Story at a glance

  • Over the past few weeks, wildfires in California have captured national attention.
  • This led some to say California is becoming unlivable, but the question of livability doesn’t just apply to the Golden State.
  • For example, communities around the globe are grappling with sea-level rise and other climate impacts.

Californians have grappled with destructive wildfires and struggled to breathe with the smoke-filled air over the past two weeks. While some believe that California is becoming unlivable, it’s clear that the question of livability does not only apply to the Golden State.  

Scientists know that climate change has contributed to the increasing size, intensity and resulting damage from wildfires in the western United States in recent years. And climate impacts such as sea-level rise also threaten communities worldwide. 

“The world’s ocean and cryosphere have been ‘taking the heat’ from climate change for decades, and consequences for nature and humanity are sweeping and severe,” Ko Barrett, Vice-Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said in September when the panel released its special report on the ocean and cryosphere. “The rapid changes to the ocean and the frozen parts of our planet are forcing people from coastal cities to remote Arctic communities to fundamentally alter their ways of life.”

For example, Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, an island community home to the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw, has lost 98 percent of its land since 1955. Most who call the island their home are in the process of relocating or already have. Coastal flooding on sunny days has become a regular phenomenon in Miami already. This September, areas of Southeastern Texas faced more than three feet of rain. Throughout the Mississippi Basin, towns and agricultural fields flooded this year. For the impacts of climate change, you can no further than Alaska and find both retreating sea ice and historic wildfires.

A global survey of dozens of large, freshwater lakes found that over the past 30 years, the intensity of summer algal blooms (like those reported in Toledo, Ohio, and Florida) has increased.

"Toxic algal blooms affect drinking water supplies, agriculture, fishing, recreation and tourism," said Jeff Ho of the Carnegie Institution for Science. "Studies indicate that just in the United States, freshwater blooms result in the loss of $4 billion each year."

To say California is becoming unlivable also means that many communities across the U.S. and around the world can already be considered “unlivable.” Increased natural disasters, flooding, wildfires and other emergencies put a strain on the resources of government agencies that promise relief, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in the U.S. In other words, climate change is threatening towns and cities everywhere; the question is whether nations will invest the resources needed to adapt and reduce emissions.

IPCC coordinating lead author Michael Oppenheimer said during a briefing in September about the IPCC ocean and cryosphere report that there are “various adaptation measures” such as sea walls, accommodations like raising houses, and managing relocations.

“But we need to start now,” he said, “because we need time to build sea walls or relocate people in a feasible way.”

Reducing emissions, Oppenheimer points out, is important for reducing the impacts of climate change. Still, even under less severe scenarios highlighted in the IPCC report, sea levels will continue to rise. That's one reason why, alongside reducing emissions to reduce the extent of global sea level rise, implementing adaptation measures is a pressing task.

Andrew Steer, president and CEO of the World Resources Institute, put it this way at an MIT climate change symposium: “Let’s get serious about climate change adaptation, as if our lives depended on it. Which it may.”

Published on Nov 11, 2019