San Diego’s Climate Challenges Will Still Be Here in 2021 – and Beyond

Science/Environment

San Diego’s Climate Challenges Will Still Be Here in 2021 – and Beyond

Climate concerns took a bit of a backseat in 2020. These are the local plans and problems that policymakers might turn their attention to in 2021.

King Tides in La Jolla / Photo by Megan Wood

Unfortunately, just because we see light at the end of one global crisis tunnel doesn’t mean we can let our guard down on another – this is true for climate change in San Diego.

The two are inextricably linked, as the suspected animal-to-human spread of COVID-19 is widely seen in the scientific community as a symptom of human caused-climate change. That’s because deforestation and intensive agriculture push wildlife out of their natural habitats and closer to interacting with us.

All the more reason for metropolises to plan well for the balance of its ecosystems and learn to live with the damage already done. Now that the hell of 2020 is officially wrapped, I’m taking a dive into some of the localized climate problems we left boiling on the back burner.

The Sea Is Still Coming

Picture this: It’s 2100 and we as a species weren’t able to nip fossil fuel consumption in the bud in a major way. (Imagine 20 successive Donald Trump presidencies with hundreds of climate regulatory rollbacks even though the United States is the No. 2 contributor of planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions.)

In San Diego, the worst-case climate scenario means ocean levels are 10 feet higher, swallowing Mission Beach’s iconic boardwalk and lapping dangerously close to Belmont Park’s Giant Dipper roller coaster. Most of the city’s infrastructure responsible for controlling wastewater is compromised. The majority of our beaches as we know them today are gone.

The city knows all of this but there are no plans yet in place to move people and property away from the shoreline or put stuff in the ocean to try and slow down the onslaught of wave energy, like a sea wall, cobblestone or artificial reef.

San Diego’s working on it, though. The city calls it Climate Resilient SD and the plan is still, well, in the planning phase. Staff are collecting public feedback via a survey (available in many languages) slated to close on Feb. 19. It’s not gathering feedback on whether you’d support a sea wall versus expanding a natural wetland as an ocean buffer. It’s more of a value-gathering survey, like, do you support clean air and water for everyone? Gosh, I hope so.

Most cities in the United States are sort of on their own to plan for these kinds of challenges. California lawmakers are slowly starting to recognize the need to get municipalities linked with the kind of scientific expertise San Diego leveraged for its assessments of its vulnerability to climate change. That’s not a cheap process. And San Diego has so far used state grants to get there.

We’ll see if bills to provide that support and funding introduced by San Diego lawmakers will make any headway in the state Legislature next year.

Climate Action Plan, Take Two

Allow me to pause and educate.

Climate change policy nerds use three terms on the regular: mitigation, adaptation and resilience. Mitigation translates to things we do to try and slow down climate change by reducing greenhouse gas production, like riding a bike instead of a car. Adaptation are things we do to prepare and prevent the damage already done by climate change, like building a sea wall to prevent higher ocean waves from slamming into a coastline. And resilience is how we prepare to cope with inevitable extremes from climate change, like providing flood insurance to people living in high-risk areas.

San Diego’s Climate Action Plan is mostly a mitigation tool to reduce the city’s impact on global emissions. The five-year plan passed in 2015 hinges on five strategies, like making buildings more energy-efficient and expanding biking, walking and transit. But it also takes count of the greenhouse gas emissions emitted by the city. By that measure, the city knows whether it’s meeting a goal of generating 50 percent less emissions than it did in 2010.

Part of how it gets there is San Diego Community Power, which took over the job of buying the type of energy used to power the city from San Diego Gas and Electric, a private utility. It’s that new government agency’s job to incorporate more renewable energy into the mix so its member cities can be using 100 percent renewable energy by 2035. (One caveat is this only applies to what our electricity is generated with because natural gas is not part of that mandate.)

Mat Vasilakis, co-director of policy at the Climate Action Campaign, said he hopes the next five-year mitigation plan the city’s working on right now, Climate Action Plan 2.0, will include a “zero carbon” by 2045 goal. That’s based on an executive order by Gov. Jerry Brown pushing California to be carbon neutral (that means the amount of carbon we emit from fossil fuels is equal to the amount the natural environment can soak up again.)

“If the city moves forward with a zero-carbon plan that means, de facto, they’re committed to winding down natural gas,” Vasilakis said.

Natural gas, while often marketed as a “clean fuel,” is still a fossil fuel. Not only does it emit carbon dioxide, the main culprit for trapping heat in the atmosphere, which over-warms the planet, it emits methane, which is even better at trapping heat. It’s widely used in San Diego to heat homes and for cooking but it also powers a lot of the main energy generators used to create electricity for the region.

Earlier this year, the Climate Action Campaign gave San Diego a “silver” on the Olympic medal scale in terms of how well it did on the old. We’ll have to wait and see what the city’s hired consultant says about San Diego’s ability to cut greenhouse gas emissions and what it should do to curb them even more in the coming years.

What Else We’ve Gotta Worry About

San Diego has so far avoided a catastrophic wildfire this season, and has largely avoided the scale of destruction regularly seen further north. Science writer Diana Leonard asked fire researchers to explain whether the region is doing something right – or just lucky.

But we’re not in the clear just yet. Fire season isn’t over. We’re an arid region prone to high-whipping and hot Santa Ana winds every winter, which often lead to power shutoffs by SDG&E as a wildfire prevention measure.

And, the World Meteorological Association predicts we’re heading into what’s known as a La Niña event. Her little brother, El Niño is better known (not in small part thanks to Chris Farley’s infamous characterization) but because the Gulf Coast usually experiences intense tropical storms under his watch.

These two are names for a symbiotic and naturally occurring global climate teeter-totter. They occur every two to seven years and scientists are keeping a close watch on how climate change is making their effects more intense.

But basically, during a La Niña, California is bound to have a much drier and hotter winter season. That could be bad news for the latter part of wildfire season.

So, better to be prepared.

Good News: Working From Your Couch Combats Climate Change

Here’s my light at the end of the dark and scary climate tunnel I just created: Working from home due to the pandemic could help curb the effects of climate change.

We already saw air pollution plunge in San Diego when stay-at-home orders were fresh and feared.

It’s not rocket science. Not driving your car to an office through standstill traffic jams and spinning around parking ramps is good for the air. Whether businesses will permit workers to continue what was once considered a privilege remains to be seen.

While we know that it might not have plunged enough to pull our rate of greenhouse gas emissions down in any meaningful way – it’s a start. Ralph Keeling, one of the world’s most famous and San Diego-based climate scientists, said back in spring the world would have to cut fossil fuel use by 10 percent for one year to make a dent in the Keeling Curve (what measures human-made greenhouse gases.)

But not all the data is in, so the result is still up for debate.

What do you think?
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