Stories in California

Our Climate Can’t Wait

Thank you for your leadership Gov. Newsom & CA Legislature

Split image of fish in a river and an empty river bed.
Our Climate Can’t Wait Over the last decade, California has experienced some of the most extreme climate-exacerbated events in history. © TNC

CA’s Budget Will Accelerate Climate Preparedness

The Nature Conservancy commends Governor Newsom & the California Legislature for passing an unprecedented budget package that accelerates climate preparedness for people and nature. Read More from TNC.

Life as we know it is at stake in California. Catastrophic wildfires, extreme heat, flooding and drought—the list of climate impacts in California grows larger and more severe every year. Over the last decade, our state has experienced some of the most extreme climate-exacerbated events in history:

  • Devastating megafires: In the last eight years, catastrophic wildfires have taken 199 lives, burned 10.8 million acres & destroyed 51,086 structures.
  • Extreme Weather: Climate-exacerbated weather patterns have created both extreme heat and flooding, with California experiencing more droughts and floods per decade than any other area of the country.
  • Contaminated Drinking Water: Nearly 1 million Californians can no longer safely drink water from their taps.

We’ve come to an inflection point in human history: allow the status quo to wreak havoc on the environment or change the planet’s trajectory using science and innovation.

Scott Morrison Director of Conservation Programs & Science

Science-Based Action for California's Future

In order to change the trajectory of climate change and reduce the growing threats it poses to public safety, our health and the environment, we urge legislators to take bold climate action now. Policy is one of the most effective tools to make rapid and lasting change in the battle against climate change. California legislators have led the world on climate policy. With so much at stake, the need for policy leadership is even more urgent. 

Partner with us to fight climate change. The Nature Conservancy (TNC) brings to the table innovative science and over 70 years of experience developing conservation solutions to some of humanity’s biggest challenges. In partnership with communities, businesses and policymakers, we test our ideas on the ground and in the water in search of the most effective solutions. We then work to scale those proven solutions to fight climate change. 

Through research and practice, we have identified four proven climate resilience strategies that, if scaled through policy, can significantly change the planet’s trajectory in the face of climate change:

Read on to learn more about our climate solutions and how we can continue to partner together to fight climate change by developing and supporting policy in these key areas.

Drought Policy

Aerial view of dry land
Drought Resilience Droughts make many families especially vulnerable to pandemics like COVID-19 precisely because they don’t have running water in their taps. © Sushmita Mandal

Policy Solutions | Drought

  • Drought Budget Package: The Governor and Legislature have agreed to a $4.5 billion drought package that includes investments in safe drinking water, sustainable groundwater management and water for fish and wildlife. But the way that money is spent will determine whether the natural systems that provide California’s water fail or thrive.

It might seem like drought has returned to California, but the truth is, it never left. Today, nearly 1 million Californians don’t have safe drinking water flowing through their pipes. Our aquifers are running dry, and our snowpack is critically depleted. This isn’t just a “people problem.” If we stay on this track, in our children’s lifetimes, over half of California’s freshwater species will face extinction due to drought and man-made water shortages.

With water in short supply, it might seem like people and nature need to be in competition for water. But The Nature Conservancy knows there’s a better way. Our science shows that restoring natural systems—like creating bird habitat that recharges groundwater—can sustain our state’s water supplies for the benefit of both people and nature. But if we allow freshwater ecosystems to dry up, there won’t be water for anyone.

In the face of climate change, drought isn’t going away. It’s up to us to make our state resilient to this new reality. Our Water Team works with a broad coalition—from public agencies to farmers and ranchers—to protect water for nature. We work together to ensure that there is enough water in our rivers to support freshwater species, create shallow-water habitat for migratory birds, and preserve and replenish the underground aquifers that sustain the communities and wildlife that live above. But we need your support to scale these win-win solutions and make every drop count—for nature and for people.

