Climate Vulnerability Report Identifies Groups Most at Risk for Climate Disasters

Groups with Limited Resources or Mobility Most Vulnerable to Increase in Climate Disasters

For Santa Barbara County, the most common hazards contributing to climate vulnerability are wildfires like this year's Alisal Fire. | Credit: Eric Hvolboll

Populations with limited resources, mobility, or existing socioeconomic disparities were identified at the Santa Barbara Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday as some of the most vulnerable groups for impacts and hazards brought on by climate change. 

These findings came after the board reviewed the state-mandated Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment, meant to analyze the severity of climate-change impacts on different populations. The report is intended to assist the county in setting priorities for a Climate Change Adaptation Plan, which will create policies and projects to prepare for, respond to, and recover from damage caused by climate-change-related hazards, such as flooding, severe weather, landslides, and droughts. Whitney Wilkinson, a project manager from the Planning and Development department of Santa Barbara County, said the adaptation plan is expected to have a completed draft by winter 2022.

“Developing a consensus about what we’re actually going to do, that’s the most important thing,” said Supervisor Gregg Hart. “We don’t have a lot of time, so we have to hurry people along with the understanding, but this is a critically important work product.”

The assessment observed potential risk to populations, as well as risks to infrastructure, buildings and facilities, economic drivers, ecosystems, natural resources, and key community services. It also reported the most common hazards in the county contributing to climate vulnerability, the top one being wildfires. 

Frontline populations are groups considered at risk for severe impacts of climate change sooner than other populations. This can be for a variety of reasons, including non-climate stressors such as financial instability, language or communication barriers, and poor-quality housing. “[Frontline populations] experience climate change first, and worse,” Wilkinson said. 


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The assessment observed 22 populations and identified the frontline populations as children, people living in poverty, homeless people, unemployed people, seniors, outdoor workers, people living in rural areas or areas on single-access roads, people living in mobile homes, overcrowded homes, renters, people of color with limited access to resources, and undocumented people. 

The report also identified communal assets considered most vulnerable, including infrastructure such as roads, bridges, railroads, and water and wastewater facilities. Other vulnerable assets included residential structures, historic buildings, agriculture, agrotourism, aquatic ecosystems, public transit, and electricity services. 

For Santa Barbara County, the most common hazards contributing to climate vulnerability are wildfires, landslides and debris flows, inland flooding, and severe weather. The report found that within the next 80 years, the county will face a 36 percent increase in wildfire burn area. “More frequent climate impacts and disasters will increase the need for emergency management services,” said Wilkinson. 

“This has already shifted thinking,” Supervisor Das Williams said. Often coastal areas like Santa Barbara focus on issues such as sea-level rise, Williams said, but the assessment highlighted several other hazards posing much more immediate risk. “We have much more clearly documented increases in sundowner winds, increases in fire weather, and extreme heat issues.”

The assessment made suggestions on programs to combat potential damages due to the increase of wildfires. These included vegetation management projects, encouraging more fire-resistant features for future construction, creating a comprehensive Extreme Heat plan, and providing adequate evacuation routes and services to frontline groups. “Impacts from a climate disaster can affect everyone,” Wilkinson said. “But these groups have fewer resources and less ability to overcome them.”


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