Climate change is transforming California’s ecosystems, threatening vital habitat for many native species. There is an increasing likelihood that many species will be lost. That’s why Ted Sommer, former lead scientist for the California Department of Water Resources, and Jennifer Harder, a professor at the McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, are joining forces this year as our 2023–24 PPIC CalTrout ecosystem fellows. We recently asked them to tell us more about what they’ll be working on, which they’ve dubbed the “Ecofutures” project, and what might appear in a series of policy briefs they will write.
Tell us about the Ecofutures project—what is it, and why is it important?
Ted Sommer: Even with rapid action on carbon emissions, climate change is going to severely affect our waterways. Ecosystems are not going to heal on their own, so we need to come up with some management strategies to help them—and the native species that reside within them—survive. The Ecofutures project will first develop a toolbox of actions to address current and future climate effects on California waterways. Second, it will identify legal and policy pathways to help these ideas happen. We’re hoping that by developing ways to address the impacts of climate change, it will help guide natural resources policy, prioritize funding decisions around resource management, support the development of resource management plans, and even identify priority areas for research and pilot actions.
Jennifer Harder: I’m very excited to be collaborating with Ted on this. My role will be to work with Ted and the PPIC team to map out legal pathways for the implementation of those tools. I’ll identify processes to determine which tools will work best in any given context. I’ll specifically be looking at the laws, regulations, and policies that frame the available options.
Sometimes law is perceived as a barrier or a limitation, but the law often provides opportunities for innovation and future planning that are under-explored or underappreciated. In fact, the legal frameworks for natural resources management can be flexible and dynamic. And that will naturally require us to explore the institutional, governance, and funding frameworks within which the law operates so we can help California craft a meaningful response to the reality of climate change.
Why do we need to start planning for climate change scenarios now?
TS: Climate change is well underway in California. In the past two decades, we’ve seen increasing temperatures, stronger droughts, and sea level rise, as well as the closure of the salmon and abalone fisheries along the Pacific Coast. And this year we got a glimpse of how flooding may impact our future. We’re going to see habitats destroyed or degraded within our lifetimes, and the net effects will be smaller species populations, less diversity, and extinctions. Because California’s natural environment is so diverse, it’s a really complicated problem. We’ll need a multifaceted effort that will include new policies, technologies, management strategies, and financial approaches—and all of that takes time. We need to start as soon as we can.
What laws are relevant to the Ecofutures effort?
JH: When we’re talking about species’ reactions to climate change and human responses, a whole range of laws and regulations come into play. Of course we’ll be looking at the federal and state endangered species acts, as well as other key laws that affect water allocation, water quality, and conservation planning. These laws provide opportunities for scientific study, innovative planning, and management that respond to ecosystem realities. We will explore these opportunities as part of developing the Ecofutures policy toolbox.
Who will benefit from this series of policy briefs?
TS: We’re hoping the policy briefs will be directly useful to resource managers, lawmakers, agencies, NGOs, and the tribes, as well as the community of scientists, engineers, and others who are actually developing the nuts and bolts of how you would implement these ideas.
Anything else you’d like to share?
TS: A lot of the discussion about climate change, when it comes to species and habitats, is really pessimistic: people focus on what we’re about to lose. What we are doing here is essentially a futuristic effort—we’re trying to think about what’s possible with some early planning and creativity. We want to inspire folks to think ahead. There are still plenty of things that we could do to ensure some positive outcomes.
JH: Doing nothing is a management choice—and not one that should be made by default. Good policy requires frank and objective exploration of all options and consequences. I’m excited to help initiate these conversations.