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Amid the Federal Government's Climate Change Skepticism, States and Counties Are Doing Their Own Climate Assessments

They're not trying to resist the Trump administration—they just need a plan for the future.
Smoke from the Ferguson fire hangs over the Yosemite View Lodge in El Portal, Yosemite National Park, California, on July 21st, 2018.

Smoke from the Ferguson fire hangs over the Yosemite View Lodge in El Portal, Yosemite National Park, California, on July 21st, 2018.

As climate researchers often say, science doesn't care about your beliefs. The Earth is still going to warm. And state and other local authorities are still going to prepare for that future, as I learned from a series of interviews this week.

Amid controversy about the National Climate Assessment—a final draft of which is due this December—I spoke with scientists and officials who work on climate assessments for their own states and counties. These have been published with less fanfare than their national big sibling and, their authors say, they have been more welcomed by constituents, even in conservative states.

Climate change denial may have reached historic levels of pervasiveness in the White House, but state and local climate assessments aren't meant to be acts of rebellion against the Trump administration. They're simply practical. In fact, all of the assessments I analyzed predated President Donald Trump. Global and national climate change reports don't offer local areas specific enough information to help farmers, ranchers, and city-planning engineers. So localities undertake their own analyses instead.

So what do local climate assessments do for local citizens? Below, Q&As with scientists who worked on three assessments across the country.


The California Climate Assessment

Vital Stats:

  • California's fourth state climate assessment published this week.
  • Very thorough, it provides predictions for nine distinct regions of California and dozens of sectors.
  • It's paid for by fees on Californians' electricity bills.

I talked with Bob Weisenmiller, chair of the California Energy Commission, who helped lead the assessment.

Why does California do its own assessment? What isn't the National Climate Assessment giving you that you need?

BW: If you think about everything from our very heavily wooded part in Northern California to our desert to the coast, there's a lot of different parts of California. The effects will be quite different with climate change. [The National Climate Assessment] really does not deal with the subtleties, the variation across California.

How has California used its assessment to make policy?

BW: We have an adaptation plan for the state. We have a model, Cal-Adapt, which takes all the science and builds it into a land-use model. One of things we're doing is requiring entities to use that model as they're planning buildings. They're looking out to, say, 2050. How much hotter will it be? How much drier will it be? What's the sea-level rise? What's the fire risk?

Do you ever run into climate change denial among Californians?

BW: Going back to this second assessment [published in 2009], a lot of the local governments were like, "What are you talking about?" By the time we got to the fourth one, there was a lot of hunger for the science that they can base their actions on.

We've gone from one really bad fire every 10 years to every year, it seems like we have the largest one in history. Some would say that it's all caused by bad forest management or, as Trump insists, water policies. It's true the forests have a lot more flammable material than they did, and that's certainly one of the things that heightens the impacts of it being much hotter and drier. But having said that, from my perspective, it's pretty clear that climate change is driving things. There were really bad fires in Greece; God, even in northern Sweden. It's really more of a global phenomenon now, as opposed to Trump's statement that it's just California's environmental laws.

The Montana Climate Assessment

Vital Stats:

  • Montana's first-ever state climate assessment published in 2017.
  • Much smaller than California's, it focuses on climate change's effects on Montana's water, forests, and agriculture.
  • It was paid for with a National Science Foundation grant for research.

I talked with Cathy Whitlock, a professor of earth science at Montana State University and the lead author of the state assessment.

You started the Montana Climate Assessment in a unique way.

CW: We spent the first part of the assessment talking to different stakeholder groups, asking them: What did they want? [We spoke to] the Montana Stockgrowers Association, Montana Grain Growers, farm unions, forestry groups, and also some of the groups that are involved in conservation.

What did the assessment find?

CW: Earlier snowmelt is something that we can see going into the future. Some plants that really depend on late-season irrigation, things like hay, sugar beets, and malt barley, are going to probably be impacted by climate going forward. But, on the other hand, the longer growing season in Montana is going to enable some crop diversity and that might be a positive thing. A big thing is going to be the number of days over 90 degrees, which is going to have a big impact on stressed livestock.

And now you say you've been on a "roadshow" around the state to tell people about the results. What are those meetings like?

CW: It can be anywhere from a group of a dozen people, or a couple hundred. It's presenting the findings of the assessment and then opening it up for conversation. This past year, we've done it maybe every other week.

Do you run into people who are skeptical that climate change is happening at all?

CW: The thing that surprised us is that most people conceded the climate is changing. They can see it. People work on the ground. They're outdoors. They depend on knowing about climate.

Are people sometimes unsure if the change is caused by people burning fossil fuels?

CW: You often have people who say, "Well, climate's always changed." I'm a paleoclimate person, so I can actually speak to what we know about climate change and climate history in Montana. Being able to give that perspective kind of redirects the conversation. We don't spend all our time talking about whether this is unusual or not.

I never start a talk [by] talking about the cause of climate change. That's just a showstopper in a conservative state. Now, on the other hand, when you show projections in the future, you have to explain how those are developed. You explain: With rising greenhouse gases, this is what it's going to look like.

You know, realistically, Montanans have a very small role in causing global warming. It's a very low-population state. We are closing our coal-fired power plant. We're gonna be the ones that really have to adapt to it.

Climate Change Plans in Broward County, Florida

Vital Stats:

  • Broward County is on Florida's southeast coast.
  • It has climate plans for different sectors, such as drinking water, public health, and agriculture.
  • It's also a part of a "Climate Change Compact" with three other south Florida counties. Their latest climate plan was published in 2017.

I talked with Jennifer Jurado, director of environmental planning for the county.

Why does Broward County need to do its own climate change analysis? Why can't you rely on the national or global models that get a lot of attention?

JJ: The problem is that the global models do not represent precipitation well for the state of Florida. They don't represent well the types of convective processes that drive most of the precipitation in our region. So we have relied upon work through Florida State University.

We [also] have a history of investment in hydrologic models and. since the late 1990s, there have been efforts to bring sea-level rise into the hydrologic modeling.

How do your climate change predictions affect policy?

JJ: It's a requirement for water management projects and building projects to comply with the hydrologic conditions that are anticipated with two feet of sea-level rise, spanning the years 2060 to 2069. Most of our planning and management decisions are based upon the anticipated change in the hydrologic system in the 50-year time frame.

What's special about Broward County's water system?

JJ: Our geology is very porous. It's limestone. People talk about it being kind of like a Rice Krispies treat. With sea level rising, because that water can move through our bedrock, it's causing the groundwater table to rise. During high-tide events, for example, you can actually have the groundwater table intercept your land surface.

So the ocean can actually seep into the land, into your underground aquifers, and push aquifer water up into these swales? What do you do about that?

JJ: We're preparing for the loss of about 35 million gallons per day in potable water supply capacity from coastal wells, as saltwater contaminates those wells. We're collaborating with a number of utilities in the development of a regional surface water reservoir outside of Broward County.

The Trump administration is filled with officials who don't believe in climate change. Does that affect your work?

JJ: It just affects the resources that are available. There still is technical support available [from federal scientists]. There never really was a lot of financial support. What local governments really need is infrastructure funding. Our nation can't afford to not be investing in flood protection and water supplies.

Of course, the greatest hazard is that we're not doing enough on emissions. What we do at the local level isn't enough to address global emissions. We need national leadership there. We're deferring and creating future environmental conditions that are going to drive costs in a way that I don't think anyone can afford.