LONG BEACH - The time may be right to talk about climate change.

At least that was the opinion of organizers at a two-day forum hosted by the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach.

"Surveys show that a huge majority of the American people now believe in global warming," said Tom Bowman, a self-described "science translator" who runs Bowman Global Change, a Signal Hill company that helps organizations create green business plans.

He added that with the economy improving, at least incrementally, the population may be willing to talk about and tackle the large issue.

"I think the economy is improving enough, there's been enough wacky weather, we've had two record heat years, in 2002 we had the wild fires, and there have been intense winter storms at odd times," Bowman said.

Global warming, sea levels rising, droughts, and whether we are facing an El Nino, La Nina or neither weather system this winter were all topics on the table at the two-day forum that concludes today.

The forum, called "Preparing Southern California for Extreme Weather-Related Events: A Pathway to Action," brought together scientists and policy-makers to talk about what climate change will look like and what can be done to prepare.

Among those in attendance, there was the feeling that a time of reckoning is upon us.

And, in the words of Jeanine Jones, interstate resources manager for the California Department of Water Resources, there are no simple solutions.


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The question that hovers is whether this is an issue with which the public is willing to engage.

Bowman said that when discussing climate change it is important to move beyond "polarizing rhetoric" and simplify the discussion.

That is more easily said than done.

To many people, "climate change equals government," Bowman said.

Where one falls along the spectrum in the belief that government intervention is good or bad can color perception, he said.

As a result, "something as simple as scientific results is imbued with (a bias)," Bowman said.

Coincidentally, the conference took on additional import and resonance as it came on the heels of Hurricane Sandy, although event attendees were much more concerned with West Coast issues such as drought and flooding.

Jerry Schubel, president and CEO of the Aquarium of the Pacific, said the seminar had been planned over the past nine months, long before Sandy made headlines.

However, as Schubel noted, "I think (Sandy) underscores how vulnerable we are along the coast."

Dramatic climactic and natural events may be unavoidable and can't be completely planned for, he said.

"We're asking the question, how can we decrease our vulnerability and increase our resiliency," Schubel said. "If we learned anything from Sandy, that's what we should have learned."

Experts, scientists and policy-makers in a variety of broad areas related to climate change and what it will mean to Southern California discussed everything from wildfires to flooding and how they are all connected.

Also discussed was the maddening task of explaining long-term effects in a world with a short-term mindset and building policies against what many say is an inevitable future.

"There's a built-in challenge, because we're predicting things 50 and 80 years out," said Bowman. "Everyone says we'll be fine until then."

Meanwhile, he noted, decisions made today will build toward future results, and "we have to overcome the tendency to say we'll be fine until that sudden day."

In a world where Kelly Redmond of the Western Regional Climate Center admits that forecasting weather more than two weeks out is incredibly difficult and complex and involves a vast array of variables, it's hard to sell short-term confusion against long-term probability.

As a short-term example, Redmond noted that even predictions of whether there will be an El Nino effect this winter, meaning more rain and higher temperatures, are changing without consensus.

"We've been stuck on whether we'd get an El Nino," Redmond said of the weather condition that occurs when tropical waters heat up. 

While there had been a forecast of a small one, he said, "that's vacillating, and by now the effects we see (are) the opposite."

While talking about alarming trends in the rate sea levels are rising, Dan Cayan of the Scripps Institute or Oceanography said "we'll see rising rates that will likely eclipse what we've seen historically."

However, he also noted that sea levels in Southern California have been tranquil since the 1990s. If or when a catastrophic event occurs, it is impossible to know whether it will be spurred by storms or an earthquake.

"That's the wickedness of the problem," Cayan said. "We've known for a long time there will be a profound effect and a cascading of systems."

But since scientists can't pin down exactly what will happen or when, communicating the severity of climate change becomes difficult.

"It's a marathon as well as a sprint," Cayan said.

Greg.mellen@presstelegram.com, 562-499-1291, twitter.com/gregmellen