Can California buy its way out of climate disasters?

Like it or not, adapting to climate change will involve human beings retreating from places the weather has made too dangerous for habitation. This will be easier to accomplish in some places than others. On the most difficult end of the scale sits California. In a matter of weeks, the state has gone from being perilously dry to drowning in “atmospheric rivers” of water falling from the sky, in a series of storms likely to continue for another week. Mud and rocks are pouring down hillsides that recent wildfires swept clean of protective vegetation. Storm surges are flooding the coast.

In places like New Jersey, where the most obvious climate risk is the shore, the most obvious response is to move inland. In California, people living on the risky beach might not have far to retreat before they wind up living in a risky flood or wildfire zone.

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Climatologists warn the current disaster isn’t even all that remarkable. California has a long history of flooding, including the Great Flood of 1862, also caused by an atmospheric river. It used to be seen as a once-in-1,000-year event, but climate change has taught us those intervals are shrinking.

Despite decades of droughts and floods, California still lacks the infrastructure to handle either. Farmers who spent the summer clearing away trees and plants that died of thirst are now complaining about a dearth of tools to capture and use the abundant rainfall.

The struggle to manage California’s water shortages made worse by climate change illustrates just how difficult it is to implement long-term solutions to the crisis.

A proposed reservoir in Northern California that would collect floodwater and funnel it to farms and elsewhere has been in the planning stages for decades. But it’s controversial and wouldn’t come close to solving all of California’s water problems. Keeping California’s citizens safe from disaster as environmental pressures build will be just as complicated. People love to live near beaches, rivers and unspoiled forests, and they have usually paid dearly for the privilege.

More than 40 million Americans live in flood zones, including millions of Californians. When the inevitable disasters strike, they look for ways to cling to their property and lifestyles. So we try to make houses more flood- and fire-resistant and erect walls and barriers to keep the disasters at bay. But this is expensive, and eventually the only people who can afford to live in such places are the wealthy.

Flooding chased Oprah Winfrey, Prince Harry, Ellen DeGeneres and many others from their homes in Montecito, in Santa Barbara County, this week. The lovely coastal town was the site of deadly mudslides less than five years ago, in another episode of the drought-wildfire-flood cycle now all too familiar.

Buying out residents of Montecito and many other vulnerable areas will be politically difficult and expensive. But it may be the only viable long-term solution.

The next obvious question is where those people should go, given California’s long menu of possible disasters. Robert Freudenberg, vice president of energy and environmental programs at Regional Plan Association, a non-profit promoting climate resiliency in the New York area, suggests many will simply leave California altogether without better options to relocate within the state.

That would be an unacceptable outcome for the world’s fifth-largest economy.

It won’t be easy, but California will have to find innovative ways to manage a planned retreat, including from some densely populated places.

If there’s a silver lining to these disasters, Freudenberg says, it’s that California might eventually come up with a managed-retreat model for the whole country to follow. It really has no other choice.