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Amanda Brown-Stevens

Climate Risk: Missing Pieces & a Path to Action

Over the last couple of months, we have seen a shift in coverage, in conversations, in how we collectively understand our increasing climate-related threats in the Bay Area. Yards covered in ash have become a regular occurrence, even in areas not beset by fires. We’ve seen great coverage from local newspapers, advocates, and experts on the connection between wildfires and climate change, and how our local land-use decisions, and where homes are built, can impact our future. We have the power to make a difference! But as we start to build a regional consensus around the need for action, we know we need solid data and innovative policy ideas to inform what that action should be. And before we can act, we must identify the missing pieces. 

Missing: Updated, Coordinated Data 

While lots of climate-related risk data sources exist—including fire maps, flood zones, and beyond—we still face a couple of big challenges when moving from research to action. First, our climate is changing quickly—we’ve all seen that the areas that were deemed low fire risk have burned multiple times in recent years. Second, state, regional, and local data sources tend to be siloed—maps for flood risk, groundwater recharge, fire danger, and earthquake hazards may all be in different formats and different scales, making prioritization very difficult. 

Fortunately, in this region, we have a great start with the Bay Area Greenprint, a unique tool – developed by a collaboration between Greenbelt Alliance, The Nature Conservancy, American Farmland Trust, Together Bay Area, and Greeninfo Network that combines many data sets to reveal the many values our natural and working landscapes provide.

However, still missing are the pieces that will guide us as a region to those areas most at risk from climate-related hazards. The areas we need to collectively come together to preserve and to reap the biggest benefits. And missing as well are the tools and political leadership needed to ensure we are protecting our most vulnerable areas. 

Our Solution: Climate Risk Research

As the Bay Area grapples with how to handle multiple climate risks, Greenbelt Alliance is launching a Climate Risk Research Program to deliver the cutting-edge research needed to identify those areas most vulnerable to climate related-risks—advocating for resources to permanently protect and steward these critical lands and communities in order to minimize devastating climate impacts. We’re building on existing research, identifying gaps, and drilling down to parcel-level data to identify the Bay Area’s highest climate risk areas, as well as places that provide the most climate resilience benefits. These are the Bay Area’s “resilience hotspots”. If protected, these resilience hotspots will substantially increase the region’s nature-based climate resiliency by contributing to public health and safety, providing critical habitat and connectivity, offering park and recreation opportunities, and yielding carbon sequestration benefits. 

So while we still need better data to identify our highest priority areas, it seems like with the increasing awareness of climate change, and flood and fire risk, protecting these areas should be a no-brainer. A combination of strong policies to prevent development on vulnerable lands, and investment in permanent protection and stewardship can provide significant benefits to the people and natural ecosystems of the region. However, while securing the policy consensus and funding needed for this endeavor may seem daunting, it is only one piece of the puzzle. As we address the climate crisis in our region, we cannot ignore the housing crisis, decades in the making, that is threatening our region’s sustainability.

Missing: Affordable Homes in the Right Places 

It is no secret that the construction of new homes has not kept up with demand in the Bay Area for many years, which has been exacerbated by our recent economic boom, where the region added six new jobs for every new home constructed. The State of California recently identified the need for the Bay Area to plan to accommodate close to half a million new homes over the next eight years to make a dent in our affordability crisis. Additionally, the impacts of the coronavirus have hit our region unequally—creating even more need for homes affordable at all income levels and increased awareness of the risks from overcrowded housing.

So, how does this connect to climate resilience and wildfire policy? We are fortunate in this region—even while surrounded by threats of wildfire, flooding, and extreme heat—to have a plethora of wonderful, vibrant cities and towns along the temperate coastal zone, with transit corridors far from fire risk zones and elevated from flood risk. Unfortunately, exclusionary zoning policies have been entrenched in many of these areas for decades, significantly reducing the number of homes built in these climate-smart zones. These policies often have racist origins, with explicit exclusions of Black, Asian, and other non-white groups as part of the original zoning codes. And while these explicit provisions no longer exist, today existing homeowners wield an enormous amount of power to prevent new homes and new residents in their communities under the guise of “neighborhood character” or parking and traffic concerns. 

