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Sarah Cardona

Rewriting a ‘New Normal’ in Our Response to Climate Change

So many things in life go through stages. Phases of the moon and changes of the seasons. The pre-during-aftermath of a disaster like a wildfire. We even see coronavirus evolving, mutating like most viruses do. 

With respect to our global pandemic, at present I find myself somewhere in between the stages of acceptance of what is happening and attention to what is next. We have critical choices to make. Already we know things will not go back to how they were pre-COVID-19. In many respects, we embrace a new normal because the old way wasn’t working anyway. And that invites an opportunity to rethink what hasn’t worked in the past, find new meaning, and write a different path forward.

The same is true for our collective response to climate change. We know deep down we cannot continue our local or regional planning effort or on-the-ground investments at the same incremental and reactive pace of the past. We need to write a new-normal approach to climate change that is proactive and directs larger scale interventions in adaptation strategies and regional resilience planning ahead of the next major fire, flood, or drought event.

A Different Path Forward: Reducing Risks Now Ahead of the Next Climate Disaster

Such a paradigm shift in our approach to the climate crisis requires realigning what mobilizes leaders to take action. We should incentivize climate-resilient development and planning decisions that reduce risk before climate disasters even hit. This could not only jumpstart the adaptation strategies needed, but would reduce the amount of federal “safety net” funds needed by local governments when disaster strikes—bailout funding which totaled almost $280 billion from 2005 to 2014.

Taking steps to better identify and address climate-related risks is a tenet of building resilience to the inevitable impacts of climate change. What this pandemic is teaching us is that we must not delay preparing for a crisis we know is coming. The Bay Area is at risk of major flooding; a new-normal response should be stockpiling wetlands now to position communities to better withstand sea-level rise and flooding.

The Bay Area is blessed with natural capital that we should be investing more in to help us reduce our climate risks. This could be restoring forests and other carbon-rich habitats like wetlands, expanding parks and other open spaces, and enhancing rural ecosystems through climate-friendly agriculture. Now is our opportunity to go beyond business-as-usual thinking. We need to identify different tools and incentives that bolster natural capital solutions to climate change. The timing is right too, as the state is refining its priorities for conserving, restoring, and managing natural and working lands to meet its climate change goals.

A New Path Forward: Acknowledging the Climate Risks We Face

The planning required to bounce back from impacts of climate change requires us to have a firm grasp on what exactly are the climate risks, to whom, and at what scale. Another hurdle is generating that urgency to act now about the future threats and damages down-the-road brought about by the impacts of sea-level rise, flooding, or wildfires. Add to this that the timescales of said threats are different: we arguably have more time to plan for sea-level rise than the more immediate threats from another major wildfire coming this season. 

I think about the coronavirus and how our local leaders centered their policymaking around preparing for and attempting to minimize the future threats and damages, the potential risks of losing more lives to the virus. Now, in determining when to slowly reopen economies, our Bay Area public health officials are driven by science, data, and achieving public health outcomes. This should also be the guiding force directing how the region grows while adapting to climate change: data-driven policy decisions grounded in understanding our risks and how we achieve community resiliency outcomes.

Greenbelt Alliance is better pinpointing the places most at risk to multiple climate hazards like floods and fires that are also at risk of development. We will continue advocating for the suite of local land-use practices needing attention today to avoid placing communities in high-risk areas, while also protecting those natural assets that in turn provide protection to communities from climate impacts. 

I am hopeful that we will move into a new normal with climate risk data driving our policy decisions aimed at building resilience. It’s encouraging that world leaders are being called upon to incorporate climate risks and opportunities into financial systems and all aspects of public policymaking by 220+ states and regional government members of the Under2 Coalition in its Green Recovery to the COVID-19 pandemic

What gets me through these challenging times is centering my thoughts and energy on reimagining possibilities under a new normal. We now have the attention of many of us pondering what the future holds. Let’s use this pandemic as an opportunity to rewrite where we go from here, not only in critical aspects of public health, individual resilience, and economic rebuilding but also in our ability to adapt to a changing climate and better prepare ourselves and our communities for the future.

Photo: Levi Bare via Unsplash

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