Flames from the Woolsey Fire behind a lifeguard tower near Malibu. Courtesy OnScene.TV

Like every California governor, Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom risks natural disaster on his watch. But Newsom’s risk is worse because his term overlaps with the highest atmospheric carbon dioxide levels of the last 800,000 years—and that level is increasing.

A warmer Earth compounds the intensity and unpredictability of wildfire, drought, flooding, and heat wave in California.

Whatever his other priorities, Newsom must reckon with the potential for climate change to amplify natural disasters. The brutally fast wildfire that killed at least 85 Butte County residents last month—by far the deadliest of any California wildfire—resets our assumptions about how bad things can get.

After his inauguration on Jan. 7, California’s new governor can immediately build on the work of previous administrations to prepare us for the worst. A roadmap awaits. That roadmap would improve environmental policies—and our quality of life—more broadly.

This fall, Resources Legacy Fund and the UC Berkeley School of Law Center for Law, Energy and the Environment mined the experience and creativity of dozens of leaders and thinkers to distill three separate sets of actions the Newsom administration could take to address wildfire and forest management; flood, drought, and the provision of safe, affordable water supplies; and climate mitigation, transportation, and housing.

Michael Mantell

Though not all are natural disasters, all are urgent issues. For too long, hundreds of thousands of Californians have lacked affordable, safe drinking water. Transportation accounts for 41 percent of California’s greenhouse gas emissions, more than any other source, and we must reduce the number of miles we drive to meet our carbon-reduction goals.

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, the former leader of the California Senate, helped moderate the discussions we convened. Some recommendations to emerge were simple, cheap, and discrete:

  • Forge the top leaders of agencies that deal with water issues into a council that meets regularly and synchronizes work across state government.
  • Use the bully pulpit to connect wildfires to urban water supplies, air quality, and the economy while emphasizing that solutions will take years but must begin now.

Other recommendations are expensive:

  • Ramp up fuels treatment and restoration on wildlands to reach a level of half a million acres a year within four years.
  • Find an additional source of funding, such as existing greenhouse gas cap-and-trade program revenues, opt-out fees on water consumption, or fertilizer fees, to support operation and maintenance of affordable, safe drinking water projects for communities in need.

Many recommendations are politically fraught, including these:

  • Implement state incentives for local governments to limit new development in areas of high wildfire risk.
  • Consider options to expedite permitting of affordable housing near transit.
  • Figure out how to dedicate a volume of water to the environment, to be managed for ecosystem recovery.

And some recommendations demand technical or bureaucratic wherewithal:

  • Create a comprehensive, statewide mapping program to identify high-priority wildfire areas for vegetation treatment and emergency response investments.
  • Realign state transportation, housing, and other infrastructure funding and policies to support the state’s goals for reducing vehicle miles traveled and producing affordable housing.

All three half-day discussions we organized encountered the tension inherent when cities and counties hold the authority to mitigate problems that affect the entire state.

Local governments could, for example, refuse to approve new subdivisions in far-flung, flammable places with precarious water supplies. Should the state use incentives or regulation to spur local actions that align with statewide goals?

Often our panelists suggested incentives. But on problems like guaranteeing safe, affordable drinking water, they urged tighter state regulation.

Shot through all three discussions was a keen awareness of the climate wild card. The historical record no longer brackets what we can expect in intensity or duration from drought, flood, or wildfire.

So we cannot move quickly enough to cut emissions from our millions of tailpipes in California, and Gov. Newsom will need to improve state governance, funding, and planning as necessary—no matter how difficult—to get ready for the worst.

Michael Mantell is president of Resources Legacy Fund, a nonprofit that works with donors to create significant outcomes for the environment and people. He wrote this commentary for CALmatters.

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