Climate Report Spells Trouble For L.A., Desert, Central Valley

Climate-vulnerable districts in Southern California | Image courtesy Pacific Institute

As California's climate warms, some people will have more difficulty adapting than others. Depending on your income, your personal resources, and the configuration of your neighborhood, a warmer world could be a significant annoyance or a serious danger.

A new interactive map by the Oakland-based Pacific Institute charts vulnerability to climate change in each of the state's 7,049 Census districts -- and the results are bad news for Californians living in Los Angeles, in the Low Desert, and in the San Joaquin Valley.

Pacific Institute researchers Heather Cooley, Eli Moore, Matthew Heberger, and Lucy Allen calculated each Census district's score on 19 different factors, using data from a number of sources, to gauge the average vulnerability of each district's inhabitants to climate change. The factors included local environmental conditions such as tree canopy cover and the percentage of the district that is paved, social amenities like access to full-service supermarkets, demographic data such as percentage of English speakers, high school graduation and unemployment rates, and public health data such as obesity levels and recent births.

The notion here is that while climate events such as heat waves, wildfires, and floods don't discriminate among their human victims, social factors play a huge role in how readily a household can recover from those events. If you can escape to your High Sierra cabin when temperatures reach 105° in Los Angeles, you're going to bounce back a lot more quickly than if you're bedridden in a Pico-Union flat with no AC. People who are more isolated, whether through age, disability, or limited English proficiency, will have fewer chances to take advantage even of free resources offered to help people cope with disasters.

"Climate risk is a function of exposure and vulnerability," said lead author Cooley in a press release this week. "Many social and economic factors interact -- such as access to transportation, legal residency, income, and language abilities -- and it is these factors that determine vulnerability to a climate impact or other hazard."

The researchers used the 19 factors to create a "vulnerability index" for each district, then grouping the state's districts into high, medium, and low vulnerability. And looking at the map that resulted, it's clear that some parts of the state are in more trouble than others.

Los Angeles County is, it turns out, disproportionately threatened by climate change. With 27% of the state's residents, the county nonetheless holds 40% of the more than 12 million Californians who are deemed highly vulnerable to climate-related disasters. The map of where those vulnerable Angelenos live holds few surprises. The core of Los Angeles from Compton to Glendale is highly vulnerable, as are less-affluent sections of the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys and central Long Beach, while places like Beverly Hills and Calabasas and Malibu are less so.

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California's other urban areas show similar patterns, though with somewhat fewer people affected. Poorer districts in the Bay Area, San Diego, and the Inland Empire are likewise deemed vulnerable. So are largely agricultural coastal areas like Oxnard, Santa Maria, and the Salinas Valley.

But when you look at the map of the whole state, the areas that stand out as being at the most risk are the desert portions of Riverside and Imperial Counties, and the multi-county core of the San Joaquin Valley, from the bottom of the Grapevine south of Bakersfield all the way to Modesto in Stanislaus County.

The two core areas share many commonalities. They're both characterized by industrial agriculture giving way to urban sprawl. They both have some of the worst air pollution in the U.S., especially with regard to airborne particulate matter, and they share the resulting high rates of respiratory ailments among their residents. They're both worse off economically than much of California, with high poverty rates and high unemployment, especially of the seasonal variety. They both have relatively high numbers of residents with limited English proficiency, mainly Spanish-speaking people but also including significant numbers of South- and Southeast Asian people.

And both areas are projected to see the steepest increases in temperature of any place in California.

If one could extract some good news from this downbeat report, it could well be that in the state's urban centers have a better chance of helping those who are most vulnerable to climate change. The map's accompanying report, released last month, urges California communities to begin developing and implementing plans to adapt to a changing climate that address the needs of the most vulnerable, and California cities' communication and transportation infrastructure, while far from perfect, make implementing those plans more a matter of political will and funding than technical feasibility.

But though fewer people live in the San Joaquin Valley and Low Desert than in the state's big cities, their overall prospects may be more bleak. The Low Desert already verges on uninhabitability for those without air conditioning for two or three months a year, and the San Joaquin Valley isn't much cooler. As temperature increases in both regions the costs will almost certainly be measured in increasing loss of life.

Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Director of Desert Biodiversity, he writes from Joshua Tree regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues on KCET weekly. Read his recent posts here.

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