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2022 Promises Continued Climate Extremes, But Also A Glimmer of Hope for Californians

2022 Promises Continued Climate Extremes, But Also A Glimmer of Hope for Californians

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It’s a brand new year, and perhaps you have hopeful resolutions in mind—losing weight, getting politically active, leaving your house more often.

But when you look over your shoulder, the demon that was 2021 is lurking behind you. In its eyes is the pandemic that kept you in your house for way too long, on its breath are the flames that nearly burned down your favorite part of the Sierra, the sweltering heat from last summer, and the wildfire smoke choking out the space in your lungs.

We can’t promise 2022 will be that much better, but we can let you in on a little secret: There’s a lot of work happening and billions of dollars available to help Californians withstand the worst of climate change.

Rachel Ehlers, principal fiscal and policy analyst for the Legislative Analyst’s Office, says billions are set aside in the state budget over three years for adapting to climate change, including money for drought, wildfire, and environmental justice.

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“What got climate on the front of everyone's mind is that we had so many climate disasters last summer,” she said. “The silver lining is it is being taken as a big priority, to help avoid some of the bad impacts on the horizon.”

And there are impacts on the horizon. Stanford climate scientist Noah Diffenbaugh says Californians should get used to climate extremes like flooding, minimal snowpacks, and extreme heat.

“We are in a climate where we've had so much warming already that some of these factors are becoming much more reliable predictions,” he said.

With years of inclement weather and climate events, Ehlers says Californians know what’s coming.

“What can we do now to prepare," she asked. "So, we don't have people losing their homes in big wildfires or have significant health impacts because it's too hot."

Ehlers says billions of dollars in the federal infrastructure bill could infuse California with money to ready roads and bridges for a changing climate. There are also millions to protect infrastructure against wildfires, deliver clean drinking water to communities, and expand an electric vehicle charging network across the state.

Even with the infusion of cash, Ehlers cautions that throwing money at climate impacts isn’t a cure for the root cause of atmospheric warming — burning fossil fuels.  And just because we have the dollars doesn’t preclude actions each of us can take to calm the storm ahead of us.

Michael Méndez, author of the book “Climate Change from the Streets,” says people can vote and pressure local, state and federal leaders to act on climate change and phasing out fossil fuels.

“If people care about climate change and environmental issues, it’s important, they stay active and educated about who's running for office,” he said. “Many people think that their vote doesn't count, but we see it does count.”

For a glimpse of what 2022 holds for California climate-wise, click the links below.

Weather | Drought | Wildfire | Environmental Justice | Oil & Gas | Energy| Electric Cars | Sea Level Rise

 

Weather

Curtains of water spray up on both sides of a truck driving on a flooded street in October 2021 in Mill Valley.
Water kicks up as a truck drives on a flooded street in October 2021 in Mill Valley. A category 5 atmospheric river brought heavy precipitation, high winds and power outages to the San Francisco Bay Area. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

2021 has been a year: A dry winter, the hottest summer on record, wildfires, and atmospheric rivers. Brian Garcia, a warning meteorologist for the National Weather Service’s Bay Area office, says he’s excited to see California start the year soggy and wet.

“For 2022, I would expect much more normal conditions than we’ve seen over the past few years, but also expect a warmer-than-normal summer,” Garcia said. He also says long-term climate models signal a dry-out in late January or February.

But there may be less time to prepare for storms and heat waves. A recent study from Stanford professor Aditi Sheshadri found warming is making it harder to predict 10-day forecasts accurately.

“So, if we know that the window of accurate predictability is going to reduce as we go forward, that is valuable knowledge for anyone who has to respond to changing weather conditions, whether it's extreme or not,” she said.
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Drought

In an aerial view, low water levels are visible at Lake Oroville on April 27, 2021 in Oroville, California.
Low water levels were visible at Lake Oroville on April 27, 2021. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

While 2022 is starting as wet and balmy, California needs 140% of average rain and snow to get reservoir levels back to average. Even with recent rains, large reservoirs the state relies on for water supply, such as Lake Shasta and Lake Oroville, are still below average. But the rain has filled some small reservoirs to above-average levels; for example, Marin’s reservoir levels noticeably rise with each storm.

