More wildfires, droughts and beach erosion are among the impacts projected in the California climate assessment.California faces more wildfires, droughts and beach erosion if climate change progresses unchecked, the California climate assessment reports. Photo credit: David McNew/Getty Images

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By Dana Drugmand

When California released its Fourth Climate Change Assessment last week, it contained an alarming, comprehensive list of impacts the state will absorb, including rising temperatures, more severe drought and wildfires, declining snowpack, more heavy precipitation, rising sea levels and perhaps most alarming: up to two-thirds of Southern California beaches are at risk of complete erosion by 2100 without large-scale human intervention.

The report also took the next step to project in great detail the cost of those impacts.

“Emerging findings for California show that costs associated with direct climate impacts by 2050 are dominated by human mortality, damages to coastal properties, and the potential for droughts and mega-floods,” the summary report states. “The costs are in the order of tens of billions of dollars.”

The summary report contains an appendix that outlines estimates of direct economic costs dependent on the scenario. The report modeled scenarios that assume carbon emissions are curtailed from current levels and others detail risks if carbon emissions remain steady or increase. The cost projections include:

  • $48 billion – Value of coastal properties vulnerable if sea level rises 4.6 feet. The damage costs rise substantially in the event of a 100-year storm . In southern California (Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties) nearly $18 billion in coastal property is at risk if sea level rises 2 feet, but a 100-year storm event raises that damage cost to $30 billion. The most extreme scenario, which involves the highest carbon emissions causing the rapid melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet, projects sea level rise of 9 feet or more, with costs escalating proportionately.
  • $40 million to $63 million annually – Estimated economic impact from beach erosion and beach loss with 3.3 feet of sea level rise
  • $50.3 billion to $84.8 billion – Estimated public health and mortality costs associated with temperature rise and extreme heat by 2050, assuming a statistical value of life of $7.5 million. The number of premature deaths annually by 2050 ranges from 6,700 to 11,300 depending on the scenario.
  • $42 billion – Estimated cost (across all economic sectors) of a mega flood, based on the probability of a mega flood event occurring over a five-year period around 2050.
  • $1 billion or more – Estimated water shortage costs annually.
  • $47 million annually – Estimated damage cost from wildfires on utility grid infrastructure. Wildfires are already damaging electricity infrastructure, costing utilities more than $700 million in damages from 2001-16.

The costs have already prompted a handful of counties and cities across the state to sue fossil fuel companies to hold them liable for climate change impacts and associated costs. Those suits rely on research that has tied a majority of carbon emissions to just 90 companies, dubbed the Carbon Majors, and a study last year found that nearly half of global temperature rise and almost one-third of sea level rise is attributable to those companies.

Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina, whose city has filed one of those liability suits, is a firm believer that the companies most responsible for causing climate change should be on the hook for damage costs. With the new climate assessment projecting significant erosion of southern California beaches, his city—located just south of San Diego—is facing enormous challenges.  

The climate assessment “only reinforces the need for our lawsuit against fossil fuel companies for the costs of sea level rise,” he told Climate Liability News via email. “Nothing could be more important.”

The lawsuit sits under appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which is reviewing a district judge’s decision to send the case back to state court where it was originally filed. Similar lawsuits brought by San Francisco and Oakland, as well as New York City were recently dismissed by federal district judges. The cities are now appealing. The California communities are trying desperately to keep the cases in state court, where they believe the law is more favorable to holding the companies accountable under public nuisance and other laws.

“So far, our litigation has forced these fossil fuel companies to acknowledge the validity of climate science. Now it’s time for these corporations to pay their fair share for the harm they have caused San Francisco,” said San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera of the city’s notice of appeal, which was filed in the Ninth Circuit on Aug. 24.

The San Francisco Bay Area is particularly vulnerable to sea level rise, and subsidence or sinking land exacerbates the risk of inundation. Significant areas of the San Francisco and Oakland airports could be submerged if sea level rise continues unabated

Health impacts are another concern. “Bay Area public health is threatened by a number of climate-related changes, including more extreme heat events, increased air pollution from ozone formation and wildfires, longer and more frequent droughts, and flooding from sea level rise and high-intensity rain events,” according to the new climate assessment’s regional report for the San Francisco Bay Area.

All in all, climate change will result in tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars in damage costs and numerous lives lost, in California and across the country. The big question is whether communities will succeed in paying for them by holding the fossil fuel industry accountable via liability suits.

“The defendants have a longstanding track record of selling and promoting fossil fuels while deceiving the public about climate change,” said Herrera. “Our belief remains that they are liable for the harm they have caused.”