By Jim Miller
Since I last wrote on the People’s Climate March in late September, the grim environmental news has just kept coming in, whether it’s the revelation that September was the warmest month ever on planet earth, the Stanford study linking California’s grueling drought to climate change, the World Wildlife Fund report that the earth has lost half of its wildlife in the last fifty years, or the unpleasant surprise that, “In what could be termed as the worst effect of degrading climatic conditions and global warming, a new study has showed that fish in large numbers will disappear from the tropics by 2050”—it just doesn’t let up.
Perhaps that’s why it seems so many people aren’t paying attention or are just trying to wish away or drastically underestimate the stark realities facing us.
In This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein notes that while climate change denial is a key obstacle to environmental justice, another equally significant problem comes from “moderates” whom she deftly notes are “constantly trying to reframe climate action as something more palatable” so that “the people responsible for the crisis do not feel threatened by the solutions.”
This is how we get what Klein calls, “the big corporate, big military, big engineering responses to climate change” that will leave us with a world with “a tiny group of big corporate winners and armies of locked out losers.” And one of the roads to this outcome is to valorize half measures that fall short of the mark in the service of keeping the powerful comfortable and selling the rest of us short.
Hence my skeptical response while observing the San Diego media’s victory parade for Mayor Faulconer’s Climate Action Plan. The Voice of San Diego assured us that, “He gave progressives what they wanted” while noting that Faulconer fit the plan into his “business friendly narrative” about “environmentally friendly” growth.
But hearing no significant response from progressive local environmentalists join this chorus, I thought immediately of Klein’s caution that “pitching climate change as a way to protect America’s high-consumerist ‘way of life’” is “either dishonest or delusional because a way of life based on the promise of infinite growth cannot be protected.”
So, while I have to give Faulconer credit for not joining the ranks of knuckle-dragging climate change deniers, I find it hard to believe that a mayor so wedded to the whims of the Chamber of Commerce has what it takes to follow through with what will ultimately be meaningful action without a fight. Thus, as Republican hero Ronald Reagan once said of deals with the Soviets, we need to “trust but verify.”
With this in mind, I contacted some friends in the local environmental movement who were not brought into the loop for the mayor’s victory lap to see what they thought. In sum, their response was far less gleeful than the Voice of San Diego would have you think.
Emily Wier of SanDiego350 hit on several key points that were pretty much ignored by the local media. Specifically she notes that:
This plan is written to meet green house gas reductions goals that, when passed in 2005 and 2006 (S-3-05, AB 32), were based on the best available science understanding the impacts of climate change at that time. However, scientists now state that an even more aggressive stance toward reducing emissions is needed based on the observed effects of climate change, updated predictions and modeling, and the lack of political action on climate change on a global scale. Therefore, although the CAP only needs to meet state required reductions, it will be in the best interest of the City of San Diego to take a more aggressive stance, reduce emissions beyond what is legally required, and prepare for adaptation to climate change. Climate change is already impacting San Diego, and strong reductions locally will prepare our city and region best for inevitable impacts, more strict policy measures, and inevitable hardship.
In sum, local groups are still waiting to fully evaluate the plan as the supporting appendices are needed, but from what they have seen they are glad that Faulconer’s plan follows the lead of the previous one proposed by Interim Mayor Todd Gloria to meet state targets with regard to reducing greenhouse gases.
In particular, Mayor Faulconer is committing the City to the goal of 100% clean energy by 2035, most likely through a community choice energy program. Revitalizing our energy grid in this way will provide benefits in terms of both greenhouse gas emissions reductions and addressing worsening pollution in our region.
However, in order to have real local benefits to our economy, renewable energy sources need to include energy efficiency, rooftop solar, and battery storage.
Specifics like this are lacking in the Mayor’s Climate Action Plan.
When the Climate Action Plan is passed by the City Council after a lengthy environmental review process under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) sometime in summer 2015, the City Council will need to pass individual ordinances to implement each of the specific action items in the Climate Action Plan.
Looking more carefully at the document, it is important to note that, as Wier points out, page thirty includes the following: “While the City is committed to meeting the 2020 and 2035 GHG reduction targets, the City recognizes that there are multiple ways to achieve that goal and that flexibility in implementation is necessary to allow the City to evolve its strategies to achieve the most effective path to the desired result.
Specifically, for identified local ordinance, policy or program actions to achieve 2020 and 2035 GHG reduction targets, the City may substitute equivalent GHG reductions through other local ordinance, policy or program actions.”
These two sentences, Wier observes, essentially give the City leeway to implement, or to not implement, anything that is written in this plan. Although flexibility is needed in addressing climate change in San Diego, more teeth are required in committing to specific measures.
Adaptation to climate change is another key component of the Climate Action Plan – and that is another part that local environmental groups are still waiting to see. The current draft Climate Action Plan lays out some parameters for a stand-alone Adaptation Plan, but as Wier says, “We need to be both mitigating for climate change, and adapting to this ‘new normal’ that is already developing in our region. Wildfires, ongoing drought, storm surges and sea level rise, heat waves, health epidemics, this is all part of the San Diego that our kids and grandkids are going to experience. San Diego needs a Climate Adaptation Plan to guide our region forward, and we are looking forward to reviewing the Mayor’s Climate Adaptation Plan.”
According to Wier, local community and environmental groups see the Climate Action Plan as a visioning document for San Diego County—a tool that can be used for creating bikeable, walkable communities, for developing local renewable energy sources, for reducing our energy use and water consumption, for investing in our low-income communities, for building sustainable infrastructure to withstand wildfires, sea level rise, and human health risks, for preserving our native landscapes that help buffer us from the threats of climate change and bring value to our lives, and for prioritizing mass transit over freeway lanes.
Ultimately the goal is to create neighborhoods that are joined together more by face-to-face interactions than by screen-to-screen texts.
Hence, with apologies to the Voice, Faulconer did not “give progressives what they wanted;” he tried to seize the issue, likely for political purposes after a bruising minimum wage fight as a way to soften his image with an eye toward 2016, and that gives progressives the opportunity to press for a bigger, bolder climate action plan that is actually up to the challenge of “decade zero.”
And there are folks showing the way—a recent Stanford study suggested that a radical transformation to renewable energy in California is possible. But this won’t happen if the goal is to keep the Chamber of Commerce happy at all costs. There is no “middle ground” between what the science suggests needs to be done and what is politically possible in conventional terms. Compromise, on this issue, means surrendering the future to despair.
Anything short of bold is simply not enough, here in San Diego or anywhere else.