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Amanda Brown-Stevens

4 Climate Resilience Conversations to Follow in 2021

After a year like no other, punctuated by a global pandemic of unimaginable consequences, the hottest year on record, and California’s historic wildfire season, we are looking at how our societies, economies, and environment are positioned for a just recovery. With 2020 behind us, our attention is now directed towards the promising, albeit challenging, future. The question is, will we do what it takes to be better prepared in responding to the looming challenge of climate change? 

Looking ahead to 2021, here are 4 important conversations in advancing climate resilience that we will be following closely (and we think you should too):

1. State Legislation: New Bills We’re Watching

The 2021-2022 legislative session is now in full swing. A number of significant bills have already been introduced related to climate resilience, wildfire, and housing which Greenbelt Alliance will be carefully monitoring. Here are a few to keep on your radar:

  • SB9housing development approvals, introduced by Senators Atkins, Caballero, Rubio, and Wiener would allow for up to four units on a single-family home lot (duplex and/or accessory dwelling unit or ADU) if permitted by local zoning, not requiring case-by-case approval. However, this would include lots within High Fire Hazard Severity Zones, unless the local jurisdiction doesn’t allow building in these areas. 
  • SB12 – local government planning and zoning re wildfire, introduced by Senator McGuire of the 2nd Senate District – North Coast/North Bay, would require a city or county to identify locations of very high fire risk areas in the land use element of the general plan. It also would require developing feasible actions that would protect lives and property from wildfire, including risk reduction standards. These new requirements for cities and counties seem to be addressing how local zoning should handle developments enabled by SB9 that might take place in High Fire Severity Zones.
  • SB55 – very high fire hazard severity zones development prohibition, introduced by Senators Stern and Allen, would prohibit new housing development in Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zones. By imposing new duties on local governments with respect to the approval of new developments in Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zones and State Responsibility Areas, this bill would impose a state-mandated local program.

2. Momentum in Building Climate Resilience: A Path for New Nature-based Strategies

The compounded effects of drier conditions, record-breaking temperatures, and inadequate management of sprawl and forests led to an unprecedented wildfire season last year. Only a few days into 2021, we’re already seeing warm and dry conditions in our traditional rainy season. We must be prepared for this “new normal” because the reality is, the climate crisis has arrived and its overlapping impacts are directly felt by people and places that are already under pressure from the ongoing public health and economic crises.

Governor Newsom’s proposed budget is a good start—significantly increasing investments in wildfire resilience, for example. It included $1 billion to make the state’s forests and communities more resilient to climate change, including $323 million proposed for early action in 2020-21 to accelerate fire prevention projects that protect communities and jumpstart economic recovery efforts in the forest sector. We’ll be following what finally gets approved and how the details unfold. 

This draft budget was coupled with the release of California’s Wildfire and Forest Resilience Action Plan which details goals to increase the pace and scale of forest management and wildfire resilience efforts by 2025. A range of key actions were listed for shared efforts in building wildfire and forest resilience across federal, state, and private lands.  Of the many aspects to this plan, Greenbelt Alliance will be following—and advocating for—the role of a wider range of greenbelts (referred to in the plan as fuel breaks) as a key tool for protecting communities from wildfire risk. We’ll also be listening to where the conversation goes to address concerns of how sustainable the timber harvesting industry can be, given it’s a component of this action plan.

We’re also excited to weigh in on the implementation of two state-level strategies to unlock the benefits of nature-based solutions in fighting climate change. Last October, Governor Newsom issued an executive order to conserve 30% of the state’s lands and waters by 2030. This speaks to the significance of natural and working lands, as well as water resources, and their multiple benefits to people and the environment—climate benefits, and so much more. 

The state’s natural and working lands sustain our economy, contribute to the global food supply, protect our communities from wildfire, floods, droughts, and extreme heat as well as store and remove carbon from the atmosphere to slow climate change. Those are a lot of reasons to achieve 30×30!

