Climate change threatens California economy by changing ecosystems

Study identifies changes to vegetation types, impacts to ranching, carbon storage

January 19, 2012
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Contact:
Jennifer Witherspoon, 415.293.6067 jwitherspoon@edf.org
Erin McKenzie, 919.613.3652, erin.mckenzie@duke.edu

(San Francisco) Climate change is likely to harm California’s economy by reducing the types of natural, non-irrigated vegetation available for livestock forage and the ability of forest ecosystems to store carbon dioxide, according to a peer-reviewed study published in the scientific journal Climatic Change. The ability of ecosystems to store carbon dioxide is a key part of implementing the state’s climate law, the Global Warming Solutions Act, also known as Assembly Bill 32 or AB 32.

"Much of the talk about climate change in California has been about the impacts of sea level rise and droughts," said study coauthor Linwood Pendleton, director of ocean and coastal policy at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, acting chief economist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and study author. "Our work shows that even the gritty worlds of cattle ranching and forestry may take it on the chin as California skies become increasingly carbon-rich."

The study was conducted by researchers from Duke University, Environmental Defense Fund, The Nature Conservancy, Conservation Biology Institute, USDA Forest Service, Stanford University and the University of California at Santa Barbara. It examines how climate change will impact the fundamental character of California’s ecosystems and the valuable services that they provide to the economy.

To analyze the impact to carbon sequestration and natural, non-irrigated livestock forage—two important ecosystem services that contribute to the state’s economy—the researchers used climatic change scenario models [PDF] from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and three atmospheric-oceanic models.

The researchers identified that climate change would cause a consistent decline in conifer woodlands and forests through the end of the century that could decrease the amount of carbon storage in forestlands and harm the forestry industry. They also determined that climate change is likely to alter the amount and timing of rain, hail and snow in California, resulting in a 15 to 70 percent increase in shrub lands and a consistent decline in natural, non-irrigated forage production for livestock.

"A less stable climate will reduce the ability of natural landscapes to support cattle grazing, so ranchers may have to grow or buy extra hay instead of getting it for free from nature, as they do now," said lead report author Rebecca Shaw, Ph.D., associate vice president of EDF's ecosystems program and a working group member of the IPCC.

"We calculated that replacing lost forage caused by climate change with extra hay will hike costs for the California ranching industry by up to $235 million per year by 2070," said Shaw. "That’s why it's important for policymakers to better understand the value of services that nature provides to California's economy, so that they can work to protect our natural resources and the economy in the face of climate change."

"Fortunately, California's Global Warming Solutions Act provides new economic opportunities for landowners—both inside and outside California—to be part of the climate solution," said economist Belinda Morris, a report coauthor and regional director of EDF's Center for Conservation Incentives. "Landowners can earn credits for capturing carbon on their land that they can sell to offset industrial carbon emissions. These credits will bring in a whole new revenue stream that can benefit the ranching industry, helping ranchers to keep ranching."

Carbon credits are an integral part of the carbon cap-and-trade program that is scheduled to begin this year under the Global Warming Solutions Act. It allows for 8 percent of the law's carbon emission reduction goals to be achieved by offsetting emissions with carbon credits.

"EDF is working with landowners, academic institutions and others to develop cost-effective methods for capturing carbon on rangelands that could generate new revenue streams for ranchers as part of a carbon credits market, while also improving soil fertility," Morris said.

The peer-reviewed study "The Impact of Climate Change on California’s Ecosystem Services" is available online at http://www.springerlink.com/content/q773hv252l138240/fulltext.html.


Environmental Defense Fund (edf.org), a leading national nonprofit organization, creates transformational solutions to the most serious environmental problems. EDF links science, economics, law and innovative private-sector partnerships. For more information, visit www.edf.org/california. Follow us on Twitter @EDF_CA and read our blog at http://blogs.edf.org/californiadream.

Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, is a nonpartisan Institute at Duke University founded in 2005 to help decision makers create timely, effective, and economically practical solutions to the world's critical environmental challenges. For more information, visit www.nicholasinstitute.duke.edu.