One person who'd like to see stricter drought restrictions this year is Newsha Ajami. She’s the director of urban water policy for Stanford University’s Water in the West initiative. She says all the bouncing between weather extremes is just not working for California’s aging water system, built for a climate that does not exist anymore.

She’s concerned heat waves will melt the Sierra Nevada snowpack and dry out wildlands early. That’s a large part of what exacerbated the scale of the drought and wildfires in 2021.

“I'm looking into 2022, thinking, this is great, we are seeing another atmospheric river, lots of rain, some snow in the mountains, but I’m hoping and praying that we are not going to be hit with another heatwave that would melt all of this,” she said.
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Wildfire

A home burns as flames from the Dixie fire tear through the Indian Falls neighborhood of unincorporated Plumas County, California on July 24, 2021. Rising temperatures are drying out forests, priming them for big fires. (JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images)

The 2021 fire season was truly ferocious, and over the past year, the sheer scale of the fires shifted the public consciousness. Californians realized how we fight wildfires isn’t working. As a result, state leaders created policy goals and laws to make it easier for fire experts to light controlled good fires that clear excess vegetation.

Wildfire experts are still concerned that large, impossible-to-control wildfires will ignite again in the early summer months through the fall. Leila Carvalho, a UC Santa Barbara professor of meteorology and climatology, says long-term climate trends—like heat waves drying out vegetation early in the year or drier springs—will continue throughout 2022.

“Major fires will happen,” she said. “The cycles tend to repeat when we have the right conditions of winds and ignitions.”

But Carvalho is hopeful for two significant reasons. First, the state has set aside more than a billion dollars to strategically remove brush and trees to rescue catastrophic wildfires. Second, so many scientists are studying the effects climate change and historic fire suppression has on drying wildland areas.

“People are trying to find solutions to mitigate and adapt because we have to deal with these swinging extremes in climate,” she said. “I'm hopeful that we are perhaps dealing with problems in ways we haven’t been doing before.”
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Environmental Justice

Communities already dealing with the effects of climate change stand to benefit from $100 million in state funds to establish community resilience hubs where people can go when climate emergencies strike. The hubs will be permanent neighborhood-based facilities — youth centers, churches, senior centers — that can provide emergency response, including backup power, food, economic assistance, internet services and a respite from smoke-filled air.

Still, Alvaro Sanchez, policy director for the Greenlining Institute, says the funds only “scratch the surface” of what’s needed for low-income communities as swings in weather increase.

He says the legislature failed to advance a bill that would have sped up meeting California’s climate goals.

“The fact that we're still hitting up against political barriers to make the progress that we need to make just indicates how hard this is and how much growth we still need to have when it comes to addressing these challenges head-on,” he said.

Sanchez is excited that the state and two environmental justice-oriented groups are collaborating to develop a mapping platform that identifies the places most likely to flood, burn, dry out, etc. The maps will consider socioeconomic status, a factor that puts some populations at a greater risk.

“This is going to take some time to develop, but it's going to be what keeps California in the forefront on the way that we're addressing climate change and bringing intersectional perspectives into the climate conversation,” he said.
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Oil & Gas

Smoke drifts away from a Shell Oil refinery April 1, 2004 in Martinez, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

There were two milestones in 2021 for phasing out fossil fuels in California: Newsom banned new oil fracking by 2024 and drafted a ban on new oil and gas wells sometime after 2023 within 3,200 feet of homes, schools, or healthcare facilities. Even so, Michael Méndez, an assistant professor of environmental planning and policy at UC Irvine, says California isn’t doing enough. The state is the 7th largest crude oil producer in the county.

“If we really want to tackle climate change and our dependence on fossil fuel as an economy, directly addressing our oil production and oil imports is a key factor for our state,” he said.

Méndez is also looking forward to California beginning a conversation about updating its climate roadmap this year. He says a crucial part of the plan will be ensuring that California’s cap-and-trade system, which puts a price on carbon, actually lowers carbon emissions.

“I'm not sure if we should totally scrap the cap-and-trade program, but it needs a thorough public reevaluation in the legislature,” he said. “Are these market based systems happening at the expense of immediate public health outcomes and improvements for low-income communities of color?”

