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Facing Climate Change with Resilience and Hope

San Francisco under an orange smoky haze in September of 2020

Above, a view of San Francisco, California, at approximately 12 p.m. PT on September 9, 2020. Wildfire smoke shrouded the city in a dark, orange haze all day. Photo by Sonya Abrams.



Our climate policy research matters now, more than ever.

Much of the Bay Area awoke to eerie, orange skies and falling ash on September 9, 2020, the aftermath of over three weeks of devastating wildfires across California and the Pacific Northwest. Now, with headlines, social media feeds and Slack channels rife with apocalyptic language and images, it seems important and necessary to confront our sense of foreboding with climate action. While this week the cultural conversation may have veered toward "end-of-days" scenarios, much of the work conducted by Lane Center researchers focuses on understanding what moves society toward real policy change, and working with local governments to mitigate the threat of catastrophic climate events. Read on to learn about how we're tackling climate change with resilience, innovation and optimism.



U.S. Capitol Building
The Politics of Climate Change

Adjusting policy for a better future

In October of 2019, Bill Lane Center Director Bruce Cain, a professor of political science, delivered three talks on the politics of adapting to climate change in the American West as part of the Julian J. Rothbaum Distinguished Lecture in Representative Government series at the University of Oklahoma. With Iris Hui, senior researcher at the Lane Center, Professor Cain conducted a regional poll in August and September of 2019 to determine Californians' opinions on extreme weather events, and on wildfire policy and prevention. In his lectures, Cain drew on the survey findings to weigh in on how Westerners might unite to adapt to the common challenges they face, even though climate change is so politically divisive.  In fact, A 2020 analysis by Hui and Cain shows that wildfires tearing through California may bring Democrats and Republicans closer together in support of climate resilience measures.The 2019 Rothbaum lectures synthesize much of the academic research sponsored by the Bill Lane Center.

The relevance of Cain's topic cannot be overstated; a warming trend in the West, on top of aridity, is already leading to water stress and scarcity. The wildfires of 2019 raged in both Northern and Southern California as Cain was delivering his talks, and the 2020 wildfire season, only just begun, has already destroyed a record 2.5 million acres. While millions of Californians are currently packing go-bags and readying themselves for possible evacuation, last year millions of residents were enduring Pacific Gas & Electric's planned power outages, designed to prevent such devastating blazes in the first place. California may be a leader in limiting greenhouse gas emissions, but the warming and fires of the past several years stand as a reminder to the state that adaptation measures are necessary for developing climate resilience. And as Professor Cain reminds us in these lectures, there is no time like the present to act. In the face of frightening climate catastrophe, a “window of opportunity” opens for policymakers to consider real change. He urges us to learn the lessons from extreme weather events, seize the policy window, and adjust our climate policies accordingly. Watch the lectures to learn more.


Making strides in prevention, risk mitigation and recovery

Wildland fires have impacted California in devastating ways over the past several years. Right now, smoke from a historic number of wildfires burning across the state shrouds the Bay Area in darkness. While 2019 brought Public Safety Power Shutoffs – planned blackouts to prevent major wildfires from sparking – 2017 and 2018 saw the most destructive and deadly blazes recorded in the state’s history. At the Bill Lane Center for the American West, students and scholars have long been engaged in environmental governance and climate resilience coursework and research, particularly as it pertains to wildfire policy. The environmental reporting we offer in our “…& the West” blog has taken up wildland fires in the West on numerous occasions. We've even participated in a hackathon focused on wildfire-related problems, pitching project ideas for Stanford student teams to tackle in the contest. In addressing the threats posed by climate-linked disasters, our aim has always been to provide helpful tools, reporting and research to those who make decisions that impact California and the West. Below is just a sampling of our recent climate policy work on wildfire in the West.

Virtual Wildfire Management Series

The combined threat of wildfire and COVID-19, posing significant risk to community safety and security, has called for a unique response from researchers and practitioners alike. Earlier this summer, we convened experts for a three-part, online wildfire management series to discuss the challenges of preparing for and responding to wildfires during a pandemic. Intended for a practitioner audience, the panels offered important insight into how to harness resources to protect individuals, property and the environment during these frightening times.

On June 25, 2020, we hosted the first panel with Don Gordon of CALFire and Chief Daryl Osby of the Los Angeles County Fire Department, who discussed training and safety among first responders battling wildfires during a pandemic. Though Osby expressed reasonable concern about financial cuts to fire services, and how that might impact wildfire response, both panelists were optimistic about their ability to continue to serve and protect the public. "The fire service is committed to protecting safety, property and environment," said Don Gordon. "COVID might change our internal response; we'll be more vigilant about safety protocols. But we’ll bring in as many resources as needed to ensure our response to wildfire risk is the same."

On June 30, we hosted a second virtual wildfire event with Dr. Sarah McCaffrey of the U.S. Forest Service. McCaffrey, who has undertaken a number of studies looking at public acceptance of wildfire measures, explored wildfire risk perceptions, incentives for homeowners to create and maintain defensible space, and key factors to consider in preparing for wildfire during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Our third panel in this series was held on July 9, taking up the human dimensions of wildfire response and recovery in the face of COVID-19. Speakers  included Alma Bowen, executive director of Nuestra Comunidad; Charles Brooks, executive director of Rebuild Paradise Foundation; and Luke Beckman, the American Red Cross Division Disaster State Relations Director. The group discussed evacuations, shelters, and government coordination. 

