Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot on Challenges of New Climate Reality


Wade Crowfoot, California’s new Natural Resources Secretary, recently delivered a keynote address at LABC’s Annual Sustainability Summit. He focused on the economic, social and environmental challenges the state and localities are addressing in response to a new climate normal; on prioritizing new wildfire and water supply & stormwater policies being advanced by Governor Newsom and the Natural Resources Agency; and, commended the city of Los Angeles for its ambitious climate actions. The Secretary’s remarks follow, edited for space.

Wade Crowfoot: California is leading the world when it comes to climate action and environmental sustainability. The fifth largest economy in the world is already deriving more than half of its energy on a daily basis from renewable energy. In terms of electrification and electrifying transportation, that movement is happening and being led in California. About half of electric vehicle sales in the country are generated here.

Last week, the State Water Board adopted a new policy meant to protect wetlands in an appropriate way without unnecessarily inhibiting development. At a time when we see the Trump administration moving away from, or even attacking, environmental protection, this state is doubling down on protecting the environment in a way that grows our economy.

If California is leading the world, Los Angeles is leading California. The investment that the county and city have made in transportation, parks, and water is the envy of the state. Angelenos get it. You get that we need to invest in improving transportation, expanding open space access to all communities, and becoming far more sustainable and self-sufficient on water. Your voters have put their money where their mouth is.

The vision that the mayor and the county supervisors are articulating is impressive. It would be one thing if it were a small city. Sometimes our friends in LA like to call San Francisco a “boutique city,” and while I deeply resented that while working for the city, I think they had a point.

The goals that Mayor Garcetti and the Board of Supervisors set are really ambitious for one of the largest and most highly visible, recognizable, and respected metropolitan areas of the world. The fact is, leadership here is swinging for the fences and making progress at a huge scale. If you can pull it off down here, that will make a difference not only in California, but for the entire world.

While California and Los Angeles are leading on climate action and environmental sustainability, we still have major economic and social challenges. Our economy is growing at impressive rates, but more and more Californians are being left behind. Income inequality is expanding. Poverty is growing. Homelessness is more visible than it’s ever been. I appreciate that economic leaders in LA understand that income inequality and inequity are not only morally problematic, they’re horrible for our economy.

Places with bifurcated populations of the very wealthy and desperately poor are not economies that function well. That’s a primary challenge. The California Natural Resources Agency doesn’t really touch on economic issues, but environmental sustainability has to be interwoven with economic and social equity. I am proud to work for a governor who, in his first 90 days, elevated these issues on the statewide policy agenda along with strong leadership in the Legislature and from Governor Brown.

Those are our economic and social challenges; now let me talk about our environmental challenges.

We used to talk about climate resilience in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and then adapting. Everybody focused on greenhouse gas reduction and decarbonizing our economy, and with good reason; it’s what we need to do to save our planet. But adaptation was always seen as a conceptual planning exercise to address impacts decades into the future. The problem is: The future is now.

Climate change is taking lives in California. Less than eight months ago, almost 100 lives were lost in the town of Paradise in the most destructive wildfire season in the state’s history. Dealing with climate change impacts is no longer about planning or feel-good policy. It’s about protecting people’s lives now and protecting the nature that makes our state so unique.

So what do we know about climate change? We know that our dry periods will become drier. Droughts like the one we experienced just a few years ago will become longer and more punishing. Likewise, the wet periods will become wetter. We’ll get a higher portion of our water every winter through intense atmospheric rivers that increase flood risk, certainly in Los Angeles. And finally, wildfires: Two of the most destructive wildfire seasons in state history were in the past two years.

I live in the Bay Area, and we had to buy my four-year-old an N-95 certified mask with teddy bears on it that she had to wear for almost a month because of the air quality. At one point last summer, the Bay Area had the worst air quality in the world for a number of days. I’m not telling you anything you don’t know; Los Angeles experienced horrific wildfires that took lives in communities here.

These are the pressing challenges that we face. Southern California, despite your leadership, is particularly vulnerable. Millions of Angelenos live in the wildland-urban interface who don’t understand they are at fire risk. Take the communities of Santa Rosa or Malibu, for example, where folks who are not next to a woodland or a forest don’t know they can be victims of wildfire. The challenge is that wildfires are changing. Intense winds push embers up and over the fires. We saw tremendous devastation in the inner urban core of Santa Rosa, where people thought they were being evacuated just as a precautionary measure, but came back five hours later to find their homes leveled.

Guess what? That is a realistic threat for millions of people who live in Southern California. We have to address wildfire risk with that level of urgency.

Likewise, on the water side, flooding is a risk. The whole LA River system was built and made concrete for flood control as the result of horrific floods a century ago. Conversely, because a lot of the water consumed in the LA Basin doesn’t come from here, drought is a risk. I don’t want to be doom and gloom, but we need to attack wildfire and water challenges with the urgency that the crisis demands.

Where are the opportunities in this? The good news is we have leadership that gets it. In his first 100 days, Governor Newsom has taken a series of actions on wildfire safety, as well as prioritizing a portfolio of action on water. Likewise, the Legislature gets it. An observer of policy dialogue would agree that wildfire and wildfire risk is priority 1A in Sacramento right now. Speaker Anthony Rendon and President pro Tem Toni Atkins are leading the way on the policies and investments we need to protect California in terms of climate resilience, in addition to the strong proactive leadership you have here in LA.