This had led to increased building further and further out in the region, worsening commutes and greenhouse gas emissions as well as building in the wildland-urban interface (or WUI) at much higher wildfire risk. Great reporting has been done recently to show just how much worse the wildfire impacts are due to existing housing policies. Increased housing in the WUI put homes and lives at risk during wildfires both for residents and for the first responders working hard to protect those homes. Allowing more homes in climate-smart, fire-safe parts of the region is key to reducing our future risk.

So this seems even more straightforward, right? We identify where we shouldn’t build, and prevent development in those zones. And we identify where we should build, and do all we can to encourage building in those areas—two pieces of the puzzle that fit together nicely to create a complete vision for our most urgent actions for a climate-resilient future.

Our Solution: Collaborate & Advocate 

Here’s where our simple plan for addressing the wildfire and housing crises stumbles. While leaders around the state—from the neighborhood level up to the Governor himself, call for urgent action on these crises—specific laws, policies, and funding allocations are stymied at every turn. 

We must urgently come together  as local residents, leaders, and activists that care about a vibrant, affordable, beautiful, natural, and just region to relentlessly push a bold legislative, funding, and development agenda for our region. 

We cannot get caught in endless debates around individual developments, the placement of individual bike lanes, the protection of individual homes. 

We cannot pit the need for housing against the need for environmental protection. We must do both.

We cannot focus only on job growth, only on conservation, or only on one specific thing. This is our moment to come together, to listen to each other, to collaborate, and to act at all levels of government!

At the state level: the 2020 legislative session was defined by a global pandemic, but as wildfires heated up toward the end of the session it became clearer than ever before that we cannot delay much-needed climate and housing legislation even in unprecedented times. We’ll look to the 2021 session for bold legislation that prevents more development in vulnerable areas while eliminating hurdles to development in the places that make the most sense. Without further legislation, we know that developers will continue to build in vulnerable areas. And without further legislation, we know that residents lucky enough to live in climate-smart areas will fight against new development to expand that opportunity for others. We need truly visionary legislators, willing to stand up for the future.

At the regional level: over the next year, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Association of Bay Area Governments will be finalizing the regional vision for housing and transportation for the next generation with cities and counties planning for the new homes needed as part of the Plan Bay Area process. In parallel, the State-mandated Regional Housing Needs Assessment requires all jurisdictions to plan for a certain amount of new homes. These processes taken together can create a blueprint for a healthy, climate-smart region with homes and jobs close together and close to transit, surrounded by natural and working lands that can serve habitat, recreational, and climate-resilience goals. On the other hand, these processes can accelerate sprawl, inequality, and fire danger. We must work together to ensure an authentic climate resilience focus in the Plan Bay Area process, protecting the natural and working lands that surround our communities and tying transportation and housing funding to climate-smart land-use priorities.

At the local level: local control has been a cornerstone of California’s land-use policy since the start of city planning. It feels like an inalienable right for local residents to have a say over what happens in their neighborhood. Yet in practice, prioritizing the desires of those residents with time, knowledge, and political connections over other existing and future residents have led to poor outcomes from an environmental justice and affordability perspective. We know that our existing lack of housing has led to increased inequality and homelessness, and the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted just how dangerous overcrowded housing can be.

Adding in the climate impacts of the increased sprawl that comes with preventing more development in cities, and the increasing number of homes vulnerable to flood, fire, and extreme weather, now is the time to fundamentally rethink how we make decisions about building new homes. We must make it much, much easier to build in areas that are at low risk for climate-related hazards, close to jobs and transit. 

Unfortunately for all of us today, we are getting an up-close and personal view of the results of prioritizing individual convenience and short term benefits over the long term health of the region and the planet. And yet, as environmentalists, one of the most compelling messages we come back to time and time again is to create a legacy for future generations. Let’s all take that to heart, making decisions now that will help us collectively today, and truly leave a better region for our children, grandchildren, and all of those who will be here when we are gone.

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