In summary

There is no ecological Chapter 11 to protect our communities from climate change. But, here are actions we can all take now:

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By Martha Davis, Special to CalMatters

Martha Davis is the former assistant general manager for policy at the Inland Empire Utilities Agency and former executive director of the Mono Lake Committee,

“How did you go bankrupt?”

“Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”

– Ernest Hemingway, “The Sun Also Rises”

For decades, scientists have warned that climate change would disrupt almost every natural life-sustaining system on our planet.   

What have we done about it? We’ve dithered. We refuse to believe the evidence, or rail against the cost and inconvenience of change, or hope the problem will just go away.

But global warming is not going away. Last month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its most alarming report yet: Earth is on the edge of ecological bankruptcy.  

That’s what California is facing this summer with record heat, severe drought, record fires, snow sublimation, record low reservoir levels, dry wells, communities without safe drinking water, deaths of salmon and whales, poisonous algae growth in lakes and streams, and record glacier melt.  

There is no ecological Chapter 11 to protect our communities as we scramble to cope with our new climate reality.   

It is important to understand how we got into this predicament. The escalating carbon dioxide build-up in the atmosphere gets most of the attention. However, equally important is the way in which our economic development has pulled apart earth’s ecosystems, stripping away natural buffers that once held these systems together.

Our timber cutting practices are one example.  We’ve pushed our forests into earlier and earlier growth stages that burn easily because we cut the big trees and lost the forest structure that naturally provided shade, cooler temperatures, more moisture and slow undergrowth. 

We also stopped traditional use of fire to enhance forest resiliency. Today’s forests are hot and dense. We thin, but too much regrowth is now fire-prone brush. Add higher temperatures, lower atmospheric moisture and stronger winds, and you get cataclysmic fires like the Dixie and Caldor.

We must restructure to bring balance back into the ecosystems that feed and shelter us – just as anyone must when faced with bankruptcy.

The only meaningful measure of our actions is whether we are helping to regenerate our natural systems and through them our ability to cope with the dire ecological conditions we have created.  

Starting immediately, we need to take less out of our ecosystems. And we will need to give back more, especially more water and more space for these systems to do their work. Here are actions that we can all take right now:

  • We need more shade to lower temperatures, so maintaining trees is paramount as is planting more trees when rain returns;
  • We need to reduce the amount of water we are diverting from our rivers, lakes and groundwater to save these ecosystems;
  • We need to triple down on water efficiency and reduce non-essential uses of water such as irrigating decorative lawns;  
  • We must improve soil health and its capacity to slow, sink and hold water;
  • We need to plant native species to provide habitat for birds and other wildlife that are now losing their homes; and,
  • We must ensure existing healthy ecosystems are protected as they offer our best hope for keeping as many species as possible with us while we restructure for survival. 

Will we do it? Do we have the courage and capacity to make the changes that are needed and share more water with the ecosystems that support us?

Three decades ago, the people of Los Angeles chose to prioritize life for Mono Lake even though it meant dramatically reduced water diversions from the Eastern Sierra and more conservation. Today Los Angeles is using less water than it did 50 years ago, despite its population growth.  

There is a path forward. People and businesses can rebound from bankruptcy and our environment can, too, if we make the right choices.

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