Sea-Level Rise and the Governance Gap in the San Francisco Bay Area

Report Suggests Visioning Task Force to Move Climate Adaptation Planning Forward

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco
Bay Area policymakers agree that sea-level rise is a threat but grapple with how to lead a coordinated effort to address it, according to UC Davis report. (GettyImages)

Quick Summary

  • There is currently no single plan for climate adaptation and sea-level rise in the Bay Area
  • Report shows Bay Area policymakers agree that sea-level rise is a threat but grapple with how to lead a coordinated effort to address it.
  • Report suggests solutions to move the process forward

Most San Francisco Bay Area policymakers understand that sea-level rise is a serious threat to the region, agree that preparing for it should be a priority, and have a basic understanding of solutions that would help the region adapt to sea-level rise, such as wetlands, living shorelines, seawalls and levees.

However, they do not agree on who should lead a coordinated planning effort to address it. A visioning task force could help move the process forward, according to a report from the University of California, Davis, which analyzes this governance gap, the challenges to overcoming it and suggests steps forward.

No single plan

Currently, there is no single plan for climate adaptation and sea-level rise in the Bay Area, although regional plans exist at the individual agency and multiagency levels. This lack of regional coordination sets the stage for fragmented decision-making, the report said.

Most stakeholders expressed a feeling of “everybody’s involved, but nobody is in charge.”

“With sea-level rise, one actor’s decision in one area has implications for others,” said lead author Mark Lubell, director of the UC Davis Center for Environmental Policy and Behavior. “For example, a seawall built in one area may increase the flood risk for another area if not planned carefully. That’s why it’s critical they work together.”

The report said the “working together part” is just beginning to occur.

“It’s exciting to see institutional change in motion,” Lubell said. “That’s exactly the kind of thing I study. For me, this is like being an evolutionary biologist getting to see the Cambrian explosion. With the dialogue happening at the policy level, there’s this explosion happening and everything is in motion.”

Governance gap a Catch-22

For the report, “The Governance Gap: Climate Adaptation and Sea-Level Rise in the San Francisco Bay Area,” Lubell interviewed and analyzed the responses of over 50 Bay Area policy leaders regarding the challenges and potential solutions of preparing for and adapting to sea-level rise in the region.

Most stakeholders expressed a feeling of “everybody’s involved, but nobody is in charge.” While they agreed that some entity should lead a coordinated effort, the top challenge is who that should be, making for a governance Catch-22.

Map of Bay Area climate policy network
Map representing the climate adaptation policy network in the San Francisco Bay Area. The red circles represent actors. The blue squares are specific climate adaptation projects. The links represents actors participating in projects. (Mark Lubell/UC Davis)

While policymakers voiced distaste for creating a new agency or increasing the authority of an existing agency in ways that would limit local autonomy, they also did not want to create additional administrative procedures.

Other challenges include funding adaptive infrastructure, integrating the permitting process, understanding and identifying the best available climate science, and engaging the public, who often perceive sea-level rise as a slow-moving natural disaster, where the effects aren’t immediately visible.

Sea-level rise vision task force

The idea of a visioning task force arose as a reasonable first step to push the ball forward toward regional cooperation. A visioning task force provides an opportunity for political leadership in establishing the goals, principles, and information basis for regional and local adaptation.

Similar task forces have been key first steps in moving a number of efforts forward involving infrastructure planning, from California’s Bay Delta to the Florida Everglades. Such a process can help establish support and guidelines about what should come next.

Bay Area already experiencing sea-level rise

The San Francisco Bay Area is already experiencing sea-level rise associated with climate change in the form of coastal flooding. Extreme weather events exacerbate the problem, as high levels of precipitation in upland watersheds create downstream coastal flooding.

Coastal areas tend to have high levels of human development, and sea-level rise is expected to impose high economic, social and environmental costs in the Bay Area and other urban regions. Businesses and homes in low-lying areas are also vulnerable, particularly in economically and racially diverse, disadvantaged communities.

The report notes that the threat of sea-level rise will continue even if all global climate mitigation policies reduce carbon emissions to zero, because the effects of climate change can persist in the atmosphere for decades.

The analysis is part of the larger UC Davis/UC Berkeley-led research project Resilience of Infrastructure as Seas Rise, or RISER, which is funded by the National Science Foundation.

Media Resources

Mark Lubell, UC Davis Environmental Science and Policy, 530-752-5880,

Kat Kerlin, UC Davis News and Media Relations, 530-750-9195,

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