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The sun sets behind smoke clouds from the Springs Fire in Newbury Park and Camarillo on May 3, 2013
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Climate and Environment
LA Explained: The Climate Emergency
Disturbed by unrelenting heat waves, massive wildfires, disappearing beaches, and worsening droughts? Here’s what you need to know.
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You’re not imagining it.

Southern California wasn’t always this hot, this dry, and this smoky.

Our state hasn’t always felt like an unlivable hellscape for large chunks of the year, year after year.

Climate change is a major factor in influencing the extreme weather events that are coming at us in a seemingly unending cascade. And WE are responsible for climate change.

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Covering Climate Change
  • Across the planet, hundreds of news organizations — including this one — are spending a week focusing on what it's like to be living through the climate emergency.

  • The global collaboration is called Covering Climate Now, and this story is part of it. You are also part of it. Use the form below to tell us what's on your mind, or if there's something you'd like to know.

It’s important to understand that so we can start to make the right choices going forward, both in terms of how to adapt and how to create a better climate future.

That’s why we’ve put together this guide about the impact of climate change in Southern California. It covers some of the basics about how far we’ve deviated from “normal” and what we can expect going forward. We’ll also update this page with answers to your questions and new information as it comes out.

One other note: climate change is scary and may seem like an insurmountable problem, but it’s not. Fatalism is easy and boring. Optimism and action are warranted and hard. What you do matters and can actually make a difference in the face of one of the biggest threats to life on planet Earth.

What’s Climate Change?

Quite literally, the climate is changing. The weather patterns we thought we could expect are no longer what’s showing up.

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That’s the whole hotter days, more extreme droughts, worsening wildfires thing, which we’ll get into down below.

But our climate crisis is about more than just the weather. It’s about a host of downstream impacts that you may not have realized are related to it.

Here are a few examples:

What’s Driving Our Climate Crisis?

We are, by greatly increasing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

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NASA Greenhouse Effect

Those gases – including carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide – trap energy from the sun, keeping it from escaping back out into space. Having some of those gases is good as they help keep our planet warm. Too much, and we overheat, which is where we’re at now.

We’ve reached a point where concentrations of these gases are far beyond the narrow range they’d been in for hundreds of thousands of years.

Greenhouse gases chart showing how global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide grew from less than 200 parts per million in 800,000 BCE to 400 ppm in 2015 CE.
A comparison of global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide over time
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We started pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at astonishing rates during the Industrial Revolution, and we haven’t stopped since.

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The gases come from a number of sources, including:

As of 2017, global temperatures had risen to more than 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit above what they were in pre-industrial times, though many live in places where temperatures had risen by more than 2.7 degrees. A few degrees might not sound like a lot, but many of our ecosystems survive within a fairly narrow temperature range.

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A view of the Los Angeles city skyline as heavy smog shrouds the city in California on May 31, 2015.
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Can We Turn Things Around?

To avoid the worst of climate change, we need to cut our greenhouse gas emissions, and the faster we turn off the tap the better.

If we continue on our current path, global temperatures could rise as much as 5.4 to 10.8 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, and they’ll keep increasing beyond then. Remember, humans are already reaching the limits of their heat tolerance range.

If we completely eliminated all emissions tomorrow, we’d still see temperatures rise, but it’d likely be limited to less than 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit through the end of the century. Not great, as we’d still experience worsening impacts, but much better than where we’re headed now.

In case you’re wondering how difficult a task we have ahead of us in terms of cutting emissions, not even the pandemic with all its shutdowns was able to make a huge dent. While everyone was celebrating clear L.A. skies (which mostly had to do with the weather), CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere increased at their fifth highest rate since the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration started taking measurements 63 years ago.

By the way, oil companies have known about the link between greenhouse gases and climate change going back at least 40 years, yet actively funded misinformation campaigns to sway public opinion in favor of their products.

While eating plant-based diets and driving electric cars are a step in the right direction, large-scale systemic change is what’s needed. The Biden administration seems to be taking climate change seriously. And California is often one of the most aggressive states when it comes to pushing climate policies. That said, it can be argued that we need to move faster.

Who's hit hardest?

While all communities across California feel the impacts of climate change, there are certain groups more vulnerable than others. Particularly low income communities, communities of color, those with access and functional needs, immigrant communities, and indigenous peoples.

In particular, low income communities of color tend to experience:

High heat days can be deadly, especially for those with pre-existing health issues.

Exposure to higher levels of pollution (exacerbated by rising levels of heat) can contribute to the development of pulmonary, respiratory, and cardiovascular diseases, including asthma and stroke. It can lead to greater rates of premature births and lower birth weights. And even help cause diabetes.

It’s clear that systemic racism has resulted in these communities being harder hit. One of the clearest examples being racist housing policies that’ve long ensured that communities of color were located in areas with more industrial and business uses.

