Governance in the Age of Climate Change

by Jeremy Loudenback

The onset of climate change is expected to have a powerful impact on California, from effects on growing seasons in agricultural areas to more frequent forest fires. But one crucial area has been overlooked until recently: governance. As California’s abundant coastline deals with rising sea levels and other consequences of global warming, how California cities plan for change and govern effectively in the face of new community standards will be one of this century’s most pressing challenges.

More than 75% of California’s population lives in coastal localities where the risk of flooding is very high, making this an area of crucial importance in thinking about the increasing risk associated with climate change, according to USC Price School researcher Hilda Blanco. But the state has shifted some of its resources planning focus in recent years from mitigation to adaptation, with large implications for local and state governments in examining the long-term impact on California’s almost 2,000 miles of coastal area that includes roads, railroads, and more than $50 billion worth of at-risk coastal buildings.

HIlda Blanco, November 5th talk on Climate Change
HIlda Blanco, November 5th talk on Climate Change

As part of a Bedrosian Center program which funds faculty research, Blanco presented the results of her research in looking at the ways in which local communities develop planning to deal with sea level rise. The Bedrosian Center funds several grants for USC Price faculty research on governance issues, and as a condition of the grant, each principal investigator is asked to give a presentation of his or her findings.

There are many guidelines from state, local, and national agencies to help communities plan for a local response to sea level rise, but sustainability directors for communities need to consider their ability to actual implement plans in the face of their institutional contexts.

“Local coastal managers need training and better information to develop plans,” Blanco said. “But suppose they have developed plans, to what extent can they implement these plans? So my focus has been on how state agencies can facilitate local adaptation to sea level rise.”

Blanco used results from state-wide Sea Grant survey as well as her own interviews of local coastal managers as well as key managers of major state agencies involved in coastal sea level rise to measure responses to sea level rise in their plans and programs, including updates to plans, studies, technical assistance, and research related to sea level rise provided to local governments.

Local governments must also balance the needs of property owners with land use plans from the California Coastal Commission and evolving ideas about effective responses to coastal erosion and rising sea levels. California has still not mapped out a clear stance on environmental ordinances, leading to many local governments unsure about how ordinance will evolve and if moving ahead of the slow pace of legislation will provoke lawsuits.

“The state has developed a lot of guidance documents, but they haven’t developed model ordinances,” Blanco said.  “It seems to me that if the state develops model ordinances then local communities would be protected from the legal challenges.”

In her interviews, the biggest need that Blanco uncovered was for the state to take a leadership role and provide funding for local governments to develop unified plans to deal with current levels of sea rise and deal with projected levels in the years ahead. Despite the difficulties of passing a bond measure, it may be the best hope for California creating an effective plan for coastal climate change at a local level moving forward.

“The state is faced with a problem that it cannot require local governments to change their plans unless they provide the funds to do it,” Blanco said. “The one thing that we heard, of course, is that there isn’t enough money to help local agencies and local communities develop local plans. The bond issues that are supporting [state agencies] are basically expiring, and they’re facing diminishing resources. So I think that we need a new coastal bond issue. It’s so difficult, but we will definitely need it.”