Méndez says there’s a growing concern that the cap-and-trade is an insufficient policy because it allows “polluting industries to pay to pollute in communities without changing their practices.” And a report last summer found that millions of carbon credits from the program do not represent real reductions in planet-warming gas emissions.
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Energy

Decisions that both eased and further complicated renewable energy marked 2021—think of plans for offshore wind and reducing the rate at which homeowners can sell extra electricity from rooftop solar panels—and lots of work around holding PG&E accountable for starting wildfires.

Energy experts say there will be a ramping up of greening the grid this year. California is also hosting an in-person offshore wind industry conference in March in San Francisco.

Meredith Fowlie, faculty director of the Energy Institute at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, says as the electricity sector further decarbonizes and renewable energy options expand in 2022, California needs to make sure the clean energy transition is equitable.

“More and more people are coming to understand the urgency of climate action, but we’re coming to terms with deep divides and social inequalities,” she said. “The choices we make are going to determine how much it costs and who pays the prices.”

As companies like PG&E put transmission lines underground to prevent catastrophic wildfires, the cost will likely extend to ratepayers, says Duncan Callaway, an associate professor of Energy and Resources at UC Berkeley.

“It will be harder for customers to justify purchasing that new electrified appliance or car because the cost to charge or run their electric heat pump will be too high,” he said.

The last piece of exciting energy news to start off 2022  is that California is beginning to work on a Fifth Climate Assessment. Andy Jones, an earth scientist in the Energy and Resources Group at UC Berkeley, is helping build a tool to take the terabytes of data electricity companies and agencies have “about the future climate and extract useful knowledge from all of that.”
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Electric Cars

Electric cars are growing in the Bay Area but are only 6 percent of new vehicle sales statewide. (Anne Wernikoff)

Petty much no one's trying to kill the electric car these days— at least, not in California — and in 2022, Ford is even releasing an electric version of the popular Ford F-150.

“In the US, where we love trucks, it's really important that people who drive those vehicles really want to drive the electric versions of them,” said Alissa Kendall. She studies electric cars as chair of the Energy Graduate Group at UC Davis. “I think that's what we're going to see in 2022, a positive and exciting shift.”

But Kendall says what’s missing from the zero-emission vehicle conversation are ways to make electric vehicles accessible, affordable, and convenient for low-income people.  A coalition of elected officials, companies, and advocacy groups want all new multi-unit family housing to come with electric vehicle charging.

Kendall thinks 2022 could be a year where there’s increased investment in charging stations in areas accessible to all Californians, not just for homeowners or businesses.

“We still have a big access issue,” she said of both electrified public transportation and electric cars. “How do we deliver transit that actually decreases the burdens of pollution on communities already experiencing disproportionate burdens?”

Kendall says California has a few big things to figure out in 2022, including what to do with car batteries at the end of their lives and how to source and produce materials to make batteries instate.
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Sea Level Rise

King Tide along San Francisco's Embarcadero, in February 2011.
King Tide along San Francisco's Embarcadero, in February 2011. (Dave R/Flickr)

Rising tides resulting from warming temperatures globally is a major climate impact the state can prepare for—even with the news late last year that the Arctic is rapidly losing ice—because the worst effects won’t come for decades.

Kristina Hill, director of the Institute for Urban and Regional Development at UC Berkeley, says it's essential to plan now for sea-level rise; otherwise, the Bay Area will undergo similar devastation mountain communities are enduring from wildfires.

“We should be planning now while things are stable, instead of running around treating it as a disaster in 20 years, which it will be if we don't plan ahead, because the rate of change is accelerating,” she said. “This is the last period when it's going to feel slow. After this, it's going to be fast for hundreds of years.”

But the Bay Area is beginning to prepare for rising tides. Counties, agencies, nonprofits and cities are collaborating to prepare for sea level rise as one region. San Mateo County is planning an entire shoreline protection project, and university scientists are researching how to prepare the most vulnerable residents for rising water levels (groundwater and the sea).

The one area Hill says needs to be taken seriously this year is that sea level rise can cause groundwater flooding and make existing contamination worse.

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“We're already seeing evidence of that water coming up out of manholes and Alameda and San Leandro,” she said. “That water is rising with the high tides, under contaminated sites. It's entering sewer pipes, it's going to cause impacts to infrastructure, and it's going to expose people to more health risks, from contaminants that are moving in the groundwater.”
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