Marin Voice: Amid climate change, we need to rethink our housing plans

Read the full article in the Marin Independent Journal

Michael Wara, of Mill Valley, is the director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program and senior research scholar at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University.

Last fall, a small fire above Lagunitas ripped through a stand of redwoods and threatened to engulf a part of that West Marin community. Residents wondered about their escape plans while Marin officials assured us they were prepared, that the response would be commensurate to the challenge.

Would that this were so.

Small fires like the Lagunitas blaze have been popping up around Marin with increasing frequency. We haven’t faced the kind of massive conflagration that befell Napa and Sonoma two years ago, or Paradise last year — but we almost certainly will.

As an expert and academic researcher in wildland fires and climate change, one of my areas of study is determining the risk factors for climate impacts in California. And the news is bad for Marin.

In the coming decades, more of Marin County — like fire-prone counties across California — will fall to wildfire. Many of our forested areas have become ticking time-bombs, waiting for a spark. This is not a question of “if,” but of “when.”

Climate change is already in the process of forcing us into something called “managed retreat”: lands we lose to rising seas cannot be recovered. People who live in areas that experience frequent floods will eventually have to move. And lands subjected to repeated wildfires may become uninsurable and, potentially, uninhabitable.

A critical measure we should be taking, today, is to anticipate the world of 10 or 20 years from now. In that world, many of us won’t be able to live on mountain ridges, surrounded by trees; we’ll need to live closer together, away from fire risk — in the historic downtowns that are part of Marin’s unique character, with ample buffer zones from both fires and floods.

But our current living patterns, in addition to being unsafe, are actually making climate change worse. And the biggest contribution Marin can make to reducing its impact will also make us safer.

The commuters who clog the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge and Highway 101 every day are filling our air with pollution, including the carbon emissions that cause climate change. At least 60 percent of our workforce commutes to Marin, largely because they can’t afford to live here.

Our statewide housing crisis, and the lengthy commutes it engenders, are a serious threat: the California Air Resources Board has determined that California is so far behind in reducing pollution from cars that “Significant changes to how communities and transportation systems are planned, funded and built” are required.

There is another reason to change how we think about our built environment. Each year, Marin’s schools send 2,000 graduates off into the world. But we’re only building 200 new homes per year across the entire county.

Where will our children live when we get older? We’re setting ourselves up to become a geriatric colony, surrounded by climate risk, with our kids hundreds of miles away.

That’s not the future I want for my children. That’s not the future I think we want in Marin.

Thankfully, our state government takes safety, climate change and housing seriously. Gov. Newsom is to be commended for his ambitious approach to these crises.

Our own state Sen. Mike McGuire is also doing his part, by joining as a co-author to Senate Bill 50, the More Homes Act. SB 50 gives our cities the tools they need to permit more homes in our towns, near jobs and transit — places like downtown San Rafael and Novato, where we have invested in the SMART train. It includes requirements that developers build affordable housing so we have homes for the middle-class people who make our communities function.

It’s popular in Marin to believe all developers are evil, that construction is always bad for the environment. But climate change flips that calculus on its head: If we don’t start building smarter today, we won’t be prepared for the fires in our future.

Let’s get ahead of climate change and evolve toward a truly resilient Marin. Our children will surely thank us for it.