Stories in California

State of Climate Change

Restoring nature across California’s landscapes is the key to winning the race against climate change.

One of the 2018 California wildfires. A glowing orange sky with water in the foreground and flames rising over hills in the background.
Wildfire Life as we know it is at stake in California. © Ben Jiang /TNC Photo Contest 2019

Life as we know it is at stake in California. Extreme heat, flooding, drought, sea level rise, and catastrophic wildfires threaten our home. The cause: climate change. TNC is working to protect California in the face of these threats. Our work means cutting greenhouse gas emissions while safeguarding nature and communities from unavoidable climate impacts.

California’s natural and working lands are key to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere and protecting people and wildlife from the harmful impacts of climate change.

California Climate Program Director

Science has shown that the world has 10 years to head off the worst effects of climate change. 

To meet this challenge, the state of California is advancing a number of ambitious climate goals. These include emissions targets for 2030 and 2050, and—through an executive order signed by former Governor Jerry Brown—a goal to achieve carbon neutrality (or net zero emissions) by 2045. But reaching these targets requires California to use every climate tool available—including its lands. That’s where TNC comes in. 

Scenic views of the rolling green hills and oak trees of the Tollhouse Ranch located in the heart of the corridor, Caliente.
Caliente, California The rolling green hills and oak trees of the Tollhouse Ranch sequester carbon while providing a migration corridor for wildlife. © Ian Shive

California’s natural and working lands have the potential to reduce greenhouse gases by up to up to 514 million metric tons by the year 2050—a reduction equal to three times California’s 2018 transportation emissions. But decades of intensive land use and climate change are hindering the ability of California’s natural and agricultural lands to sequester carbon. 

California Climate By the Numbers

  • acres of California land suitable for natural climate solutions

    28M

    acres of California land suitable for natural climate solutions

  • 514 Million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent that can be reduced in California with nature

    514

    million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent that can be reduced in California with nature

  • $27B in potential savings in using natural climate solutions to prevent climate-related damages

    $27B

    dollars in potential savings in using natural climate solutions to prevent climate-related damages

  • Amount of needed emissions reductions that natural climate solutions can provide by 2030

    1/3

    amount of needed emissions reductions that natural climate solutions can provide by 2030

Urban sprawl threatens natural lands, megafires threaten our forests and our snowpack, and pressure from agriculture threatens our water supply. Without immediate intervention, these healthy landscapes risk losing their natural ability to sequester carbon. 

One of the 2018 California wildfires.
WILDFIRE California has seen a frightening increase in megafires as a result of climate change. One of the 2018 California wildfires pictured here. © Ben Jiang /TNC Photo Contest 2019
Firefighters in the Thomas Fire in California.
Wildfire With some fire seasons lasting long into the winter, suppressing California’s blazes can feel like a fulltime job for many fire fighters. © ©kcapaldo - stock.adobe.com
WILDFIRE California has seen a frightening increase in megafires as a result of climate change. One of the 2018 California wildfires pictured here. © Ben Jiang /TNC Photo Contest 2019
Wildfire With some fire seasons lasting long into the winter, suppressing California’s blazes can feel like a fulltime job for many fire fighters. © ©kcapaldo - stock.adobe.com

Natural Climate Solutions

Natural climate solutions are the ways we protect and restore the landscapes that nature has adapted over millions of years to sequester carbon. Ecosystems like forests, dunes, grasslands, grasslands, wetlands and meadows store tremendous amounts of carbon—and at the same time, they protect us from the unavoidable impacts of climate change. Natural climate solutions utilize strategic land management and conservation interventions to restore and protect these critical landscapes. By carefully implementing these solutions, our lands could help us achieve a third of the greenhouse gas reductions needed to keep global warming under 2 degrees Celsius—the point after which the impacts of climate change worsen substantially.

Natural climate solutions are the only immediately available tool to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and with the clock ticking to head off the worst effects of climate change, our team is putting these solutions to work. We implement natural climate solutions on our own lands to prove out their effectiveness and then scale the work with partners and in the policy arena. 

A close up of trees in Central Sierra.
Sierra Nevada The ultimate goal of our Sierra strategy is to restore the 9 million-acre core forested area within the mountain range. © TNC

Growing Our Impact

Natural Climate Solutions on a Landscape Scale

Our climate team looks at California as a whole to determine the most effective natural climate solutions in the diverse landscapes of our state. We conserve undeveloped lands; restore forests, woodlands, grasslands, and wetlands; and help to develop and implement strategic farming pra...

