Climate change is likely to harm California’s economy by reducing the types of natural, non-irrigated vegetation available for livestock forage and the ability of forest ecosystems to store carbon dioxide, according to a peer-reviewed study published in the scientific journal Climatic Change. The ability of ecosystems to store carbon dioxide is a key part of implementing the state’s climate law, the Global Warming Solutions Act, also known as Assembly Bill 32 or AB 32.

"Much of the talk about climate change in California has been about the impacts of sea level rise and droughts," said study coauthor Linwood Pendleton, director of ocean and coastal policy at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, acting chief economist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and study author. "Our work shows that even the gritty worlds of cattle ranching and forestry may take it on the chin as California skies become increasingly carbon-rich."

The study was conducted by researchers from Duke University, Environmental Defense Fund, The Nature Conservancy, Conservation Biology Institute, USDA Forest Service, Stanford University and the University of California at Santa Barbara. It examines how climate change will impact the fundamental character of California’s ecosystems and the valuable services that they provide to the economy.

To analyze the impact to carbon sequestration and natural, non-irrigated livestock forage—two important ecosystem services that contribute to the state’s economy—the researchers used climatic change scenario models from the IPCC and three atmospheric-oceanic models.

The researchers identified that climate change would cause a consistent decline in conifer woodlands and forests through the end of the century that could decrease the amount of carbon storage in forestlands and harm the forestry industry. They also determined that climate change is likely to alter the amount and timing of rain, hail and snow in California, resulting in a 15 to 70 percent increase in shrub lands and a consistent decline in natural, non-irrigated forage production for livestock.

"A less stable climate will reduce the ability of natural landscapes to support cattle grazing, so ranchers may have to grow or buy extra hay instead of getting it for free from nature, as they do now," said lead report author Rebecca Shaw, Ph.D., associate vice president of EDF's Land, Water and Wildlife program and a working group member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).