Rebuilding Paradise – Avoiding Hell

An Update on California’s Efforts of Moving toward Climate-Safe Infrastructure

Contributed by Susi Moser, Ph.D.

As I write this, I’m returning from California, where the smoke-filled air has finally cleared, but the atmosphere is still filled with the horrors of the Camp Fire, which all but destroyed the town of Paradise. Every conversation I was in, every story I listened to, involved some experience of living through the devastating blaze, the urgency of recovery right now, or the difficult-to-imagine task but also the determination of rebuilding an entire town.

Just think away everything in the neighborhood, the city in which you live. Everything. And then try to put the pieces back in place, bit by bit: homes, businesses, and all of the infrastructure that allows people to run normal lives: electricity lines, communication towers, traffic lights, schools, health facilities, a whole new water sewage/treatment system (Paradise, before the fire, was one of the largest cities in California still entirely on septic), and of course stabilizing the hillsides through rapid revegetation, which some day may serve again as scenic landscapes and recreational areas that people might enjoy.

How do you even begin when you have lost all town government offices, the entire tax base, not to speak of every city official – Mayor and Council members included – having none of their own homes to go home to at the end of each grueling day?

At this point, there is no room for subtlety: the work ahead is about rebuilding Paradise – the actual one, and all the other “Paradises” that exist in the state. It is about avoiding hell. Making sure that whatever infrastructure gets built from now on – and California will build lots of it given population trends, the need to refurbish old and outdated infrastructure, and remake much of its electricity and transportation infrastructure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – is built with climate change and extremes in mind, rather than blind to the unfolding reality. It must be adaptable, resilient and sustainable if the money is not to be wasted. In a word: it must be made climate-safe, and for everyone, not just the rich.

The purpose of my trip to California was to brief the legislature and the State’s Strategic Growth Council on a report I helped produce this past year, released earlier this summer: Paying it Forward: A Path Toward Climate-Safe Infrastructure in California. With the legislative staff back at work and rolling up their sleeves for the next session, we reported on a project mandated by Assembly Bill 2800 (Quirk).

The 25 staffers in the briefing room were eager to find useful angles to take back to their elected members. All the right state Senate and Assembly members, Committees and Appropriations folks were represented. Just like the Mayor of Paradise, they asked, “where to begin?”

Our answers, detailed in the report, launch from a three-pronged vision of climate-safe infrastructure, which contributes to the stringent emissions reductions consistent with the Paris Agreement, ensures safety even if climate change turns out much worse, and does both with a central focus on social equity. Our report offers a systems approach for realizing this vision, which involves (1) user-relevant forward-looking climate science as well as socioeconomic information; (2) improvements in the project planning process; (3) updated standards, codes and guidelines; (4) improved economic analyses and financing tools; and (5) much greater attention to the things that help with appropriate implementation (e.g., workforce development, procurement and contractual language, incentives, waiver guidance). The ten recommendations we offer in the report address each of these five components.

After two hours of briefing and engaged questions and answers, we learned that a Republican State Senator will work to advance a previously begun initiative (ACA-21) to pass a constitutional amendment in the state that would establish a permanent funding source for infrastructure. In the revised version, language from our report is being cited in the legislative findings. Climate change is now a recognized motivation for moving this forward! You can track this over the months ahead to see if it passes. Chances are good. The incoming Governor may well support it, too. For now, it’s encouraging to know that “paradise” for climate-safe infrastructure funding may come out of the ashes of hell!