Less than one year ago, Climate Action Campaign and Sierra Club San Diego – the groups we lead – proudly stood with the mayor, City Council, and business, labor and community leaders to celebrate the groundbreaking adoption of the Climate Action Plan.
Our city’s elected officials and climate warriors were deservedly lauded by leaders from across the country and the world for being the largest city in the United States to approve a legally binding plan that will slash our carbon footprint in half by 2035 by committing to 100 percent clean electricity, zero waste and at least 30 percent of our families biking, walking or taking public transit to work. Cities account for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions and house more than half of our population, so our decision to define new climate-friendly urbanism generated a lot of hope and excitement. Adding to the excitement was the fact that San Diego’s Republican mayor led the charge – in a bipartisan twist that we dared to dream could serve as the blueprint for all climate efforts moving forward.
Still, many registered skepticism that the mayor and Council would actually implement the plan after all the cameras were gone, knowing it would require unprecedented political leadership and large-scale social change. We chose to believe differently.
With all eyes on our city, the first big test of our commitment to implementing the plan  comes in the form of community plan updates – the long-term roadmaps for growth, development and mobility in individual neighborhoods. We cannot reach the 2035 climate targets without creating compact, mixed-use and transit-rich neighborhoods close to where families work.
Four community plan updates are coming to a vote this fall. They include North Park, Uptown and Greater Golden Hill – all communities surrounding downtown and jobs – in other words, the most likely and appropriate places to begin building these more compact neighborhoods where folks would have real options to go to work and access services without a car.
After months of calling for an analysis of how well these three draft community plan updates implement the Climate Action Plan and achieve its goals, the city finally conducted one. Unfortunately, none of these three draft community plan updates conform to the plan nor meet the minimum thresholds set for shifting commutes to biking, walking and transit.
Now what? If our most urban core neighborhoods adjacent to downtown are not planned to meet the Climate Action Plan goals, which communities will? The city will not tell us. Its response thus far is to say that there are plans to increase those biking/walking and transit numbers, though those measures are not identified or quantified in the community plan updates. Or, they say, they will go back and redo the community plan updates at some unknown date, though we all know they don’t have the resources or capacity to do that, and the developers and home builders won’t wait. They also suggest – probably the most far-fetched response – that other measures outside of transportation and land use will make up for the missed opportunities. Given that the universe of options to hit the required targets is limited and we are already planning on 100 percent clean energy, all of the city responses fall short.
The better option, and in our opinion the only option, is to do these community plan updates right in the first place and prioritize better transportation infrastructure in the urban core. Rather than make excuses about why it’s OK to miss the targets in these key neighborhoods, let’s take a deep breath, slow down and identify solutions. What is the rush to adopt growth plans that don’t serve our communities’ needs and lock in counterproductive decisions for decades that will prevent us from meeting our commitments to our kids and their future? We know that retrofitting older neighborhoods is no easy task and that there are many interests who want to fight for the status quo, but the mayor and Council passed the Climate Action Plan knowing they would have to do things differently – and knowing that the task will only get harder and more costly the longer we wait to begin.
The climate crisis isn’t interested in what is politically expedient – the only thing that will stop it is to quit burning dirty fuels. Changing how we grow and move people around our city is at the heart of that solution. There is a little thing called the law at stake here too. The city made a legal commitment to reach these greenhouse gas reductions – which are consistent with state goals.
Our world is changing rapidly. It is unclear what the future holds for even millennials given runaway global temperatures, rising seas, droughts, fires, food instability, diseases, etc,. but we do know it is our responsibility to do everything in our power to ensure their survival – and in the best circumstances, a higher quality of life.
Nicole Capretz is executive director of Climate Action Campaign, and George Courser is conservation chair of Sierra Club San Diego.