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Sarah Cardona

Building Climate Resilience: What does success look like?

The future of our planet was on the ballot this election and though certain outcomes were unpredictable, early exit polls showed clear concern for our planetary fate as 66% of voters agreed that climate change is a serious problem. A stark contrast to 2016 when climate change and the environment were not at the top of voters’ minds.

This year in the Bay Area, notable local policy decisions were made by voters that will have lasting impacts on the future of our communities and our environment. When thinking about our approach to climate change, a specific win we’re celebrating is the overwhelming consensus to renew the city of Sonoma’s Urban Growth Boundary for another 20 years. In Sonoma and throughout the region, support to address the climate crisis was strong with residents confidently deciding to #VoteClimateResilience!

With a revived urgency and attention on the climate crisis and new policies that will forward our progress in creating a more climate-resilient region, Greenbelt Alliance has been thinking about what else is needed to get us there. The release last month of our three-year Strategic Plan steers our advocacy work to shape policy in new program areas that will impact local and regional land-use decisions with a climate resilience and equity lens.

We continue to push ourselves to articulate how we will measure our progress on policy advocacy over time. Similar conversations are happening at the state level where there is a critical need to develop a suite of outcome-based climate adaptation and resilience metrics that can help the state track its own progress. 

Determining resilience metrics is still quite a new and complex topic area. As we grapple with how to measure achieving climate goals, here’s a brief snapshot of ideas to consider that aligns with Greenbelt Alliance’s indicators of success in realizing a resilient Bay Area. 

Resilient Natural Systems: Reducing Emissions and Adapting to Climate Impacts

A resilient natural system is generally defined as having the capacity to adjust and maintain function and recover from disturbances under a changing climate. Specific resilience metrics for natural systems would depend on the location and further data points about the ecosystem. These are some of the critical characteristics for resilient natural systems around which metrics should be developed at local, regional, and state levels: functioning to reduce emissions, absorb floodwaters and recharge groundwaters, reduce wildfire risk, provide open space for communities, and secure high-quality habitat for wildlife.

One indicator of success for the state of California’s progress: 500 million metric tons of GHG emissions reduced by 2050…by nature! This is the potential that The Nature Conservancy estimates for 28 million acres of California’s natural and working lands to reduce emissions cumulatively over the next 30 years—equivalent to reducing total statewide emissions from the transportation sector over three years. If more natural and working lands are protected, restored, and stewarded across California, we could reap a multitude of resilience benefits. One way to quantify that progress is by tracking the amount of GHG emissions reduced by natural and working lands.

Other quantifiable indicators of success in fostering resilient natural systems to consider and develop specific metrics around include:

  • Improving water quality, air quality, and wildlife habitats.
  • Cleaner and more plentiful water supplies.
  • Increasing natural buffers to protect high-density areas of communities through open spaces and greenbelts, and increasing the use of long-term land-use policies like urban growth boundaries to get us there.
  • Reducing the damages, losses, and costs to families and communities, ecosystems, and economies after a wildfire.

Resilient Social Systems: Capacities to Adapt Over Time While Reducing Overall Risk

Resilient social systems can be described as all people and communities being able to respond to changing conditions in such a way that disruptions to public health and safety are minimized, while equity and protection of the most vulnerable are maximized. 

Measuring the effectiveness of policies to reduce vulnerabilities to climate impacts that center climate justice and equity outcomes is critical when establishing climate resilience metrics for communities. These are some of the vital characteristics for resilient social systems and developing metrics should quantify progress in these aspects at the local level: 

  • Increasing the capacity of communities and leaders to navigate how to set forth equitable, inclusive climate actions and remain flexible to adapt those plans as conditions change over time.
  • Reducing a community’s exposure to climate risks, especially low-income communities of color.
  • Expanding access to open space for multiple environmental, social, and public health benefits.
  • Increasing access to new, locally-based job opportunities in nature-based solutions like green stormwater infrastructure or forest and natural resources management and restoration. As an example, Los Angeles alone saw an increase in 2,000 jobs from its $166 million investment in nature-based solutions from 2012-2014. 

Measuring Greenbelt Alliance’s Progress Over Time

We know the path toward a more climate-resilient Bay Area is complex and more urgent than ever. As Greenbelt Alliance focuses on data-driven and innovative policy solutions that foster much-needed regional collaboration to plan and invest in resilient communities, we have set forth the following indicators to track our own progress along this journey of building the capacity of Bay Area communities and policymaking to adapt to climate change over time:

  • Building diverse advocacy networks across the region to raise awareness and, in turn, local involvement in the region’s climate-smart housing and nature-based climate solutions.
  • Ensuring local communities have access to tools, information, and best practices to make informed, forward-looking planning decisions.
  • Increasing the number of local jurisdictions with Climate Action Plans and General Plans incorporating climate resilience strategies that address climate justice and equity—prioritizing vulnerable communities.
  • Improving regional coordination across communities, policy makers, and landowners to heighten understanding wildfire risk and land-use solutions to build wildfire resilience.
  • Increasing land conservation and the permanent protection of high-value areas.
  • Increasing development housing projects across the Bay Area that forward climate SMART—Sustainable, Mixed, Affordable, Resilient, Transit-Oriented—communities.

As local, state, and national dialogues advance around taking bold climate action, a powerful indicator of our success will be leaders at all levels continuously monitoring and managing the policy decisions impacting our natural environment and social systems. We must be able to course-correct as situations and knowledge change over time. We all will need to embrace this approach given the need for prompt climate action in the face of an uncertain future.

Photo: Digital Globe via Wikimedia

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