Back to Next Generation

"Whistling past the graveyard"

It rained in San Francisco on Thursday … a little. As of 2:00pm, there had been accumulation of about .07 inches of rain in the past 24 hours. We’ll take it.

More than once recently, neighbors enjoying our 70-degree, blue-sky weather have joked to me “so, climate change is GOOD for the Bay Area, huh?” 

Our weather has certainly been pleasant – but I wouldn’t call it good. 2013 was the driest year on record in California, and our first month of 2014 is now officially the driest January in our history. For those not familiar, our rainy season has been missing in action – normally rain starts in late October or early November and rains continue on until early April. Nothing illustrates this better than these satellite images of California’s snow-pack, which we rely on for our water throughout the year, taken one year apart.

We all know that one weather event (or non-event in this case) cannot be tied to climate change. But there is no doubt that we are in the grip of major climate change and likely seeing the “new normal” that we will face in California – increased heat, less precipitation, more wildfires, poor air quality, rising coastal waters – all of which will have a dramatic impact on major sectors of the California economy, like tourism (not many people skiing in Tahoe this winter), and agriculture. Our farmers are already in open panic about losing their irrigation water. You can read more about the drought in this excellent post by Next Generation’s Pat McVeigh.

Climate change will also affect the health of Californians – particularly the health of vulnerable populations. The health impacts of climate change vary depending on where you live – in warming environments that will see more rainfall we are seeing increased incidences of Lyme Disease, West Nile Virus, even Dengue Fever.  We can also expect more heat-related and storm-related health effects.

One effect unique to California: We are already seeing more cases of coccidioidomycosis, or Valley Fever, a disease caused by inhaling the spores of a soil-dwelling fungus that is becoming increasingly airborne thanks to major dust storms that are on the rise due to climate change. This threat was dramatically brought home in a recent New Yorker article by Dana Goodyear.

When we think of the role of government in addressing climate change, we often think of agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, which helps reduce air pollution, or the Energy Department, which invests in new energy technologies. An increasingly important agency will be the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the group charged with providing us with information about how to protect ourselves from public health problems. As climate change accelerates, both the public and the business community will rely on the CDC to inform them about how climate change will affect them – both here in the U.S. and around the world. (Full disclosure – I am on the board of the CDC Foundation).

So while I certainly appreciate being able to hike in January without rain gear, the term “whistling past the graveyard” keeps running through my head. We know climate change is underway and the impacts likely will be stunning. Businesses, large and small, will need to adjust (this is why we are doing our Risky Business project) and how aggressively we address climate change will say a lot about our values as a people. Let’s look for the humor when we can but my guess is we won’t be laughing too much in a few years.

Join the Conversation