The science is clear. Our climate is changing. In California, we are already feeling the impacts of climate change in the form of more regular and longer lasting droughts, flooding, wildfires, higher temperatures, and impacts on our fisheries, forests, wildlife, and other natural resources. As global temperatures continue to rise, all Californians will feel the impacts. However, communities of color and low-income communities, those who have born the negative consequences of our fossil fuel economy, will be hit first and worst by climate change.
This fact has serious implications for our state’s future. While the United States is projected to become majority people of color by 2042, California hit that mark decades ago. To secure an equitable and prosperous future for California, implementing strategies that allow our communities to thrive—even in the face of a changing climate—is critical.
As our earlier blog noted, smart, targeted investments in infrastructure can build community resilience by expanding economic opportunity, improving community health, and connecting people to critical services. Unfortunately, California’s infrastructure is crumbling, and we need significant investments over the next decade to repair, upgrade, and expand our infrastructure. Last year, state lawmakers committed to getting started by making new investments in transportation, climate infrastructure, and housing. This year, the legislature and voters are considering a range of proposals that would create another set of investments in water, parks, and housing. While this represents a fraction of what is necessary, they present real opportunities to innovate and think about how we build infrastructure that can physically withstand climate change, and, lift up disinvested communities so that they are able to thrive even as our climate changes. So, how do we make sure we take advantage of this opportunity? In addition to the principles we outlined earlier this week, here are four ideas that we think are important:
1. Include Impacted Communities in Infrastructure Decision Making from Planning to Completion
Frontline communities have been left out of the conversations and decision-making around the planning and designing of their own communities, leaving their destinies to the often discriminatory and profit-driven practices of corporations and government representatives who have little knowledge of their unique challenges and needs. As a result, these communities and their members are left fighting for their right to live healthy and free from pollution with access to opportunity. To begin reconciling this, California should ensure that low-income people, communities of color, and other populations that are vulnerable to climate change are provided with meaningful opportunities to shape infrastructure decisions that will impact their lives. Furthermore, California should provide direction and resources to local and regional agencies on integrating climate justice in planning efforts, policy development and implementation, and distribution of resources with an emphasis on intentionally engaging and including frontline communities throughout the process. Ensuring early, continuous, and meaningful participation in the development of policy and funding decisions will lead to more thoughtful, effective, long-term solutions.
- Promote Interagency Coordination to Build Climate Resilience
In Built to Last: Challenges and Opportunities for Climate-Smart Infrastructure in California, our partners at the Union of Concerned Scientists note that the overarching challenge to California effectively supporting a climate resilient future is that we do not currently have a state level body dedicated to addressing this problem and providing coordination, data, and technical support to other state agencies as well as to local and regional agencies. To address this, they recommend that California should establish a well-resourced center that provides agency staff with actionable climate related information and guidance that is updated regularly. The center would serve in a coordinating role, would respond to requests for technical assistance, provide support to state agencies working to incorporate climate resilience in their programs and decisions. Finally, the center could serve as a resource to local agencies and technical assistance providers working with communities to develop resilience strategies. Establishing a centralized hub of information and capacity would strengthen a network of climate resilience advocates, nonprofits, government agencies, and policymakers to ensure a coordinated effort towards climate resilient communities across the state.
- Conduct Vulnerability Assessments
We know that low-income communities and communities of color will be hurt first and worst by climate change. However, California does not currently have a clear picture of how different communities will be impacted by climate change, where infrastructure investments can increase community resilience, or where existing infrastructure may be prone to failure. To prepare for the future, California should take the recommendations of the Climate Justice Working Group and conduct regional cross sector vulnerability assessments that:
- Identify and prioritize climate change related threats to the region’s frontline communities.
- Assess how existing critical infrastructure and public services will handle changing conditions, and how the state can develop new and strengthen existing infrastructure and services to enhance climate resilience.
- Provide direction and resources, such as funding and capacity building, to local and regional agencies on integrating climate justice in planning efforts, policy development and implementation, and distribution of resources.
- Ensure these local and regional agencies are also engaging frontline communities in their research, planning, implementation, and decision-making.
- Build Infrastructure to Withstand the Impacts of Climate Change
It seems obvious, but building infrastructure that can actually withstand the effects of climate change is important to making sure money is well spent and making sure the infrastructure functions when disasters hit. Government agencies, utilities, investors, and other infrastructure decisionmakers typically do not include climate related cost and benefit information when evaluating infrastructure investments and infrastructure codes and standards frequently do not consider what the science tells us about our changing climate. This omission results in projects that are ill-equipped for longer-term climate stressors, and is a missed opportunity to avoid damages and maximize cost and risk saving. State and local governments and agencies should update their assessments and standards to better integrate climate risk considerations, as well as the benefits and opportunities of climate-smart projects. These changes should incorporate the latest climate data and technology and should be done with an eye towards protecting our most vulnerable residents. This will ensure sound decision-making and will result in projects that will continue to serve us for many decades to come.
From the current President’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement, to attacks on the EPA, and the intensifying effects of climate related natural disasters, there is barrage of challenges to building climate resilient communities and infrastructure. However, California is already positioned as a global leader on climate change and has a major opportunity to capitalize on the advancements we have made to date. But we must demand climate smart planning and decision-making from our state and local policymakers. Climate smart improvements to our state's infrastructure are long overdue and will provide the literal foundations for our communities to not only survive, but thrive, in the face of a changing climate.