Heat

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People step into their vehicles as the sun sets over Los Angeles.
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If you grew up in Los Angeles and don’t remember it being this miserably hot this often, that’d make sense. The hot days are getting hotter and heat waves are not only becoming more common, but getting longer in duration.

How Much Hotter Has It Gotten?

  • Between 1895 and 2020, L.A. County saw an average temperature increase of 3.3 degrees.
  • Eight of L.A. County’s hottest years on record have occurred in the past nine years.
  • In California, the number of extreme heat days — those above 95 degrees — have increased, particularly here in the southern part of the state.
  • Globally, nine of the hottest years in the planet’s history have occurred in the past 10 years.

How Hot Is It Going To Get?

  • Halfway through the century we could see average L.A. temperatures rise by 4.3 degrees above what we experienced in the 1980s, and by 8.2 degrees by 2100.
  • In 2000, downtown L.A. experienced six extreme heat days (defined as at least 95 degrees). By 2100, that number could balloon to 54.
  • Pasadena could go from 24 to 100.
  • The San Fernando Valley could go from 54 to 126, or four months of the year.
  • Southern California’s inland areas could see up to 10 degrees Fahrenheit warming by the latter part of the century.
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People gather on the beach on the second day of the Labor Day weekend amid a heatwave in Santa Monica
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Temperature rise will be somewhat moderated in coastal areas, which tend to benefit from the marine layer. At the same time, there’s evidence that the urban heat island effect could be working to decrease the amount of fog along the coast, especially at nighttime, which could result in greater temperature swings.

Remember the big picture. Even if we do experience a few cool and wet years here in Southern California, that won't mean the climate crisis is over. There are natural variations in weather. What's important to keep in mind is that we’re trending towards hotter and drier extremes.

If we greatly curb our greenhouse gas emissions, we can shrink those extreme heat day estimates by as much as 70%, with warming kept to a three degree Fahrenheit increase over 2000 levels by the end of the century.

What’s The Impact Of Extreme Heat??

High temperatures can be deadly, especially for the many Angelenos without air conditioning.

Extreme heat
Visitors walk near a sign warning of extreme heat danger in Death Valley National Park
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Hotter and more humid nights make cooling off from brutally hot days all but impossible. As with most of what we’ll talk about in this guide, low income people with preexisting medical conditions are the most vulnerable.

Rising temperatures:

Hotter temperatures have also increased the risk of drought and wildfires, which we’ll go into below.

Drought

Lake Oroville Dry
A section of Lake Oroville is seen nearly dry in 2014
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California’s mediterranean climate naturally swings between periods of wet and dry, but climate change appears to be making the swings more extreme. Meaning our wet periods could be concentrating into shorter, more intense windows (raising the risk of flooding), while our dry periods get longer, hotter and drier.

Take the recent 2012-2016 drought, one of the worst in California’s history.

Not only did an alarmingly small amount of precipitation fall during those years, but the increased temperatures added significantly to the drying of our landscapes. (Human-caused warming accounted for an estimated 8% to 27% of the drought conditions.)

Even during “normal” water years, heat is drying out landscapes more rapidly.

High temperatures are also decimating our most important store of water — snow in the Sierra Nevada, which accounts for 60% of the state’s fresh water. During the last drought, human-caused warming is estimated to have accounted for a 25% reduction in snowpack there.

We could see our snowpack in the Sierras shrink by 64% by the end of the century, putting further pressure on our water stores.

By the way, only a few of the past 20 years have been reasonably wet, so some have argued that we very well may be in a megadrought, the worst in the past 1,200 years.

What Is Drought's Impact?

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Dead trees line a clearing as a helicopter battling the Ferguson fire passes behind in the Stanislaus National Forest in 2018.
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As drought conditions worsen, we sometimes see restrictions on residential water use, like those that prevent people from watering their lawns every day. That said, it’s unlikely your tap will run dry.

But the drier things get, it’s a different story for our natural and agricultural landscapes.

For farmers, a smaller amount of available water may mean that they’re not able to grow certain crops.

For some of our most famous landscapes, like our vast forests, it means additional stressors that can result in plant death, which in turn can drive wildfires. Animals, like salmon in Northern California and bears in the Sierra Nevada, also struggle to survive.

Wildfires

Creek Fire
A firefighter douses flames as they push towards homes during the Creek fire in September, 2020.
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All but three of California’s 20 largest wildfires on record have occurred since the year 2000, with five of the top seven occurring in 2020 alone. And it’s anticipated that large fires will continue to be a problem.

Before we get into the role of climate change, it’s important to acknowledge that there are a host of other problems driving our megafires, including more than a century of wildfire suppression, poor forest management, outdated infrastructure that starts said fires, and the fact that we keep building deeper into areas prone to burning.