Natural Climate Solutions on a Landscape Scale

Our climate team looks at California as a whole to determine the most effective natural climate solutions in the diverse landscapes of our state. We conserve undeveloped lands; restore forests, woodlands, grasslands, and wetlands; and help to develop and implement strategic farming practices that improve soil health and agricultural productivity. While this work focuses on the climate mitigation benefits that nature can provide, it can also provide significant benefits to people by ensuring that communities are equipped to face increasing climate threats.

We’re working to make sure California’s natural and working lands act as an asset in the fight against climate change.

2,300 Acres: Independence Lake Preserve

After establishing the preserve in 2010, we launched our first forest restoration efforts on these lands. To protect the lake’s threatened Lahontan cutthroat trout and reduce the risk of high-severity wildfire, we applied ecological thinning and prescribed burning techniques that are now being scaled across the Sierra.

28,000 Acres: French Meadows/American River Headwaters

In 2015, TNC brought together state, federal, and local partners—including the local water utility—for this first-of-its-kind collaboration. The group took the same restoration approach used at Independence Lake and scaled it in a landscape 10-times larger.

275,000 Acres: North Yuba River Watershed

Initiated in 2019, this project will be the largest forest restoration of its kind in the Sierra. Using the partnership model we honed at French Meadows, we are working with nine partners to restore one of the most critical watersheds in the region.

2.4 Million Acres: Tahoe-Central Sierra Initiative

Thanks to the scientific credibility and strong partnerships we built up through our work in the Sierra, TNC was invited to work with the U.S. Forest Service to lead the science effort that will guide restoration across the 2.4 million-acre band of forest surrounding Lake Tahoe.

9 Million Acres: Restoration of Sierra Nevada Forests

The ultimate goal for our Sierra strategy is restoring this core forested area within the 30-million-acre mountain range. The Tahoe-Central Sierra Initiative is already helping us develop a strategic plan for the entire system.

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Our climate team looks at California as a whole to determine the most effective natural climate solutions in the diverse landscapes of our state. We conserve undeveloped lands; restore forests, woodlands, grasslands, and wetlands; and help to develop and implement strategic farming practices that improve soil health and agricultural productivity. While this work focuses on the climate mitigation benefits that nature can provide, we also consider the myriad benefits that nature—and these solutions—can provide for people, ensuring that communities have the resilience they need in the face of increasing climate threats.

It’s up to us to ensure that California’s natural and working lands act as an asset in the fight against climate change. 

Climate-Ready Land Protection    

Our Lands projects are at the core of our climate change strategies and the process of buying and protecting land is still an important part of our conservation toolkit. We make strategic land acquisitions designed to prepare California for a warmer future by creating strongholds of climate resilience.

Climate Policy

California has a legacy of climate leadership. 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. 

Narrow footpath through a redwood sequoia forest in California in summer
REDWOOD SEQUOIA FOREST California’s redwood forests store amazing amounts of carbon. © alpegor - stock.adobe.com

Supporting California’s Path to Carbon Neutrality

The State cannot meet its long-term climate goals without nature-based strategies. Our climate team pairs science with policy and works directly with policy makers to accelerate climate action and help California move toward carbon neutrality.

To help California move toward carbon neutrality, we are:

  • Connecting key science with policy to ensure  that natural climate solutions are supported as a vital pathway for reducing emissions, sequestering carbon, and protecting communities from devastating climate impacts like sea level rise. In 2020, we produced a report identifying nature-based climate strategies and policy pathways to implement them in California.
  • Supporting legislators and sponsoring key legislative initiatives with our partners to put the state on a path to carbon-neutrality and ensure that nature always has a seat at the table when decisions are made. 
  • Accelerating nature-based climate strategies from the ground up. With a diverse group of stakeholders, including landowners, farmers, and community leaders, we’re engaging in a series of regional roundtable discussions that will help identify barriers to nature-based climate strategies and build momentum toward scalable solutions.
Hope for the Coast With 90% of large cities located near coasts, billions of people and billions of dollars of infrastructure are directly at risk from sea-level rise. TNC has a plan to protect California’s coastal habitat.
Tourists drift on a bamboo raft in Jinhu county, Huai 'an city, east China's Jiangsu province.
Floating forest Tourists drift on a bamboo raft in jinhu county, huai 'an city, east China's jiangsu province, April 13, 2019. © He Jinghua/TNC Photo Contest 2019

Leveraging Climate Action Beyond California

As the fifth largest economy in the world, California’s climate leadership is already driving climate progress across the globe. Through partnerships and by sharing knowledge and expertise with TNC chapters, governments, and partners worldwide, we are leveraging California’s climate action and elevating the value of nature in the race to curb the effects of climate change. 