Rebecca Miller, a wildfire researcher and Ph.D. student in the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources, moderated the series. She is advised by Bill Lane Center Director Bruce Cain.

Wildfire Polling

In an effort to understand public opinion around wildfire policy, researchers at the Bill Lane Center for the American West conducted an American western regional poll in August and September of 2019. The poll surveyed 3,000 respondents and asked many questions about wildfire policy. Perhaps the most surprising finding by researchers Iris Hui and Bruce Cain was that in spite of repeated, devastating fire seasons, Californians are unwilling to subsidize wildfire prevention.
Lane Center wildfire research and polling plays an important role in moving climate policy forward. Knowing what kinds of climate action the public might support can help policymakers decide how to invest their time and energy as they try to protect residents' safety, health and property. 

Student Work

This summer, student research assistants (RAs) took on urgent regional wildfire concerns as well. Two unique projects focused on different aspects of wildland fire, with one RA examining vegetation management practices to reduce the risk of fire in Santa Clara County, and another  exploring the connection between partisanship and beliefs about climate change. 

During the winter of 2020, students also produced original research for a Lane Center course called "Environmental Governance and Climate Resilience," taught by Professors Bruce E. Cain and Len Ortolano. Each group dove head-first into a topic related to wildfire preparation, mitigation, or recovery in the Bay Area. Their projects, also geared toward making strides in climate policy, are available here.

Topic Members Headline File Download
Grants Anpothowin Jensen, Lorelay Mendoza Wildfire Prevention Grant Writing PDF Powerpoint
Marin Joint Projects Agreement Brooke Hale, Liqian Zhang, Poppy Brittingham Marin Joint Projects Agreement: A Case Study PDF Powerpoint
Migration Erica Bower To Rebuild or Move? Understanding Post-Disaster Migration Decision-Making of Santa Rosa Residents Displaced by the 2017 Tubbs Fire PDF Powerpoint
Social Media Kate Borden, Nikoonj Dhandaria, Xinle (Grace) Yao Benefits and Challenges of Using Social Media Platforms for Wildfire Related Purposes PDF Powerpoint
Technology Tianheng Shi, Niranjana Rajagopalan, Yifan Cheng Response: Technology Advances in Firefighting; Feasible technology strategy for Souty Bay Counties PDF Powerpoint
Wildfire Insurance Amelia O'Donohue, Jordan Brinn Can Home Hardening Save Home Insurance for Californians? PDF Powerpoint
Wildfire Preparedness and Vulnerable Communities Pamela Beltran, Jenny Hamilton, Binita Thapa, Megan Yen Effective Strategies for Aiding Latinx Communities in Sonoma County Wildfires PDF Powerpoint
Wildfire Spread Modeling Yuping Li, Shurong Liang, Louis (Jiaokun) Liu, Samuel Sung, Emma Velterop Wildfire Spread Modeling Based on Rothermel's Quasi-Empirical Approach; Wildfire Spread Modeling: Deep Learning Approach PDF Powerpoint


Sea Level Rise

Coordinating government agencies to mitigate risk

Sea Level Rise Adaptation Project

California has been slow to adapt to sea level rise. It can be hard to shift public opinion on the dangers of major flooding events when the West has been impacted far less severely than the hurricane-prone South and East. And yet, sea level rise remains a real threat to Californians, with more than 26 million of the state’s nearly 40 million inhabitants residing on the coast. California's vulnerability to this climate challenge demands coordination among government agencies to mitigate risk, manage emergencies, and address potential flooding and displacement.

As a hub for research and expertise on the climate challenges facing the West, the Bill Lane Center has undertaken a sea level rise adaptation project  serving the neighboring jurisdictions of San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties. Like the climate resilience course offered on wildfire in the winter of 2020, an earlier iteration of the course took up the probelm of sea level rise. Out of this fall 2018 course emerged a workshop for local policymakers at Stanford University that explored policy and engineering options for addressing sea level rise, as well as student analyses of efforts to address the same challenge in the eastern and southeastern United States. 

Ongoing Research

Bill Lane Center Director Bruce Cain and Senior Researcher Iris Hui are also engaged in ongoing research on climate adaptation, and have recently completed a paper on sea level rise and personal experience with climate events. Published in "Ocean and Coastal Management," the article investigates how to garner bipartisan support for sea level rise adaptation policies. The researchers found that personal experience with extreme weather events can lessen the partisan gap in many instances, offering hope that communities can find bipartisan solutions to climate change threats.

In August of 2020, the Bill Lane Center was proud to support research on sea level rise and urban traffic networks, which culminated in a paper called "When floods hit the road: Resilience to flood-related traffic disruption in the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond." As always, our goal in undertaking these projects is to help explore and develop sound climate policy that preserves and restores the health of the environment in the American West and beyond.