Quick Take:

Climate change is here and it’s our moral obligation to act, says Sarah Newkirk, executive director of the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County. We need to adapt faster to climate change, speed up federal responses, including funding and — most critically — help people affected, she says. That means assisting the people of Pajaro who have lost homes and also future income, since many are farmworkers and fields are now too flooded to work.

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People used to ask me: How will we know when climate change is here? What does it look like?

In Santa Cruz County, we have stopped asking. We know what it looks like.

Catastrophic wildfires in 2020, atmospheric rivers in January, floods in the Pajaro Valley just this month. It also looks like the years of drought and excessive heat we’ve had in the fields.

It’s here, people — this is it. We can still reduce emissions and reduce the severity of the climate change we experience, but the window to stop it closed a long time ago.

I know. I’m a nature gal. Since July 2021, I’ve served as the executive director of the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County.

For 16 years, I led programs at The Nature Conservancy in New York and California developing and publicizing the science case for using nature as a buffer against the disastrous ramifications of climate change. We showed that well-managed forests and prescribed burning can reduce the impact of catastrophic wildfires. Shaded fuel breaks can protect communities and give firefighters places to stage their response. Connected floodplains can spread floodwaters across lands that can absorb those waters, limiting damage to human beings and their stuff. Broad open deltas and estuaries can reduce the pressure on levees farther upstream.

But this is not about nature right now. It is about people.

Our communities have not adapted fast enough, and the most serious impacts of this accrue to the most disadvantaged, as has been tragically illustrated this month: The entire community of Pajaro has been displaced for an undetermined length of time; and now that flooded farm fields will need to be taken out of production, countless farmworkers will be without work.

This was not inevitable.

We knew the levees were not sufficiently protective. The levee project that is now fully funded and right around the corner could have been initiated years ago if the archaic funding formulas of the federal government hadn’t impeded the allocation of resources. Instead, years of delay and entrenchment have resulted in catastrophe for the people who are the most disenfranchised.

Going forward, we need to accelerate the pace of adaptation so that this doesn’t happen again. The land sector has a huge role to play in that.

But first, we need to stage a compassionate response and recovery, by doubling down on our immediate support for farmworker families; by matching displaced workers with work; by accelerating the cleanup and restoration of Pajaro.

Second, we need to examine the systems that make this harder than it needs to be. Federal programs that provide relief are glacially slow, difficult to navigate, and sometimes operate on a reimbursement basis, necessitating up-front payments from those most in need of assistance.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency will bring funding to the region to rebuild and recover, but programmatic restrictions on how that money can be spent are certain to constrain recovery options, possibly leaving little choice but to rebuild as-is.

Sarah Newkirk, executive director of the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County.
Sarah Newkirk, executive director of the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County. Credit: Via Sarah Newkirk

Unless you are, yourself, displaced, “disaster amnesia” sets in and people move on out of exhaustion or frustration with the system.

People who have it happen to them can’t move on. Land Trust Trustee Mireya Gomez-Contreras remembers the 1995 flood, which impacted her family. Here is what she told me:

“The scary and isolating feeling of not being important enough to those who live comfortably and make decisions is a deep, sharp pain in my heart because somehow, as an expression of my dignity, I know I am, and all the people living in Pajaro are, important, worth the cost of fixing a levee so this doesn’t happen again. We are not only valuable as workers and consumers. The recovery is not only on the physical land but on our bodies. There is much healing to do that unfortunately will become invisible in a matter of months.”

This is what climate change looks like; it looks like lost crops, flooded communities, and displaced, under-resourced people.

It is our moral obligation to fix the systems that led to these impacts, slow the recovery of our communities, and inhibit the restoration of the land to serve its natural function of dissipating climate disasters.

Sarah Newkirk is the executive director of the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County. She is an energetic conservation strategist with a passion for bringing nature into communities by uncovering the myriad values that the land has for people. Prior to joining the Land Trust, Sarah was a leader in advancing land conservation and climate change resilience at The Nature Conservancy (TNC). In this role, Sarah initiated a first-of-its-kind strategic partnership between TNC and FEMA with the goal of mobilizing federal investment in conservation through hazard-mitigation grant programs.