  • With our partner, the California-China Climate Institute at UC Berkeley, we launched an initiative to accelerate climate action across California and China through research and collaboration. The initiative includes a learning exchange between California and China, research on nature-based climate pathways for each jurisdiction and policy recommendations that will support nature-based solutions in both jurisdictions and across the globe. Together, the Institute and TNC are hosting a series of webinars in 2021 to facilitate conversation and learning on nature-based climate solutions.
  • We’re sharing our research, policy expertise, and lessons learned with other TNC state chapters and the US Climate Alliance to inform and excelerate state climate action across the US. 
  • We are scaling up climate action and nature-based solutions by partnering with counties, the State, and other stakeholders and developing science-based tools to estimate and account for the benefits of nature-based climate solutions. 

Global TNC Climate Wins

A tropical shoreline with turquoise water and blue skies.
Seychelles-Island-Houston Landscape in Anse Royale Beach, Mahé Island, Seychelles. © Jason Houston

Blue Bonds for Conservation: The future of global ocean health and the nearshore ecosystems that protect our coasts from the impacts of climate change depends on coastal nations. But many of these countries are being forced to choose between protecting the ocean and their own economies. TNC launched Blue Bonds, a program that buys up and restructures coastal nations’ debt in exchange for commitments to protect large areas of their coasts. We proved out this model in the Seychelles, where we worked with the government to protect a piece of ocean habitat the size of Germany. Now we’re scaling the model to 20 countries after winning a TED Audacious award for this work in 2019. 

 

A diver uses a zip tie to attach a coral fragment to an unhealthy reef.
Coral Restoration Work A diver uses a zip tie to attach a coral fragment to an unhealthy reef. © Paul A. Selvaggio/TNC

Coral Innovation: Coral reefs insulate coasts from the impacts of climate change while sequestering large amounts of carbon. Across the Caribbean, three new Coral Innovation Hubs launched by TNC and partners are accelerating large-scale reef restoration, with the goal of bringing millions of corals to life. In 2019, TNC hosted a virtual field trip to explore these state-of-the-art lab facilities that helped 171,000 students in 60 countries learn about the importance of saving coral reefs. 

 

Vast grasslands under blue skies.
Mongolia's Eastern Steppe A small hill interupts the vast grassland steppe near Eastern Mongolia's Tosonhulstai Nature Reserve. © Nick Hall

Grassland Conservation: Conserving Mongolia’s grasslands is critical to the nation’s future. From spectacular carbon sequestration to supporting the livelihoods of nomadic herders and the snow leopards and argali sheep that call this enormous region home. Since 2008, TNC has worked with multiple partners, including the Mongolian government, to designate 22 national protected areas totaling 8.6 million acres, as well as 30 million acres of local protected areas.

A researcher kneels down close to the camera and examines a water sample.
Vernal pool research Research being conducted into the effects of cattle grazing on California's delicate vernal pool habitats. © Ian Shive

Science and Demonstrations

Ecosystems play a complex role in the earth’s carbon cycle. TNC’s work is designed to deepen our understanding of how landscapes connect to carbon. 

  • In a study that looked at different climate scenarios and a suite of land conservation, management, and restoration activities, we found that nature-based climate solutions could contribute as much as 17% of the cumulative reductions needed by California to meet its 2030 climate target. 
  • One collaboration with our partners uses data science to show spatially where nature-based climate solutions are suitable across California and how much they can mitigate climate change. This report, published by Next 10, summarizes these findings and shows that a subset of just eight nature-based climate solutions could capture 5-7% of the emissions reductions needed for California to achieve its goal of carbon neutrality by 2045. 
  • We are working on the ground to implement natural climate solutions and explore connections between land management and conservation. On TNC-owned Staten Island, a Northern California property, we’re exploring the ways that replacing corn crops with alternatives like rice can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve carbon sequestration, and support vital bird habitat.
  • Climate change is expected to intensify urban heat island (UHI) effects that disproportionately impact pollution-burdened and low income neighborhoods. In a preliminary analysis across three pilot urban areas in California (Greater Los Angeles, the Inland Empire cities of San Bernardino and Riverside Counties, and the Sacramento area) we found lower tree cover and a greater impact of UHI in low-income neighborhoods. To address this problem, we’re exploring how planting new trees and adding greenery to urban spaces can reduce UHI effects while benefiting people and wildlife. We’re developing a new tool, using census-data, to help strategically plan new urban tree planting projects to benefit low-income and pollution-burdened communities.

The Nature Conservancy in California is working on all fronts to elevate nature’s role as part of the climate solution. Join us.