The implications of a changing climate are being felt in communities all across the state of California. Drought, wildfire, and torrential rains have begun having such far-reaching impacts, that they are affecting the daily operations of local economies. But also within this challenge lies an opportunity: to facilitate greater economic opportunity for low-income and disadvantaged communities by implementing climate adaptation strategies.
This inherent link between climate adaptation and economic opportunity was a major theme at the final installment of the Sierra Nevada Regional Climate Adaptation Webinar Series, facilitated by the California Community Economic Development Association (CCEDA) and Climate Resolve. The webinar highlighted two organizations leading the way for others in the Eastern Sierra region of California: Mammoth Lakes Trails and Public Access Foundation (MLTPA) and the Sierra Business Council.
“Climate change is affecting not just every region of our state, but also every sector of our economy,” said Steve Frisch, president of the Sierra Business Council. “We saw this most recently in the Sierra Nevada region with the tremendous business interruption experienced during the Dixie and Caldor fires. These were the first two fires in California state history to burn over the crest of the Sierra Nevada, so we are in a fundamentally different universe now as it relates to the impact of climate change in our region.”
When many consider the implications of climate change, there’s a tendency to think that it’s wide-ranging effects are either years or decades from happening, or won’t significantly affect the economy at a local level. Both perceptions, however, are already being proven false.
“Wildfires are affecting a number of different sectors of the economy, including forest management, the availability and location of housing, and significant impacts on insurance availability,” Frisch said, citing both AIG and Chubb recently pulling out of the California insurance market. “Rates for business or residential properties in high hazard zones of California have tripled, if not quadrupled over the last 10 years. It’s actually getting to the point where many regions in the state can’t get insurance anymore, which retards housing prices, home values, and the ability to sell.”
Another key factor is how climate change will negatively affect the tourism industry, of which the Eastern Sierra region of the state is particularly reliant.
“Climate change is going to have huge effects locally, in terms of economic activity that is nature-dependent, because recreational activities are what drives the Eastern Sierra,” said John Wentworth, president of MLTPA and a council member for the Town of Mammoth Lakes. “While the base population across the three counties here is about 30,000 people, the average visitation is somewhere between 567 million people a year. That’s a lot of human beings that are moving back and forth across this landscape, coming here to visit through recreational activity.”
During the webinar, Wentworth discussed his experience spearheading a study to determine a “Natural Capital Assessment” of the Eastern Sierra region. It’s the first step, he says, toward establishing the most prudent climate adaptation strategies for the region moving forward.
“We started with this Natural Capital Assessment to determine the value of the great natural resources in the Eastern Sierra,” Wentworth said. “We produced this study to not only evaluate the climate hazards and how they’re going to affect our communities, the recreation economy, the cultural and the economic drivers of the region, but also how the natural resources that make up the Eastern Sierra can become part of the solutions.”
The resulting study, The Changing Climate Vulnerability in California’s Eastern Sierra, identified the potential loss of ecosystem services in the Eastern Sierra, according to current climate change projections. The study found that the ecosystem services of the Eastern Sierra, primarily driven by the tourism and outdoor recreation industries, provides an average value of $95.4 billion a year to the region.
But the value of these ecosystem services is now largely at-risk. The same study projected that the region could incur average costs of $64 billion from drought and $102.15 billion from wildfires, respectively, each year.
According to these projections, that means in the average year, more than half of the economic value that currently exists in the Eastern Sierra landscape will be jeopardized by the effects of climate change.
“The State of California’s most recent climate assessment shows a loss of about 65% of California’s snowpack in the next 50 years, which is really a sobering statistic considering communities that are dependent on winter sports for that part of the year,” Frisch said. “These communities will have to reframe what their economic drivers are going to be and this applies to communities that will suffer from extreme heat at lower elevations as well.”
Furthermore, the economic implications don’t stop at the loss of snowpack for communities at higher elevations or extreme heat in lower elevations, but an additional problem will likely affect the entire state.
“California has some of the worst air quality basins in the country, both in the Central Valley and in Southern California,” Frisch said. “But many of our mountainous regions also experience negative air quality spikes exceeding EPA standards by 10-20 times for prolonged periods of time. This essentially means that no one will visit the region and it will become very difficult to live in, as well. In this way, economic development professionals really need to understand that climate change is affecting every region of our state and every sector of our economy.”
The critical need to implement climate adaptation strategies to ensure an economically-viable future in these communities, however, also provides a unique opportunity to address other societal issues as well.
“[Climate adaptation] can create new opportunities and markets in regions and communities that have been left behind, which is not just a social responsibility, but a great economic opportunity,” Frisch said. “Addressing systemic racism and equity issues by creating new opportunities for communities that have historically been left behind is an incredibly important opportunity to link climate adaptation, economic development, and racial and social justice together with the implementation of programs. That’s a really important concept because, in essence, the historic inequities in wealth have essentially retarded economic progress in many of our regions, particularly in regions with high levels of diversity.”
Through its technical assistance programs, The Sierra Business Council is driven by its mission to incorporate climate considerations into burgeoning business development and entrepreneurship opportunities.
“Focusing our technical assistance on climate-smart business development, meaning businesses that are implementing climate adaptation strategies, also focuses on the career education, training, and development of the workforce within each economic sector,” Frisch said. “We’ve developed workforce education and training programs for energy efficiency experts to update codes and standards for a number of different areas, and we’re planning to expand that in the future for renewable energy in rural communities.”
Career education and workforce development will prove pivotal in a climate-change future, as the required skill sets of a workforce are bound to evolve with the developing needs of a community.
“Mitigating the impact of climate change is going to require a different set of skills from what we have in the workforce today, including energy efficiency, renewable energy, home-resiliency, construction skills, forest and environmental management and planning skills,” Frisch said. “This whole new set of job classifications will be needed to address climate risk, whether it’s wildfire or drought or extreme heat or sea-level rise.
Therefore, there is potential to develop the necessary workforce skill sets of the future for the very communities that will likely see the most significant impacts of climate change.
“The communities hardest hit by climate-related weather events are essentially both low-income communities and communities of color in California,” Frisch said. “So by linking workforce education and training and development, and creating good career pathways and job opportunities in those communities to mitigate the impact of climate change and reduce risk, you’re actually addressing both the climate impact issue, the racial and social justice issue, and the economic development issues simultaneously.”
Therein lies the opportunity to not only implement climate adaptation strategies in business development at a community level but also to use this opportunity to address the systemic issues that plague our society.
“The ability to measure the benefits of all of those categories is a really important component of deploying the climate adaptation strategies at both the local, state and federal level,” Frisch said. “This way, you can demonstrate that the climate investments that are being made are actually addressing multiple objectives at a societal level, which is a really important component to getting constituencies on board and actually making the progress that we need to make across the state.”
Learn more about the Climate Adaptation Initiative https://www.ccedaclimateresourceguide.com
Scott King writes about science and the environment for the Sierra Nevada Ally. He has a Master’s degree in Media Innovation from the University of Nevada, Reno, and a Bachelor’s degree in Professional Writing with a minor in Marketing from Capital University in Columbus, Ohio. Scott served for two years as a literacy instructor with the Peace Corps in the community of Gouyave, Grenada. Support his work.
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