In summary

Leadership and support from business, philanthropic and government entities is critical to help communities deal with climate change.

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By Matthew Armsby

Matthew Armsby is vice president at Resources Legacy Fund,

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Marisa Buchanan, Special to CalMatters

Marisa Buchanan is head of Sustainability at JPMorgan Chase,

In the past decade, California has experienced its most severe drought in over a millennium, devastating floods, the hottest summer on record and eight of the 10 largest wildfires ever recorded in the state. 

Within the past month, Death Valley set a new record for the hottest temperature ever recorded on earth, and wildfires burned an area larger than the state of Connecticut. Three of the largest wildfires in California history are still smoldering, the smoke from which is now visible as far away as New York City.

Climate-driven disasters are increasingly putting Californians at risk and our most vulnerable populations, comprised largely of people of color, are suffering disproportionate impacts. These populations often have the least access to parks, greenspace and health care resources, and are at increased risk from rising temperatures, poor air quality driven by wildfires and other climate change impacts. 

For instance, Hispanic and Latino communities comprise the majority of workers in California’s increasingly hot, drought-prone agricultural centers, and marginalized neighborhoods along the San Francisco Bay shoreline face heightened flood risk from rising sea level. Many of these communities are also experiencing severe economic impacts from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, even as we collectively enter flood season and endure what has become a perennial threat of catastrophic wildfire.

In the face of these threats, communities across California and around the U.S. are grappling with how to improve their resilience to climate change. Unfortunately, many lack the resources to conduct climate adaptation planning and invest in needed projects and programs to reduce climate-related risks to homes and livelihoods. Accordingly, in addition to enhancing California’s real-time response and relief capabilities, keeping our communities safe requires new forms of collaboration across local nonprofit, business and government players. 

For instance, the California Resilience Challenge, a collaboration of business and nonprofit organizations that was launched last year by the Bay Area Council, invites communities across California to apply for low-barrier climate adaptation planning grants. The response to last year’s Challenge was overwhelming. 

The Challenge received funding requests from nearly 100 communities in every corner of California. With the help of an expert panel, including staff from the California Governor’s Office of Planning & Research, the Challenge awarded grants to 12 communities whose proposals were chosen for their innovation, replicability and social equity benefits.

As a result of Challenge support, community leaders are advancing innovative solutions to address threats from climate change-driven fire, drought, flood and heat. For example, four cities in Southern California are using advanced geospatial technology to determine where trees are needed most to reduce the urban heat-island effect in disadvantaged communities. 

The Big Valley Band of Pomo Indians is expanding water quality monitoring at Clear Lake, their ancestral home, which has seen an increase in toxic algal blooms caused by rising temperatures. In the Bay Area, the Aquatic Science Center is calculating how rising sea levels interact with aquifers in ways that could worsen coastal flooding during extreme storm events. And along the North Coast, the Humboldt County Conservation District is using advanced LiDAR technology to reduce fire risk and improve carbon sequestration in California forests.  

These and other Challenge winners are helping to provide a clear vision for what a resilient future can look like in California and elsewhere. Thanks to California’s extraordinarily diverse geography, lessons learned here can be exported around the country and the globe.

With local resources constrained by the pandemic, leadership and support from business, philanthropic and government entities is critical. Now, more than ever, it’s important to get creative and find solutions that support California’s communities so they can thrive in the face of these challenges. 

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