This past June, statewide voters passed Proposition 68, led by many groups in Los Angeles, which provides $4 billion to modernize our water system for drought and flood and also to expand access to parks. Southern California has some of the most park-poor communities in the state. A lot of us live in communities blessed by a lot of open space and parks, but millions of Angelenos and Southern Californians don’t. Prop 68 is meant to be a down payment to expand access to parks. I’m heading to the LA State Historic Park later tonight—a great example of bringing open space to an area of Los Angeles that didn’t have enough of it.

In terms of opportunities, I think Californians get it. They understand that economic prosperity is not, and should not be, in conflict with environmental sustainability. The public opinion polling is remarkable: Californians don’t want to sacrifice coastal and ocean protection, water quality, and open space for economic growth. Guess what? We don’t have to. Our economic growth is outpacing national economic growth while we continue to lead with landmark environmental leadership.

Governor Newsom spent time in Paradise and saw the devastation firsthand. He came away realizing that there are a lot of other communities in the state that are equally vulnerable to wildfire, not only as a result of where they’re situated, but also in terms of transportation access and demographics, including age, mobility, and infirmity. On his first day in office, the Governor issued an executive order to CalFire to identify and prioritize the most vulnerable communities and the wildfire safety projects that could be completed before the next wildfire season—also known as this summer—to protect those communities. CalFire developed a list of 200 vulnerable communities based on fire risk, transportation access, and demographics. Last week, the Governor issued an emergency proclamation empowering my office to waive contracting and environmental permitting requirements to implement 35 projects, on over 90,000 acres of land, to create defensible space around those 200 communities.

It’s a big deal, and we don’t take suspending CEQA lightly. But the Governor recognizes that these communities face peril as early as this summer as a result of drier forests that make megafire activity larger and more damaging than ever. The wildfires of the last two years have emitted enough carbon to wipe out the emissions savings that we had achieved as a result of AB 32. If we’re going to be international leaders in reducing our carbon footprint, we need to address forests and wildfires. If we don’t, we won’t reach our carbon goals.

There is an urgent effort to protect vulnerable communities, and there’s also a broader effort to manage our forests more proactively. Fire is a natural cycle in woods and forests; native tribes from time immemorial managed forests through prescribed fire. As California developed and we moved up the mountains and into the woods, our focus has been on suppressing fire. While we thought that was helpful to protect public safety, it’s created an unnatural density of forests and woods that spark megafires in areas that would otherwise experience normal-sized fires. We have to work across state agencies, the federal government, the Forest Service, and local governments to manage our forests in ways that emulate natural cycles. We have to be careful not to impact the environment and habitat as we do that, but doing nothing is untenable at this point.

It’s not only about what we do in the forests, but also what we do within communities to protect homes. We need to harden homes in the wildland-urban interfaces so that, when we do have fires that push embers up into the sky, they don’t instantly combust. California has some of the strongest building standards in the country for fire safety in new homes, but the vast majority of homes in vulnerable communities are existing homes. Many of these communities, particularly the rural ones, are fairly poor. How do we change out roofing materials or harden siding so it’s less flammable when you have old homes and residents without a lot of money? …

Now let’s talk about water. The Governor was very clear in his State of the State address that water is a priority of this administration. There was a question of whether it would be, given all the other challenges, like housing affordability and immigration, but he has said that we need to continue to position California to have a resilient water system for cities, towns, and nature for the next century. We’re going to do it in a couple of important ways.

First, the Governor continues to believe that we need to modernize our conveyance  infrastructure, which moves water and snow from where it falls in the mountains in Northern California to where people live in the Bay Area and Southern California. This discussion has been reduced to whether there should be tunnels through the Bay Delta. We’re not shying away from this controversial question. We believe that an earthquake-safe tunnel that is resilient to sea-level rise and saltwater intrusion is essential to protecting the water supply for more than 30 million people. It’s not an easy topic. It’s terribly controversial in some parts of the state, but we think we need to move it forward.

However, if the water policy conversation is reduced to just “tunnel or no tunnel,” then we’ve failed. There’s so much more that we have to be doing on water across the state. We have to partner with local water agencies, like LADWP, because 85 percent of spending on water infrastructure happens at the local level. The state can think whatever it wants, but unless it’s partnering and aligning with the locals, we’re not going to build more resilience.

The Governor has called on my agency and other agencies to identify a portfolio of priorities, like, for example, expanding water recycling where feasible. Mayor Garcetti has been remarkable on that front with his recent announcement on reducing ocean discharges at the Hyperion Waste Treatment Center and recycling that water.

 Expanding stormwater capture is another priority. Water that flows out of the LA River into the sea should be permeating into groundwater basins for future use to build local reliability. Your leaders get this. County Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Hilda Solis led an effort to pass Measure W last year, which will generate $300 million annually to capture more stormwater and get it underground. That will help, not only with the water supply, but with the trash and contaminants that the river currently washes into the ocean. At certain times in winter, your beaches are unswimmable due to contaminant and bacteria levels. We can and should be doing much more. The same is true in the Bay Area and anywhere on the coast.

I’m really energized about this work. This is a critical moment, not only because of the opportunities we have, but also because of the challenges we face. I think the leadership demonstrated in California, including your leadership as business and community leaders in Los Angeles, is going to be super critical for the fate of the world.

We used to think about climate action just in terms of reducing our GHGs while expanding our economy, and that’s really important. But I’d like to expand the definition of environmental leadership to include leading the world by protecting our people and nature against the inevitable changes that are already happening as a result of climate change.

"I'd like to expand the definition of environmental leadership to include leading the world by protecting our people and nature against the inevitable changes that are already happening as a result of climate change." —Wade Crowfoot