How Does Climate Change Affect Wildfires?

Hotter temperatures cause vegetation to dry out faster than it normally would, making landscapes more susceptible to burning for larger periods of the year, especially in the chaparral and coastal sage scrub covered hills of Southern California.

That hotter and drier weather also puts substantial stress on California’s trees, making them more susceptible to bark beetle attacks. The last drought contributed to 150 million tree deaths across the Sierra Nevada, potentially (though some have argued otherwise) setting the stage for major fires there.

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A firefighting helicopter makes a water drop over a wildfire threatening a nearby hillside home in the Pacific Palisades neighborhood in 2019.
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Sadly, our rainy season, which is what offers a break from wildfires, looks to be starting on average nearly 27 days later than it did in the 1960s. That means we’ve got to hold on even longer before wetness saves us from fire. Remember how the Thomas Fire burned into January?

We can’t end a discussion about California’s fires without talking about one of their biggest contributing factors: Santa Ana and Diablo wind events.

They run from late October through April, peaking between December and February, driven by cold fronts that flow down into the Great Basin. Modeling shows them potentially decreasing in severity, as the Great Basin warms. But even fairly weak Santa Ana winds can move fires along quickly.

What Are The Consequences Of More Wildfires?

Station Fire
Large smoke clouds from the Station Fire in Angeles National Forest in 2009
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More wildfires burning throughout more of the year doesn’t bode well for public health, especially among vulnerable populations. Smoke exposure has been shown to increase the risk of cardiovascular and pulmonary events, and is a major threat to kids.

As more cities burn, not only will more lives be lost, but more people will be displaced. Those living in fire-prone areas may find it impossible to get fire insurance, so if they lose their home, they could very well be losing their largest financial asset.

Sea Level Rise

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Carbon Beach will see significant sea level rise over time due to the effects of climate change. Photographed from the air in 2019 in Malibu
(James Bernal/LAist)

Just in case you were hoping to escape the heat by heading down to the beach, that’ll get harder in the coming decades as the beaches continue to disappear.

Between 1900 and 1990, global sea levels rose on average by half an inch per decade. That rate’s since accelerated to 1.3 inches every 10 years. That doesn’t seem like very much, but that rate’s on track to increase to the point where we could lose between 31% and 67% of our beaches by 2100.

Why Are Our Beaches Disappearing?

As our world has gotten hotter, so have our oceans. And as seawater increases in temperature, it expands and takes up more space. This thermal expansion accounts for roughly half of the sea level rise we’ve seen over the past century.

A hotter world also means less ice. The less water frozen as ice in glaciers, ice caps, and ice sheets, the more there is to flow out into our oceans and contribute to sea level rise.

El Niños, storm surges, and king tides all push water further inland and increase rates of erosion along our coast, giving us an idea of what we’re in for. There is some evidence that strong El Niños may become more common as climate change progresses.

Drive up and down Pacific Coast Highway and you’ll see plenty of spots, like Las Tunas Beach, where the water’s just about touching the road, oftentimes with just a small band of sand and homes in between. In some spots, giant rock walls have been installed.

By building infrastructure right along the water's edge, we’re messing with natural erosion processes that would’ve just moved the beaches farther inland. The ocean would’ve taken bites out of the hills over time, and, combined with sediment that’s supposed to flow down from our mountains, built up the beaches there.

We’ll have to decide, as sea levels rise, whether we’re going to install walls to block the waves from encroaching, or ultimately move infrastructure farther inland. The rock walls protect homes and roads, but result in a loss of beaches.

The former choice leads us down a path where we prioritize homes and infrastructure over access to beaches, while the latter brings with it sizable economic and personal costs for those with homes there.

You may find it difficult to have sympathy for those who live along the coast, but it’s important to remember that most of the people who access the beaches don’t live there. And as we saw during the pandemic, beaches are crucial for recreation and relaxation.

How Bad Could It Get?

How many beaches we lose depends on a number of factors, including how much we curb emissions and how we manage erosion along our coastline.

According to the state’s sea level rise guidance, we could see as much as 6.8 feet of rise in Santa Monica. Here’s what that would look like.

As a precaution, the state recommends that infrastructure along the coast be built with a 10-foot rise in mind, although some researchers think we’ve been underestimating just how bad things could get.

And I should also say that it’s not just sea level rise that’s threatening our coastlines, oceans, and way of life.

The vast majority of warming on planet Earth has occurred in our oceans over the past 50 years. And marine heat waves are becoming more common as well, contributing to the death of sea life.

Excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is also being absorbed into the ocean and increasing its acidity, which, in combination with rising temperatures, is threatening crustaceans off our coast and coral reefs around the world.

Climate change is also altering ocean currents, which affects not only sea life, but weather as well.