Although individual extreme weather events cannot yet be reliably linked to global climate change, the warming planet may be contributing to recent weather disasters in California. Across the state, 129 million trees died as a result of the drought of 2011-2016, many of them in the Sierra Nevada. Last fall, the worst wildfires in the state's history whipped through wildland areas and neighborhoods, and then were followed by a January deluge and deadly mudslide.
Climate change is also impacting agriculture. The winter chill that farmers rely on to re-boot cherry, pistachio, walnut and other important fruit and nut crops has been curbed by unseasonably warm nighttime temperatures. Sustained summertime heat waves are damaging crops and putting diminishing water resources under stress.
Climate change isn't just about the planet. Increased frequency and intensity of climate extremes impact peoples' lives by forcing evacuations and migration from fire- and flood-prone areas, reducing the availability and safety of food, and dampening emotional well-being.
How can Californians grapple with climate change?
On the front lines of climate change education, mitigation and adaptation is UC Cooperative Extension (UCCE), with its network of scientists headquartered throughout the state, living and working in communities where local climate change impacts must be addressed.
In 2015, UCCE's parent organization, UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR), formed a Climate Change Program Team to lead a coordinated effort by UC ANR staff and academics dealing with climate change. The team surveyed UC ANR academics to find out about their current role in California climate change resilience.
“Eighty percent of respondents thought incorporating climate change impacts, mitigation and adaptation in their programs is important,” said UCCE specialist Ted Grantham, a member of the program team. “Less than half are actually doing so.”
The barriers respondents shared to working on climate change include technical complexity, lack of relevant information, and discomfort with the difficult conversations climate change can trigger. The program team brought together a diverse group of specialists, advisors and staff for a two-day workshop in February to increase capacity to raise public awareness about climate change, find practical ways to reduce the impacts of climate change, and help communities adapt to the reality of a changing planet.
Keynote speaker Michael Crimmins, a climate science extension specialist at the University of Arizona, said land-grant outreach programs have the interdisciplinary expertise and connections to provide decision support to farms and communities facing a warming world.
“Climate change is too big to tackle alone,” he said. “We have a lot of programs that can nibble at the edges. If everyone nibbled at the edge, we can make a difference.”
Resources are available for climate change extension
Myriad climate change resources were presented. UC Davis professor Arnold Bloom shared a free online college course posted at http://climatechangecourse.org. The course examines the factors responsible for climate change, the biological and social impacts, and the possible engineering, economic and legal solutions. Forty-eight mini-lectures, assignments and even exams are available to anyone willing to devote time to understanding climate change.
UCCE specialist Jeff Mitchell explained ongoing efforts to implement conservation agricultural practices on California row crop land. Research has shown the potential for climate change mitigation with precision irrigation and tillage reduction, practices that sequester carbon in the soil, reduce fertilizer needs, improve soil quality and increase yield.
Greg Ira, coordinator of the UC California Naturalist program, said a new advanced training module on climate stewardship is in development. The training will be provided to select certified California Naturalists, volunteers who work with partner organizations across the state on environmental stewardship, nature education and citizen science.
UCCE specialist Maggi Kelly introduced the website http://Cal-Adapt.org, which contains volumes of climate change projections and climate impact data from California's scientific community. Users can explore projected changes in temperature, precipitation, snowpack and sea level rise in California over this century with interactive climate data visualizations. They can download data, find peer-reviewed research and learn how to use climate projections.
Leslie Roche, UCCE rangeland management specialist, conducted rancher interviews after the 2011-2016 drought to gauge whether they consider climate change an important consideration for their ranching businesses, and whether they believe future climate will be different from the past. She found that ranchers are generally confident that they have the skills to manage for long-term drought, and that they are interested in learning about climate change and its potential impacts on their industry.
Roche has aggregated rangeland drought- and climate-management resources online at the Rangeland Drought Hub. The website includes “Voices from the Drought,” the personal stories of ranchers discussing the agonizing decisions they made during the drought – such as culling cattle, reducing staff, paying more for feed, and allocating limited water resources.
Steve Ostoja, the director of the USDA's California Climate Hub, said the program helps California farmers, ranchers, forest landowners and tribes maintain sustainable communities and ecosystems by adapting to climate variability and change. Guido Franco of the California Energy Commission said the organization recently released its fourth Climate Assessment. The assessment presents research on the impacts of climate change on the state, as well as strategies to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“I found the information and materials compiled by the Climate Change Program Team very useful,” Mitchell said. “I will be consciously using these in extension education when I can.”
UC California Institute for Water Resources academic coordinator Faith Kearns led a segment of the workshop on climate communication, taking into account the emotional side of climate change by practicing active listening and empathy building. She shared climate change communication strategies used by effective national advocates, such as Katherine Hayhoe, an evangelical Christian and climate scientist who recommends a soft approach that starts by establishing personal connections with individuals before diving into climate science.
Another approach is that of Sarah Myhre, a climate scientist at the University of Washington who believes scientists should speak boldly about climate change facts.
“… scientists are naturally risk-averse when it comes to public dialogue,” Myhre wrote in an essay on Guardian.com. “The verbal, argumentative skills common to professions in law, politics, or business do not come easily to most scientists. … Our job is not to objectively document the decline of Earth's biodiversity and humanity, so what does scientific leadership look like in this hot, dangerous world?”
At the meeting, UCCE advisor John Karlik pointed out that some listeners want to hear straight science, just facts.
“We're all needed,” Kearns said. “We all come with a difference set of circumstances and groups that we can connect with.”
The workshop closed with action planning and next steps. Among the needs presented during the session were:
- A climate change online portal with resources, tools and data that allow advisors and specialists to translate information into decision support.
- Simplified scientific information and case studies to personalize climate change impacts.
- Training for educators, advisors, specialists and volunteers.
- Research-based evidence on the impacts of climate change on food security and the cost of healthy food.
- A glossary of climate change terms.
In their article on the climate change survey in California Agriculture journal, the members of the UC ANR Climate Program Team said they believe UCCE is well positioned to understand and communicate the consequences of climate change to the public, and to identify strategies to mitigate negative outcomes for local economies, the environment and public health.
“UC ANR can become a powerful catalyst for climate adaptation and we should embrace a leadership role in advancing the knowledge and tools needed for a climate-resilient California,” they wrote.