By Paul Rogers
From the San Jose Mercury News
Rising ocean waters. Bigger and more frequent forest fires. More brutally hot summer days.
These aren’t the usual predictions about global warming based on computer forecasts. They’re changes already happening in California, according to a detailed new report issued Thursday by the California Environmental Protection Agency.
Climate change is “an immediate and growing threat” affecting the state’s water supplies, farm industry, forests, wildlife and public health, the report says. The 258-page document was written by 51 scientists from the University of California, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, U.S. Geological Survey and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, among other agencies and institutions.
“Climate change is not just some abstract scientific debate,” said California EPA Secretary Matt Rodriquez. “It’s real, and it’s already here.”
Most Californians seem to agree. In a poll last month by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California, 63 percent of the state’s residents said the effects of global warming are already being felt, while 22 percent said they will happen in the future. Eleven percent said they will never happen.
Although California has done more than nearly every other state to reduce emissions of heat-trapping gases, the report found, if it were a country, it would still rank as the 13th largest source of greenhouse gases in the world, ahead of France, Brazil, Australia and Saudi Arabia.
What the public may not realize, experts say, is how extensive the impact of climate change already is.
Since 1950, the report found, the three worst forest fire years in California — measured by acres burned — all have occurred in the past decade: 2003, 2007 and 2008. And the average number of acres scorched every year since 2000 is almost double the average of the previous 50 years — 598,000 acres annually now, compared with 264,000 acres a year then.
“A report like this is Paul Revere. It provides an early warning, an early indicator of the challenges we face,” said Matthew Kahn, a UCLA economics professor.
Kahn said that just as in past eras when Americans rose to meet threats, entrepreneurs in California will see opportunities to help reduce the impacts of climate change while making money, through industries such as electric vehicles, wind turbines, ocean desalination projects, better air conditioning systems and denser housing in coastal areas, which will remain cooler than inland areas as both warm in the decades to come.
“It’s not like the Titanic where we just collide with the iceberg,” Kahn said. “Most people want their children and grandchildren to have a great quality of life. We are going to get future Amazons, Apples and Facebooks out of this that will address the challenges.”
But while opportunities may be going up, so are mercury readings.
Since 1895, annual average temperatures in California have increased about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit and continue to rise, the report found. The length and severity of summer heat waves are increasing.
The sea level at the Golden Gate, home to the oldest continually operating tidal gauge in North America, rose 8 inches over the past century as the world’s glaciers and ice sheets have begun melting. Higher seas increase the risk of floods during storms in low-lying communities around San Francisco Bay, from Treasure Island to Alviso.
At Lake Tahoe, there are now 30 fewer days a year compared with a century ago when air temperatures average below freezing, the report found. And while 52 percent of the precipitation at the lake fell as snow in 1910, today only 34 percent does.
“Most Californians get it,” said Kathryn Phillips, executive director of Sierra Club California. “The thing I find so frustrating is how bought in elected officials are to the belief they can’t do the right thing because it will disturb oil companies and some of the most powerful interests in the state.”
Among other changes, Phillips said, the state needs more incentives for solar and renewable energy and mandatory rules requiring more energy-efficient buildings.
In 2006, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a landmark law, AB32, requiring California to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, a drop of about 25 percent.
So far, however, emissions are up 3 percent since 1990, although they have dipped in the past five years because of the Great Recession and increased use of high-mileage cars as well as solar and wind power.
When it comes to the state’s water supply, there’s some good news: There is no clear trend in the amount of precipitation over the past 100 years, the report found. So California isn’t getting less rain.
But the Sierra Nevada’s glaciers have, depending on their location, shrunk from 22 percent to 69 percent over the past century. And spring runoff to the Sacramento River has decreased by 9 percent. That’s because more precipitation is falling as rain rather than snow during California’s warmer winters, the report found. And less runoff means less water for farms and cities.
Rodriquez said the amount of warming in the coming decades can be limited if the state, nation and world do more to reduce emissions and transition away from fossil fuels.
“We’re doing what we can in California to address climate change,” he said. “It’s our hope that we can avoid some of the more extreme effects.”