An aerial picture of California during drought.
Drought A satellite view of California and the Sierra Nevadas in 2014 during its multiyear drought. © NASA
A close up picture of dry, cracked ground.
Drought Dry, cracked ground, Truckee, California. © Devan King/The Nature Conservancy
Drought A satellite view of California and the Sierra Nevadas in 2014 during its multiyear drought. © NASA
Drought Dry, cracked ground, Truckee, California. © Devan King/The Nature Conservancy

Rewilding Agricultural Landscapes  

The San Joaquin Valley is one of the most productive and important agricultural regions in the world, but it’s in trouble. As the world’s population grows, so does the demand for food, putting unprecedented pressure on agricultural lands like the San Joaquin. At the same time, climate change, drought, soil degradation, and water scarcity mean that productivity of much of this land is deteriorating. Wells are drying up, and the land above them is sinking; soil salinity is increasing, and poor air quality is contributing to health problems in the Valley’s farm communities.

“Rewilding” or converting the least productive parts of the San Joaquin Valley back to their wild state, can reverse the damage from intensive agriculture and build resilience to climate change. Supporting this type of strategic ecological restoration will recover natural diversity while guaranteeing the long-term sustainability of the remaining farms and the communities they support.

Together with our partners, we released Rewilding Agricultural Landscapes: A California Study in Rebalancing the Needs of People and Nature. The study showed that rewilding can slow desertification and provide ecosystem services, such as recharged aquifers, cleaner air, and stabilized soils. It also showed that retired farmland can be successfully restored to its natural wild state and that there are socioeconomic and political benefits of doing so. The book lays out a vision of a region restored to ecological balance and equipped for inevitable climate change, allowing nature and people to prosper.

If the strategic rewilding of agricultural lands became a core tenet of California drought policy, we could see the reversal of many of the trends that currently put the San Joaquin Valley at risk.

Expanding The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act

In 2014, California’s landmark Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) promised comprehensive management of California’s groundwater. While SGMA covers those groundwater basins where the majority of pumping occurs today, it does not look into the future to where pumping may occur tomorrow. As it currently stands, SGMA applies to less than 2% of California’s groundwater. The remaining supply lacks any state oversight, and is at risk of over-pumping and aquifer depletion.

In partnership with Water in the West at Stanford University, our team published “Mind the Gaps: The Case for Truly Comprehensive Sustainable Groundwater Management.” The report makes the case for the expansion of SGMA to cover a much higher percentage of the state’s total groundwater. Given the reality of ongoing drought and climate change, the Department of Water Resources and the California State Legislature must seize the moment to strengthen SGMA and ensure truly sustainable groundwater management for California.

Climate Resilience

Aerial view of streams and wetlands.
WETLAND RESTORATION Restoring wetlands can reduce emissions from drained soils while increasing carbon stocks. © Jon Chica Parada

Policy | Climate Resilience

  • Climate Resilience Budget Package: The Governor and Legislature have agreed to a $3.675 billion climate resilience package that will help tackle the devastating impacts of climate change.
  • Climate Goal: Natural and Working Lands (AB 284) | Assemb. Rivas/TNC Sponsor: TNC is sponsoring this legislation to establish a clear role for nature to help mitigate carbon dioxide emissions and build overall climate resilience in California by directing state agencies to establish a climate goal for the state’s natural and working lands in support of carbon neutrality.
  • Carbon Neutrality (AB1395) | Assemb. Muratsuchi & Garcia: This legislation declares the policy of the state to achieve carbon neutrality no later than 2045 and calls for a scoping plan that includes measures and sequestration goals consistent with achieving carbon neutrality.
  • Resilient Merced (SB 359) | Sen. Caballero: With Merced County as a pilot, this bill would provide support to counties to integrate nature-based activities into climate plans & implement them.

Nature is our solution. California’s natural and working lands—its forests, grasslands, wetlands, farmlands, rangelands and urban green spaces—are key to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere and protecting people and wildlife from the harmful impacts of climate change. In fact, our land has the potential to reduce greenhouse gases by up to 514 million metric tons by the year 2050—a reduction that’s approximately equivalent to reducing three times all of California’s 2018 transportation emissions.

