Los Angeles, other cities collaborate on climate adaptation strategies

“Climate change is the defining problem of our time, and how we adapt will determine our longevity as a species,” said Nancy Steele, Executive Director for the Council for Watershed Health, as she welcomed the attendees of theMediterranean Cities: A Conference on Climate Change Adaption,” held last month in downtown Los Angeles.

The three-day conference, hosted by the council, brought together public policy experts from California, Israel, Europe, South Africa and Australia. It might sound like an odd group at first blush, but each of these countries has major cities with what are known as “mediterranean climate” zones, regions that are located in the middle latitudes, and are often the westernmost places on landmasses bordering cold oceans.  Their climates are typified by hot, dry summers and mild, wet winters.

Reputations for abundant sunshine and mild winters did much to make cities with mediterranean climates, such as Los Angeles, Rome and Perth, economic powerhouses with large populations.  However, these places famed for their climates are now at the forefront of 21st century global warming, which is expected to exacerbate water scarcity, increase energy costs, and increase the threat of vector-borne diseases.  Add to those challenges changing precipitation patterns along with risk from heat waves, flooding, drought and sea level rise.

The better to deal with so many projections, the conference divided participants into working groups, each focusing on different topics: water management, energy management, biodiversity and open space policy, managing built environments, public health and governance.

The challenges facing the water group are not for the faint of heart. Changing climate conditions could increase water demand by as much as 7%, said Andrew Scharwz, California Department of Water Resources.  Hydrologist Michael Dettinger of the US Geological Survey said projections indicate that precipitation in mediterranean climate zones could decline as much as 20%, making competition over this increasingly scarce resource likely.

But western water managers are familiar with conflict and offered their successful strategies. “Meet conflict and make him your friend,” said Celeste Cantu. The General Manager of the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority noted that conflict can’t  be avoided in watershed management, so managing it is key. One strategy for resolution is to have conflicting parties develop data together, Cantu said. In her experience, by getting agreement on the underlying data, collaborative solutions were more easily found. All of the participants of the water group conference called for stronger linking of land use policy to water management.

A universal theme throughout the conference was the need for public education.  As the former director of the European Commission Directorate-General for the Environment sees it, citizens react differently to what they perceive as “global” threats and changes directly impacting “their city or “their life.” “Only adaptation at the local level can present scenarios that mobilize citizens to take action,” said Prudencio Perera.

Programs that were highlighted as successful examples for engaging the public included “Project Budburst,” an alliance of horticulturists and ecologists that is encouraging Americans to track bloom times of plants in their regions to increase awareness of climate change, and the European Union’s “In Town Without My Car.”

For those who may be skeptical that cities can make a difference on climate change, Romel Pascual, LA’s Deputy Mayor for Environment, thinks they may be our safety net. “Cities are coming together on climate change when countries can’t,” he said.

Cities may indeed hold the key. The World Health Organization estimates that by 2030 nearly two-thirds of the world’s population will live in them, many of these in mediterranean climate zones.  While large cities can create problems, these urban hubs are the driving forces behind research, innovation, and policy change, conference organizers say.

Michael Peevey, president of the California Public Utilities Commission sought to underscore the emerging mission. “We have to lead,” he said. “We have to be dramatic about it, or it will be hell on earth.”

The consortium behind “Mediterranean Cities” conference plans to meet again in two years.

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