Climate change tightens grip on US west coast despite progressive aspirations

An aerial view of San Francisco. One of the greenest cities in the US is facing a major threat from global warming. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

California, Washington and Oregon have led criticism of Trump’s climate policies, but change hasn’t been easier closer to home

California’s exposure to climate change has been laid bare with warnings that San Francisco faces a far worse threat from rising seas than previously thought, while the agricultural heart of the state will increasingly struggle to support crops such as peaches, walnuts and apricots as temperatures climb.

The findings, from two new scientific studies, come as California’s neighboring west coast states Oregon and Washington have both faltered in their legislative attempts to address climate change and deliver a rebuke to Donald Trump’s dismissal of the issue.

The problems faced by the progressive coastal bastions have been sobering on two fronts: not only is the western flank of the US experiencing the escalating consequences of climate change, but widespread Democratic dominance at state level has failed to enact ambitious policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“The states are struggling to fill the gap for the federal government on climate change,” said Nives Dolsak, of the school of marine and environmental affairs at the University of Washington.

“In Washington, we are holding a very good policy hostage because it’s not perfect. Inclusion and equity concerns means we are losing momentum and public support on climate change.”

The quibbling comes as climate change tightens its grip on the west coast. San Francisco can lay claim to being one of the greenest cities in the US, through its embrace of clean energy, mandated recycling and banning of single-use plastic bags, yet it faces a steep challenge to avoid the ravages of sea level rise.

Researchers using satellite-based radar and GPS have discovered large areas of land beside the San Francisco bay is sinking, exacerbating the threat from sea level rise and storms. Places such as San Francisco airport, Foster City and Treasure Island are subsiding by as much as 10mm a year, doubling the area previously considered at risk of flooding by the end of the century, according to the Science Advances-published study.

A satellite image of the San Francisco bay. Large areas of land beside the bay have been discovered to be sinking.
A satellite image of the San Francisco bay. Large areas of land beside the bay have been discovered to be sinking. Photograph: UniversalImagesGroup/UIG via Getty Images

In all, around 48 to 166 sq miles of the bay’s shoreline is set to be prone to flooding, even under a moderate rate of sea level rise. This scenario would worsen if melting glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica trigger a far faster rate of ocean expansion.

“There are about 7 million people living on the bay who could be vulnerable” said Patrick Barnard, a geologist at the US Geological Survey who wasn’t involved in the research.

“A huge number of people along the west coast are in low-lying areas, in Los Angeles and San Francisco all the way up to Seattle. All the options will have to be on the table, from replenishing coastal marshes to sea walls to managed retreat.”

California is facing a buffeting from increased flooding – around $763bn if its assets are exposed to inundation – at the same time as parts of its agriculture base declines due to rising temperatures.

Recent University of California research found that the yield of some crops could drop by 40% by 2050, with the situation becoming so severe by the end of the century that peaches, walnuts and apricots may be unviable in the central valley. Almonds, avocados, cherries and strawberries also face sharp crop declines.

Faced with such threats, the governors of California, Washington and Oregon have spearheaded criticism of Trump for taking a hammer to national climate policies and withdrawing the US from the Paris climate accords. But progress hasn’t been much easier closer to home.

While California has a statewide emissions reduction scheme, it has clashed with the Trump administration over the state’s stringent vehicle fuel standards. And California’s neighbors to the north are struggling to demonstrate that states can compensate for the lack of federal action on climate change, even those where Democrats have a firm grip on power.

An almond farm in Turlock, California, during the drought in 2014.
An almond farm in Turlock, California, during the drought in 2014. Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Last week, an effort to introduce the first straight tax on carbon dioxide emissions failed in Washington state, with governor Jay Inslee admitting it couldn’t pass the Democrat-controlled senate. “On the arc of history, we’re not quite far along enough on the arc,” said Inslee, a Democrat and vocal proponent of action on climate change. “That day will come, but it wasn’t quite here yet.”

The tax, which would’ve started at $20 per ton CO2 emitted, faced criticism it would increase the cost of energy or, conversely, that it wouldn’t generate sufficient money for clean energy programs. Meanwhile, in Oregon, another state dominated by elected Democrats, lawmakers failed to agree on a cap on greenhouse gases and will instead revisit the issue in 2019.

The stuttering progress of climate change policies sits awkwardly withinternational assurances from the broad coalition opposed to Trump that the US has not given up on tackling dangerous global warming.

“Rather than getting bogged down in how money from a carbon tax would be spent, we need to make climate change a bipartisan issue again,” said Aseem Prakash, the director of the center for environmental politics at the University of Washington.

“Environment groups need to reach out to Republicans for workable policy, not policy that’s perfect in every single way.”


1 Comment

  1. “Rather than getting bogged down in how money from a carbon tax would be spent, we need to make climate change a bipartisan issue again,”—-this is the key point

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.