However, urban sprawl, megafires, intensive land use and climate change threaten our natural and working lands’ ability to sequester carbon as well as our water supply. In the face of climate change and without immediate intervention and careful stewardship, these healthy landscapes are at risk of becoming an increasing net source of emissions instead of a healthy net “sink” of carbon dioxide. If we act now, we can change this trajectory.

Carbon Neutral by 2045

California has a legacy of leadership in tackling climate change. The State has embraced ambitious climate goals, including a commitment to reach carbon neutrality (or net zero emissions) by 2045. But reaching this target will require us to use every climate tool available, including our lands. 

The State cannot meet its long-term climate goals without nature-based strategies. Check out our storymap to take a deeper dive into our leading nature-based climate solutions.

Nature-Based Climate Solutions

A Roadmap to Accelerate Action in California


Fire Resilient Communities

A satellite view of California and the Sierra Nevadas in 2014 during its multiyear drought.
Drought A satellite view of California and the Sierra Nevadas in 2014 during its multiyear drought. © NASA

Policy Solutions | Fire Resilient Communities 

  • Wildfire Budget Package: The Governor and Legislature have proposed $1 billion in funding to support critical fire resilience.

The terrifying scenes of megafires devastating natural and human communities are becoming a relentless part of our life in the Golden State with each year setting new records for the “largest,” “most damaging,” “most costly,” and tragically, the “most deadly” we’ve ever seen. In addition to staggering statistics on lives lost to fires and homes burned to the ground, hundreds of thousands of Californians have had to evacuate their homes, have experienced power outages, and millions have been exposed to unhealthy levels of smoke and air pollution. 

These megafires are driven by many factors including extreme weather, land use decisions and a century of forest and wildfire mismanagement, leaving many communities and natural lands a spark away from catastrophe.

In the face of megafires, we have a responsibility to invest in and create fire resilient communities. To do this, we must thoughtfully consider where we build new homes for California’s ever-growing population and rethink land use policies that put people in harm’s way by providing incentives to build in safe and sustainable locations. We must consider the impact of wildfires on home insurance availability and whether there are innovative insurance models that can incentivize resilience-enhancing land management. We also must adapt our existing communities to the escalating threat of fires by making them more resilient through fire-safe building retrofit incentives, evacuation planning and science-based interventions like wildfire buffers. 

Wildfire Buffers

The 2018 Camp Fire decimated the town of Paradise—claiming 85 lives, destroying over 18,000 structures and causing billions of dollars in damage. In the wake of devastating megafires like the Camp Fire, before we begin to rebuild, we must first ask hard questions, like, “How do we break this cycle and better protect people and communities?”

TNC scientists are partnering with key stakeholders in the Paradise community to demonstrate how redirecting development away from wildland urban boundaries in tandem with buffers may better protect people and communities most vulnerable to these natural disasters.  In 2019, TNC partnered with the Paradise Recreation and Park District to research and pilot the development of the first Wildfire Buffer—a greenbelt made up of formerly developed properties around the town, repurposed as open space and managed for resilience to serve as a protective buffer between people and the wildlands. You can read more about wildfire resilience efforts including wildfire buffers in our storymap & report below.

Paradise Nature-Based Fire Resilience Project


Fire Resilient Forests

Flames in the canopy of a dense forest.
A problem for people & nature California has experienced some of the worst wildfires in its history over the last 5 years. © Vince Fleming

Policy Solutions | Fire Resilient Forests

  • Wildfire Budget Package: The Governor and Legislature have proposed $1 billion in funding to support critical fire resilience.
  • Prescribed Fire (AB 642) | Assemb. Friedman: This legislation would increase the use of prescribed fire across CA.
  • Good Neighbor Authority (AB 697) | Assemb. Chau: This legislation would establish a CA program for ecological restoration and fire resiliency projects on national forest lands.

