. Nearly 40% of them have occurred in the last three years alone, costing the U.S. a total of $456.7 billion and leaving 3,569 Americans dead. The U.S. is not alone — globally, the frequency and magnitude of climate change-related hazards are increasing. From 1980 to1990, an average of 149 climate-related disasters occurred annually, posting economic damage of roughly $14 billion each year. Between 2004 and 2014, this total more than doubled, averaging 332 disasters and $100 billion in damage annually.

Climate mitigation actions, such as renewable energy targets and energy efficiency programs, are essential to avoiding the worst effects of climate change. However, the facts indicate that it is by and large too late to avoid the worst effects of climate change. As the manifold disasters of 2020 highlight, climate change is already directly impacting tens of thousands of lives. Climate mitigation and adaptation are separate, but interrelated and equally vital concepts. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) defines mitigation as an action to reduce emission sources or enhance the sink of greenhouse gases, and climate adaptation as the process of adjusting to actual or expected climate and its effects. We must start adapting. Amplified heat waves and cold snaps, extreme weather volatility, floods, droughts, coastal flooding, and an increase in vector-borne diseases will continue to take place. Where global mitigation actions might fail to deliver timely reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, adaptation is the key to blunting its impact on vulnerable communities.

Climate adaptation actions are essential across a multitude of sectors, including but not limited to water use, agriculture, infrastructure, and energy. These actions are needed in both urban and rural areas. Strategies include building seawalls, elevating roads, managing controlled burns, investing in ignition resistant roofs and exteriors, and ultimately, considering managed retreat. Many countries and regions are beginning to enact policies to build resilience to climate hazards, but the amount of financing directed to these policies falls far short of what is needed. The Global Commission on Adaptation estimates global adaptation costs on the order of $180 billion annually from 2020 to 2030. Between 2017 and 2018, global finance for adaptation activities was a meager $30 billion, a significant increase from prior years, but still only five percent of total global climate finance and $150 billion short of adequate global spending.

This large financing gap for adaptation actions indicates that increasing resilience to climate change requires mobilizing significant investment from both traditional and non-traditional funding resources. However, there are significant challenges associated with mobilizing the necessary public and private financing for climate adaptation. Adaptation projects are usually large scale, and with long time lags between investment and when individuals perceive climate risks will materialize. Adaptive actions often run contrary to the impulse to rebuild as fast as possible after a disaster because redesigning and retrofitting takes time and money. The context-specificity of climate hazards, and consequently, of adequate adaptation actions, also means that policymakers cannot always draw on ‘best practices.’ Investing in capacity-building at the local and state levels is necessary to adapt appropriately and effectively.

Informational gaps further compound the financing problem. Policymakers and city planners must have access to accurate climate forecasting data that better informs planning for the needs of their respective localities. Typical public planning processes are ill-equipped to respond to the high levels of uncertainty associated with climate change risks. For example, planning for a seawall to withstand only a 2-ft rise in sea level is quite different than designing and building a seawall to withstand a 6-ft rise in sea level rise.

Despite the challenges, policymakers in climate-vulnerable communities need to focus on climate adaptation, or market forces will quickly impose a rather lesser version of adaptation. To see how this dynamic is playing out, we need not look far. In California, insurance companies are canceling policies for homeowners in fire-prone areas. The wave of insurance policy cancellations in 2019 forced the state to enact a moratorium on cancellations. When the moratorium expires at the end of 2020, insurers are expected to continue this withdrawal. Given that loans from mortgage companies are conditional on borrowers’ ability to fully insure property values, insurance flight will devastate housing markets located in increasingly ‘uninsurable’ areas across the wildlife-urban-interface. Many residents affected by lost coverage will be unable to afford rebuilding, let alone shoulder the costs of incorporating retrofits to enhance home fire protection without taking on additional debt. Despite the public program offering lower coverage than private alternatives, nearly 200,000 households have enrolled in California’s high-risk insurance program since 2019, a 50% increase in the past year alone. An increase in the number of high-risk participants in the state insurance pool has consequences for all Californians.

