Juliette Finzi Hart, Ph.D.

Thalassa Research and Consulting, LLC, Manhattan Beach, CA & faculty member in the USC Marine Environmental Biology program

The South Bay cities are leading the Los Angeles region in their efforts to tackle climate change. In collaboration with its member cities, the SBCCOG helped communities conduct greenhouse  gas (GHG) emissions inventories for the years 2005 and 2007 for both government operations and communitywide activities. Recently, the region received a grant from SCE to update these inventories and develop climate action plans. The SBCCOG, working in communities around the South Bay is promoting electric vehicles which have the dual impact of improving air quality while also reducing carbon tailpipe emissions. These actions taken to minimize the South Bay’s contribution to climate change are commonly referred to as “mitigation.”

Communities are also beginning to acknowledge that climate change is happening and the impacts are real and imminent; these communities therefore now are beginning to plan for these potential impacts through “adaptation.”  The United National Framework Convention on Climate Change defines adaptation as “actions taken to help communities and ecosystems cope with changing climate conditions.” South Bay coastal communities, through a regional grant from the California Ocean Protection Council and led by the City of Santa Monica, will begin planning for sea level rise and associated coastal impacts in the coming year. South Bay cities also participate in the Los Angeles Regional Collaborative for Climate Action and Sustainability (or LARC), which has just begun development of a regional climate action planning framework that will incorporate adaptation best practices. 

With all this focus on preparing for the impacts of climate change, some may ask the question: is it still necessary to expend resources on mitigation efforts? The answer to this is an unequivocal ‘yes’ and is closely linked to the concept of uncertainty that dominates so much of the political discourse surrounding climate change today.

When scientists discuss the uncertainty in climate change, they are not debating whether or not climate change is happening or will happen in the future. Instead, they are debating the potential severity of the impacts. And that severity is entirely dependent on the actions we take today in minimizing our contributions to climate change. Scientists and policy-makers have identified several scenarios by which to study climate impacts. The most commonly discussed are the “business-as-usual” scenario, in which we continue to operate as we already do and do not take any measures to reduce GHG emissions and the “best-case” scenario, in which we drastically limit carbon emissions. Scientific models use these scenarios to identify various possible futures. 

For instance, in the 2011 West Coast sea-level rise study conducted by the National Research Council, estimates of sea-level rise along the Los Angeles coastline vary from 5 – 24 inches above current sea level by the year 2050. Under the “best-case” scenario, we can anticipate approximately five inches of sea level rise; under the “business-as-usual” scenario, we could see as much as 24 inches of sea level rise. Certainly, planning for an increase of five inches of sea level is much more manageable for coastal communities than planning for 24 inches. So, what we will have to adapt to is intricately linked to how well we continue to mitigate our impact now.  

Beyond impacts we observe in our own cities and along our own coast, climate change-related impacts that happen a great distance away also can result in localized impacts. In 2011, Thailand experienced the worst monsoonal flooding in 50 years. Some 10,000 computer supply and electronic car part manufacturing factories were forced to close, and 350,000 workers lost their jobs.  This was a tragedy locally, but also had impacts reaching the shores of California. Western Digital factories in Thailand provided 60% of essential hard drive components, critically impacting the Silicon Valley enterprise. One estimate predicted a 10% increase in the price of external hard drives the following year due to the flooding. Thus, while the impact happened far from our shores, it had rebounding impacts locally as well.

Comprehensive climate change planning by municipalities must therefore include both actions to minimize our contribution to climate change – mitigation — as well as actions to cope with changing climatic conditions — adaptation.  How effective we are in trying to slow our role in climate change now has an immediate and direct impact on what we will have to plan for and adapt to in the future.  Moreover, as communities consider different mitigation or adaptation strategies, it is equally important to consider how one will impact another. Developing adaptation strategies that potentially increase GHG emissions is counter-effective in the long term. As the South Bay cities start the process of updating their GHG inventories and their Climate Action Plans, it is critical that they understand that adaptation and mitigation need to go hand in hand. 

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