Ten years ago, I wrote a book called The Golden Shore: California’s Love Affair with the Sea. Back then, I suggested that California, with almost forty million people and the world’s fifth largest economy, was proof that you could grow a progressive society while protecting your coast and ocean—and that the two are intrinsically linked. The San Francisco Chronicle wrote that the book “just might make you feel optimistic about the future.”
Well, that future has arrived and I’m less optimistic. This winter’s atmospheric river storms, coastal flooding, erosion, sea level rise, saltwater intrusion into rivers, and sedimentation dumping thousands of tons of soil into the ocean were only the most recent of the state’s disasters. The year 2022 alone brought a massive red tide in San Francisco Bay, the continued die-off of 95 percent of northern California’s kelp forest between the Golden Gate and Cape Mendocino, and a spike of gray whale deaths along the entire coast.
Climate impacts threaten communities, both human and wild, ranging from whales and their ice-dependent Arctic prey to the twenty-six million people living in the state’s nineteen coastal counties that, as of 2021, generated around 85 percent of the state’s $3.3 trillion dollar GDP.
Still, I believe that if we’re going to build coastal and ocean resiliency in the face of the global climate emergency, California is the place that will get it done first.
“Native Tides,” The Golden Shore’s opening chapter, covered the deep history of the culture of California’s coastal Indigenous communities and their ongoing engagement in tackling the climate crisis. I wrote about examples like the state’s largest tribe, the Yurok, and other tribes on the Klamath River working with non-native fishers, farmers, government agencies, and power companies to remove a set of aging dams that will help restore the state’s wild salmon populations. The Tribal Marine Stewards Network, established in 2022, is another collaboration between the state and five tribes to better manage 220 miles of threatened coastline.
The proposed Chumash National Marine Sanctuary is the first to be nominated and named after a California tribe as part of state and federal efforts to protect 30 percent of all land and water by 2030. These efforts recognize that healthy ecosystems are more stable and resilient to climate change impacts than degraded ones.
This winter’s giant surf and king tides also demonstrated how, according to a study in Scientific Reports, sea level rise could displace 150,000 Californians by 2050. As part of a Sea Level Rise Action Plan, the Coastal Conservancy is helping fund the design of living shorelines that use oyster beds, wetlands, dunes, and other natural habitats to buffer communities from the impacts of rising seas.
These habitats, along with sea grasses and California’s iconic kelp forests, are collectively known as “blue carbon,” because they sequester carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. AB 2539, a recently proposed state law, would require any coastal development to contribute to the protection and restoration of blue carbon. This is particularly needed in the face of the recent collapse of kelp forests linked to a marine heat wave.
The state’s Coastal Commission and Ocean Protection Council are also at work providing funds and setting deadlines for sea level adaptations both in communities and at “critical infrastructure,” including ports, power plants, and water treatment facilities.
Under two recent federal laws, billions of dollars will flow to decarbonize the nation’s ports. In the “Ports of Call” chapter of my book, I highlighted how the San Pedro Bay Port Complex of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the largest in the western hemisphere, led the world into the Greening Ports movement. Through a “Clean Air Action Plan,” they dramatically reduced greenhouse gas emissions and diesel pollutants, which are harmful to neighboring low-income communities, by 70 percent in less than a decade.
California is also overcoming its longtime opposition to offshore energy dating back to the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. In December 2022, the first lease sales for renewable offshore wind energy were held, bringing in $757 million in bids. These would create bottom-cabled floating offshore wind farms that are more appropriate to California’s steep continental shelf than the bottom-fixed turbines soon to picket much of the shallow Eastern seaboard.
The state could also follow Ventura County’s example and begin using small-scale desalination plants, located not on the vulnerable shore but just inland, to clean groundwater impacted by both sea level rise (saltwater intrusion) and agricultural pollutants.
Unfortunately, California needs resources equal to its coastal challenges. In response to a short-term deficit, Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom has proposed budget cuts for 2023-24. This could undermine long-term ocean climate actions, especially since these cuts include a 45 percent reduction for the Coastal Conservancy’s Coastal Protection and Adaptation programs and a $69 million or 36% cut to the Ocean Protection Council.
Newsom can argue that much of this will be offset by new federal climate spending, but if he is serious about California functioning as a kind of nation-state—sending delegations to United Nations-sponsored climate and biodiversity conferences, for example—then he needs to stay committed to making sure that we can provide a global model for ocean and coastal resiliency in the face of an unprecedented and existential threat.