Megafires continue to decimate California forests. Last year alone, 4.2 million acres burned, the largest annual number ever recorded in our state’s history. Forests play a critical role for both people and nature, providing clean water (60% of California’s clean water supply comes from Sierra Nevada forests), clean air, carbon storage, recreation and wildlife habitat. These values are increasingly threatened by megafires. By protecting our forests from extreme fire, we are protecting their ability to store carbon over the long term, an important tool in our fight against climate change. We are also protecting important wildlife species like the California spotted owl from critical habitat loss.

Ecological Forestry Solution

While we can’t stop megafires overnight, there is something we can invest in immediately to better protect people and nature in the face of wildfire: ecological forestry. Ecological forestry means controlled burns and ecological thinning to reduce the amount of small trees and brush that make wildfires so destructive. Science shows that these techniques deliver a one-two punch, reducing the risk of megafires in fire-adapted conifer forests like the Sierra and promoting healthier, more resilient forest conditions. 

TNC’s  forest restoration work focuses on the forested headwaters of the Sierra Nevada, the source of most of Californian’s water. Working with partners, we’ve shown that ecological forestry works, and that through better forest management, we can reduce wildfire intensity and support resilient habitats in our most important watersheds. 

Accelerating forest restoration would not only have many benefits for nature, it would also support jobs and a restoration economy in our rural communities. With additional workforce training, both ecological thinning and controlled burns can support critically important jobs in rural areas with high unemployment. Investing in appropriately scaled biomass energy facilities and mills designed to process small diameter trees would also create additional jobs. Additionally, that investment would allow for more acres of forest to be restored by providing an economic use for the byproducts of restoration.  

We urge policymakers to increase funding for ecological thinning, controlled burns and wood product innovation and to address the policy and practical barriers to implementing ecological forestry at a scale and pace that can match the challenge at hand.

The Scientific Case for Forest Restoration


Health Impacts of Fire

In addition to the significant losses in our communities and forests, smoke from high intensity wildfires has also resulted in harmful air pollution in nearly every corner of our state and beyond. When large megafires occur, wildfire smoke immediately impacts nearby communities and then can be carried by the wind thousands of miles settling over urban communities and towns located far from the megafire’s location. While we are just beginning to understand the health impacts of megafires, we already know that fire related air pollution has resulted in an increase in asthma attacks and heart damage.

TNC partnered with Stanford University to evaluate whether controlled burning, to reduce fuel levels in forests, might help protect the health of children who live nearby. The study’s preliminary findings suggest that the answer is yes. Smoke from controlled burns is lower in volume of pollutants than wildfire smoke, and children’s immune systems respond better to controlled burn smoke when compared to wildfire smoke. Now we are helping Stanford enroll more willing participants in their study, including those who are likely to be most impacted by smoke: the front line fire-workers who manage fires and the residents of the Sierra Nevada communities closest to the fires. You can learn more about our joint study below.

Health Impacts of Wildfires vs. Prescribed Fire on Children


Wildfire Resilience Insurance

We know that ecological forest restoration practices make fire-adapted forests healthier and reduce the risk of severe wildfire. But should insurance losses and pricing be lower where ecological forest practices have taken place?

The answer is yes. Working with our global insurance partner Willis Towers Watson, TNC used our French Meadows Restoration Project in the Sierra Nevada as a test case to determine whether the risk reduction benefits of ecological forestry could be incorporated into insurance modeling, structuring, and pricing. 

The results were exciting. For the first time, we incorporated ecological forestry into insurance modeling and pricing. Our study quantifies the insurance benefits of ecological forest restoration including  insurance  premium savings for communities and businesses in or near forests.

The insurance savings from ecological forestry can be captured and used to fund or finance forest restoration.  The results also encourage increased investment in ecological forestry practices from both the public and private sector.  

Wildfire Resilience Insurance

Quantifying the Risk Reduction of Ecological Forestry with Insurance

DOWNLOAD Report Summary

Our Climate Can’t Wait

In order to fight climate change and reduce the growing threats it poses to public safety, our health and the environment, we urge legislators to take bold climate action now. Please join us in fighting climate change at scale with these effective policy solutions.