This ambitious goal is for the first time bringing together a focus on achieving climate resilience while enhancing biodiversity and expanding equitable outdoor lands and recreation for all Californians. More conversations will be had this year to unpack what it means to “conserve lands and waters”, who that benefits, how close we are today to this goal, and what it will look like to work collaboratively on achieving this vision. One thing is certain, more diverse voices must be invited to the table and centered in this process if California is to meet its goal, which the state alone cannot achieve.

A second, related strategy being developed over the course of 2021 is a new Natural and Working Lands Climate Smart Strategy that will serve as a framework to advance the State’s carbon neutrality goal and build climate resilience. We’ll be plugging into the stakeholder engagement process to partner with state agencies and the collective efforts of the nonprofit, public, and private sectors to develop and ultimately implement a robust strategy.

3. Bridging the Gap on the Housing and Climate Crises: Regional Planning Efforts We’re Following

Important decisions will be made this year in crucial multi-year regional planning processes that will affect housing, transit, our environment, and the economy. 

Plan Bay Area 2050—which includes priorities and strategies for the Bay Area’s development in the next 30 years—is in the final stages and will soon release an implementation plan (complete this survey to provide your input). Greenbelt Alliance has launched a campaign to increase public support for more ambitious outcomes and will continue to advocate for more adaptation and resilience commitments, equity-centered decisions, and nature-based solutions in the final plan due to be released in 2021.

In parallel, another game-changing process is underway: the Regional Housing Needs Allocation, a.k.a RHNA. Greenbelt Alliance has been engaging in the process as part of the Housing Methodology Committee (HMC)—analyzing recommendations on where the almost 500,000 new homes we need in the Bay Area should go in the next 8 years. Once the RHNA methodology process wraps up early this year, every community in the Bay Area will launch their Housing Element update process to identify where new homes can be built in their communities, and what changes in policy and zoning are needed to make that possible. 

We look forward to working together with our allies in the housing, conservation, and climate resilience communities, as well as our local government leaders, to guide the growth we need for a resilient future! To us, that looks like supporting new developments that are climate SMART—Sustainable, Mixed, Affordable, Resilient, Transit-Oriented—developments. Watch for future projects we give our seal of approval to this year as part of our revamped Climate SMART Development Endorsement Program.

4. Renewed Commitment at the Federal Level and Regional Collaboration

After witnessing in the last four years a dismantling of important environmental policies and the lack of a climate agenda within the Federal government, we are looking forward to a renewed commitment by the incoming administration. President Joe Biden has set forth a bold climate plan centering environmental justice and bringing in a more diverse team to steer the ship.

We are following the conversation about the US rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement and re-establishing its global leadership in climate change, both internationally and in domestic policy. Two important environmental global summits will reconvene to establish bolder and faster strategies for Climate (COP 26, in Glasgow, UK), and Biodiversity (Kunming, China, COP15). These will set the tone for the next decade of multilateral cooperation for the fast action we need to restore balance for nature, economies, and societies.

Another example of anticipated heightened collaboration between our federal government and state, regional, and local actors will be the implementation of the Agreement for Shared Stewardship of California’s Forest and Rangelands with the United States Forest Service. This new joint state-federal initiative aims to reduce wildfire risks, restore watersheds, protect habitat and biological diversity, and help the State meet its climate objectives. It’s big steps like these that are worth monitoring in 2021 for signs of increased investment and on-the-ground improvements—instilling hope that as the new year unfolds, we’ll see a time of recovery and resilience.

Greenbelt Alliance’s new Strategic Plan applies a climate resilience lens to our work. We are focusing on delivering the critical information, creative policies, and political will needed to keep our communities safe from the devastating impacts of climate change, allowing the Bay Area to thrive well into the future. Check out the plan today

Photo Collage (from left to right): Tech. Sgt. Aaron Perkins/Oregon Military Department via Flickr, Daniela Ades/Greenbelt Alliance, Ryan McVay, Reproduction/Instagram Kamala Harris

Post Contributors: Sarah Cardona & Daniela Ades

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