Climate change is real and unfolding, and the outlook for California is bleak.
A series of state-sponsored scientific studies released Tuesday warns that California can expect more scorching heat waves, severe and damaging wildfires, emergency room visits and strain on the electric grid as the Earth continues to warm and sea levels rise along the state's 1,100-mile long coast.
Higher temperatures in the next decade means that far more of the state's 37 million people will depend on air conditioning--increasing demand for electricity by up to 1 gigawatt during hot summer months. One gigawatt is roughly the size of two coal-fired power plants and is enough energy to power 750,000 homes.
"The demand for electricity will increase as households operate existing air conditioners more frequently, and in many regions will install air conditioners where there currently are few," read a report on residential electricity demand by Max Auffhammer of the University of California, Berkeley. "ZIP codes with a higher share of Latino population and less-wealthy households are projected to experience larger increases in consumption."
The California Natural Resources Agency and the California Energy Commission jointly released "Our Changing Climate 2012," a series of peer-reviewed scientific studies designed to help California prepare for and adapt to climate change. More than 25 research teams from the University of California and other academic
"We accept that cigarette smoking causes cancer and we accept that HIV causes AIDS," said Ken Alex, a Senior Policy Advisor to California Gov. Jerry Brown, at a morning news conference held at the California Emergency Management Agency in Mather. "We are not in the same place with climate change....Here in California we do make policy decisions based on the science. Governor Brown actually reads the science, and he takes it very seriously. I know at a deeply personal level that he wants to do something about climate change and he wants to see California take a leadership role. This set of reports does not paint a rosy picture."
Chief Ken Pimlott, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said that firefighters know the impacts of climate change from fighting more frequent and intense wildfires on the ground.
"These are not changes we're talking about in the future--these changes are occurring now," said Pimlott. "We're already seeing longer fire seasons: on average, two months longer in many areas of the state. In southern California, we're seeing fire seasons that can last year round, even in what are usually the wet months of January and February."
Pimlott said that of the 20 largest, most damaging fires ever in California, 11 have occurred since 2002.
"We're seeing a rapid increase in the number of large damaging fires," he said. "Something is changing....we need to get ahead of the fires before they occur. Public education is key. We have got to be out educating our citizens in California of the impacts of climate change."
Key transmission corridors in the state, including the transmission line that brings hydropower from the Pacific Northwest into California, is also vulnerable to wildfires.
The urgency of acting on climate change was renewed this weekend when Richard Muller, until recently a leading skeptic of global warming, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times concluding that global warming is real and that "Humans are almost entirely the cause." Muller, a physics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, now characterizes himself as a "converted skeptic."
Gov. Brown has long been one of the most outspoken politicians on the issue of climate change, and California is moving forward with a host of efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and boost the amount of renewable electricity.
But the impacts of climate change are already being felt. California is experiencing more rain than snow, and the snow that does fall in the Sierras is melting sooner in the spring. California gets about 15 percent of its electricity from hydropower, but hydropower generation is declining due to reduced snow pack.
The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta helps provide fresh water to two-thirds of the state's residents, but rising sea levels are putting pressure on the Delta's system of earthen levees. One of the studies released Tuesday found that the entire Delta region may be sinking, which may cause levees to fall below safety design thresholds as early as 2050.
"We are looking at climate change and what we have to do to adapt," said John Laird, Secretary of the Natural Resources Agency. "We have to get Californians at every level of government and individually to think about this."
Contact Dana Hull at 408-920-2706. Follow her at Twitter.com/danahull.