All policymakers can address the situation with a myriad of actions, including ensuring that adequate funding and planning capabilities for adaptation are in place, implementing better land management, and working with insurance and credit rating agencies to protect vulnerable communities. The California legislature recently proposed resilience standards that would require insurers to incorporate climate adaptation actions taken by homeowners into their rate calculations. Typically, insurance premiums are calculated based on a series of ‘risk factors’ including past claim history, which can work against homeowners in areas repeatedly affected by fires, and the geographical area. These proposed standards when implemented by homeowners will reduce risk and protect homes from wildfire damage, which should translate to lower claims for insurance companies and lower insurance rates for homeowners. However, for insurance companies that are already facing large losses as a result of wildfire damage claims, the ‘upside’ of this proposal is insufficient. This proposal is a good first step, but further refinement is necessary to fully rectify the problem.

Social policies and local community engagement are also key. In California, a lack of affordable housing has pushed many to the wildlife-urban-interface — those areas adjacent to forests and shrublands where the housing is more affordable, but the fire risk is higher. In recent years, legislative bills to protect California homes from wildfire risks have failed to secure the necessary funds from the state budget. This failure includes bill AB-38 that called for the creation of a $1 billion home retrofitting fund to help homeowners build resilience. The bill failed to secure adequate funding in the 2019–2020 State Budget and so the fund proceeded uncapitalized. SB-182, another significant step forward in dealing with wildfire risk in California, was ultimately vetoed by Governor Newsom. SB-182 would have limited the number of housing units that could be built in high fire risk areas without adequate firefighting capacity, evacuation routes, or defensible space enforcement. Overall, actions to adapt housing and building infrastructure received a meager, one-time $5 million allocation from the Defensible Space Assistant Program in the 2019–2020 budget, out of the $280 million allocated to wildfire resilience building. Most of the state funding is being directed towards emergency response, which is integral to climate adaption. But we must not forget that building infrastructure that reduces the need for emergency response is also critical. Legislators need to consider that taking a proactive stance towards protecting against climate risks, rather than a reactive stance, will help to more effectively utilize scarce public funds.

Academics and researchers also have a role to play in minimizing uncertainty and risk in support of adaptation policies. For example, California’s proposed rules on insurance premium calculations will only be effective if the impact of climate resilience actions can be quantified in a consistent and comparable manner. Developing impact metrics for adaptation actions is critical because it allows potential investors to move away from their current ‘location-specific’ framework. Several research institutions are exploring this question, including the IDFC-MDB ‘Framework for Climate Resilience Metrics in Financing Operations’, the GEF and World Bank’s ‘Disaster Risk Reduction Progress Indicators’, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development’s (EBRD) ‘Sustainability Impact Measures’. Models that quantify the actual costs of adaptation in large infrastructure projects and compute the costs of maintenance are needed for accurate tracking of adaptation financing. For example, constructing a new highway may cost $100 million, but the cost of adaptation itself (i.e. elevating the road) might actually be closer to $10 million. Maintenance to ensure that it can effectively withstand extreme weather events presents even more savings in the long-term. Localities tend to avoid projects with high face-value price tags and delayed returns, but impact metrics that accurately reflect the savings wrought by climate resiliency will show that adaptive public infrastructure projects can be much more cost-effective in the long-term. Accurate tracking will empower policymakers to leverage the financing needed to close the infrastructure gap and plan for future challenges.

Climate change may have been an abstract notion until recently, but for tens of thousands in California and across the country, it has become all too real. As Governor Newsom stated in April of 2019, “If anyone is wondering if climate change is real, come to California”. In my short time in California, I have already witnessed the devastating effects of wildfires, droughts, and heatwaves. That climate change is real and is here could not be more glaringly obvious. Failing to adapt to this reality will only cost us more down the line. When disasters pass, it is difficult for affected communities to resist the instinct to rebuild as fast as possible, particularly when local authorities are faced with a shrinking tax base and the emotional charge of families left newly homeless. The result is structures that are no better than the destroyed structures they are meant to replace. The challenge ahead is not easy, but our responsibility is to build back better. The COVID-19 recovery plans provide an opportunity to invest in climate adaptation that we cannot afford to miss. To do nothing is simply no longer an option.

Angela is a second-year M.A. in International Policy at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute. Prior to Stanford, Angela worked at the International Energy Agency. She is passionate about energy infrastructure systems and developing policy pathways towards a clean and resilient future.

SIPR Forum elevates cutting-edge analyses of timely and relevant issues in international affairs in the form of short articles and opinion pieces.