Global warming, local politics


"I was a victim of the snow," former Chicago mayor Michael Bilandic told Chicago Magazine in 2000, referring to his failed 1979 reelection bid. Bilandic replaced the first Mayor Daley, who died in 1976, in the midst of his sixth term, and he was expected to glide back into office. He was the Democratic "machine's" chosen one post-Daley, which is tantamount to winning a Republican primary in Wyoming -- you're a shoo-in in the general election. Bilandic was undone, it is said, by '79's brutal blizzards. "The city's snow removal was so terrible," the New York Times reported in Bilandic's obituary, "that people guessed Mayor Daley must have taken the snowplows with him." Drive around Chicago in the winter today, and you might say the memories still linger.

Many public parking spots shoveled out by hand are occupied by lawn chairs. The chairs carry a message all Chicagoans understand: "I did my own snow removal. Park in my spot, and you might find your tires slashed."

Bilandic's '79 loss remains a cautionary tale for mayors today: fix potholes, plow, keep the lights on. And it helps explain why cities' plans for adapting to climate change are far ahead of the federal government's. Mayors are accountable to their constituents for the annoyances of everyday life in a way congressmen, senators and presidents aren't. And for many urban dwellers, climate change will expand the list of inconveniences that burden day-to-day life -- higher summertime electric bills, for instance, or more frequent restrictions on water use.

"Climate change is a profoundly local issue," says Paul Bunje, executive director of the Center for Climate Change Solutions at UCLA. "Cities are at the front lines of dealing with (the impacts.) Nothing happens at the federal level, or at Rio. Mayors are more responsive because it matters to people that live (in their cities.)"

Adds Alex Hall, a climate modeler and professor of atmospheric and oceanic science at UCLA: "It's not the end of the earth. It's just a problem like any other to deal with."

Since global climate models don't project impacts at a scale that's useful to local policy makers, to help frame the climate problem in practical terms, Hall and a team of researchers have undertaken a groundbreaking series of studies that project the impacts of climate change on Los Angeles and its environs neighborhood by neighborhood over the next 30 to 50 years. The fine-scale modeling being done for SoCal is extremely expensive and a young science -- according to Bunje, Hall is one of only a few modelers in the world with the expertise to do it. "Regional downscaling of this sort is still a relatively rare phenomenon in the climate community," says Bunje. "We just happened to have someone in this region who is an expert at it."

This type of modeling is especially important for L.A., which is sandwiched between desert and ocean with mountains in between, and made up of a patchwork of microclimates that may feel the effects of climate change in much different ways. Funded by the City of L.A. and the U.S. Department of Energy, Hall and his team's first study, which projected temperature changes for the region and was released this summer, found that coastal communities will warm the least, about 3.5 to 4 degrees, and that the highest reaches of the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains will warm the most, more than 5 degrees. The hottest areas of the region will also warm faster, and experience more "extreme hot days" in the summer. The San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys, blocked from the ocean's cooling effect by mountains, will be swept with up to four times the number of super hot days they currently experience, while the L.A. Basin, which is blessed by the ocean's cool breeze, will sweat its way through about three times the scorchers it does now. Similar modeling is on the way for precipitation, snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, sea level rise, and the Santa Ana winds, which drive wildfire in SoCal.

The studies will "give power to people making decisions," says Hall. "It's not just us saying, 'you have to plan for this amount of warming,' but, 'here's the range of outcomes, here's the most likely outcome, you can choose which risk level to tolerate."

"The City of L.A., for example, invests in heat trauma centers, designed to make sure people who are vulnerable to heat extremes have places to go during these types of events. One question was: Where do they put these centers? The study helped the city determine where heat extremes would be greatest, and they can overlay the map we've created with their distributions of vulnerable populations. If they spend X amount of dollars, and they have Y tolerance for risk, or their goal is to reduce morbidity by 80 percent, what is the optimal distribution?"

L.A. also has a tree planting program, says Hall. Lest you scoff at what may sound more like a feel-good greening project than a serious climate adaptation strategy, he says trees in L.A. can have a significant cooling effect on local environments. "And there are questions about where those investments are most effective," that his study can help answer, he says. "So this is another example of how this information provides a way to view this problem in very practical terms. I think when you start to see it that way, it becomes harder to be fearful of it."

Cally Carswell is HCN's assistant editor.

Image of "Chicago Dibs" parking space courtesy Flickr user merrydian.

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