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Is California Becoming Unlivable?

As climate change ravages the Golden State, earthquakes could become the least of residents' concerns.

J. Emilio Flores/Getty Images

Of all the advice my mother’s given me, she’s repeated three things most often: Don’t walk alone at night. Avoid processed food. And don’t ever move to California.

“California’s going to fall off the face of the country and sink into the ocean,” she’d say, referencing the “big one”—the massive earthquake that scientists predict could one day break open California’s mighty San Andreas Fault. Barring that, she said, California’s wildfire seasons and air pollution would mess with my asthma. The pesticides sprayed by massive agricultural operations would probably get into my drinking water—if I had drinking water at all. Droughts and extreme heat were common, and only stood to get worse due to climate change.

I’ve long considered this advice hyperbolic and self-interested (of course my mom doesn’t want me to move far away). But after the summer California has had, I think she might be on to something.

In the last three months, the state’s extreme wildfires and heat waves have endangered millions of residents’ health and safety, and killed at least eight. At the same time, scientists published several papers asserting those events only stand to get worse over time. My mother was wrong about the “big one”—scientists don’t think California will actually fall into the ocean when it happens—but Wednesday’s 4.4-magnitude shock in Los Angeles is a reminder of the very real earthquake threat.

Is this really a place to put down roots?

California is already a fairly risky place to live compared to the rest of the country. It contains eight of the ten most air-polluted cities in the United States; air pollution can trigger asthma and premature death, and research published Monday shows it can reduce intelligence, too. California also ranks number one on U.S. News and World Report’s list of disaster-prone states, with 281 major natural disasters since 1953. (Texas and Oklahoma are second and third, with 255 and 173 disasters, respectively.)

The disaster ranking is due in part to the sheer diversity of catastrophes California regularly faces: earthquakes, wildfires, mudslides, flooding, and winter storms. And this summer alone has provided a case study on how disasters affect livability. The ongoing wildfire season has yet again broken multiple records—including California’s largest blaze on record—affecting air quality in cities dozens of miles away. “Breathing,” one woman told NPR, “has become a chore.” Heat records were set in the state, too, including the hottest temperature ever recorded in Los Angeles. Heat waves caused power outages that left tens of thousands without air conditioning.

At least there’s no hurricanes in California—yet. Earlier this month, CBS News reported that rising Pacific Ocean temperatures have increased the risk that hurricane-force winds could hit Southern California. “It could happen, especially if the ocean temperatures continue to stay in this anomalously warm state,” oceanographer Art Miller told CBS, adding that the risk could increase as climate change continues to warm the ocean. Then again, as NASA climatologist Bill Patzert pointed out in 2012, “If global temperatures were to rise six degrees, a hurricane in California would rank very low on the list of things we’d need to worry about.”

Global warming is indeed the biggest threat to California’s livability—and that’s according to the state’s own government scientists. On Monday, the state’s Natural Resources Agency released a report finding that Californians will be more likely to “endure more illness and be at greater risk of early death” from increased heat stress and wildfire smoke inhalation as the world continues to warm.

The entire report is apocalyptic—a word Governor Jerry Brown has used to describe the threat climate change poses to the state. In a warmed world, California residents can also expect “increased vector-borne diseases, and stress and mental trauma due to extreme events and disasters, economic disruptions, and residential displacement,” it read. By 2100, the size of wildfires there could nearly double, and two-thirds of Southern California’s beaches could be lost to erosion.

These threats are the main reason California’s been a leader in the fight to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and is making plans to withstand the impacts of our warming world. Next month, it will release a report on how to create new, climate-resilient critical infrastructure.

But there are two hard truths. The first is that California cannot prevent these impacts on its own, no matter how much it cuts emissions. The second is that adaptation and resilience measures can only do so much, given the sheer breadth of the problem. For example, while earthquakes may not cause California to sink, NASA-funded research published Wednesday found that the land in Central California is actually sinking due to a lack of groundwater, which has been depleted by drought and agricultural demand. The sinking is “starting to destroy bridges, crack irrigation canals and twist highways across the state,” according to a report in Mother Jones.

California’s fate thus lies in everyone’s hands. Ensuring the state’s future livability will require that all nations, and especially major polluters such as the U.S., collectively and dramatically reduce their emissions. Otherwise, prospective Californians will have a lot to consider before making their move. The “big one” might not even top the list.