District 7 is away from the immediate coastline and much of it is elevated. So, it’d be easy to think that we aren’t as exposed to climate change as other areas of San Diego, such as Downtown or Coronado. However, while rising sea levels may not have as much of an immediate effect on the district as other areas, there are still several ways that climate change could have a very real impact on us all. What’s more is we’re already starting to see signs of what’s to come.
The past few years have broken heat records across the country, and the planet continues to warm. Here in San Diego, the past few summers have been noticeably hotter than before, and last year’s was the third hottest on record. When I was a child growing up in San Diego, we used to only see 100 degree days a couple of times a year, and these days were deep into the summer. Now, the thermometer at my house shows 100 far more frequently than before, and these high temperatures occur far earlier in the season. In fact, 157 million more people were exposed to heat waves in 2017 compared to 2000, according to Scripps Institute climate professor, Ram Ramanathan.
But aside from longer, hotter summers, what are the ways that climate change could impact San Diego in the future? One immediate risk for us all is that extreme weather can disrupt body functions. Humans are not made to tolerate extreme temperatures and can be put at risk for cardiac and respiratory disorders; diseases such as malaria, West Nile virus. The human cost of extreme weather is high.
There are also several ways that climate change could impact San Diego, especially District 7. Here are four very real examples.
1. Greater risk of wildfires
The global impacts of climate change are often illustrated in the news by receding glaciers and shrinking polar ice, but San Diego also has several areas in which it could be severely impacted. Wildfires have caused significant damage to San Diego twice in the past 15 years, with Tierrasanta being particularly hard hit by the 2003 Cedar Fire. District 7, being surrounded by canyons and wilderness areas, is at particular risk when (not if) the next wildfire hits our city. An increasingly warm climate and lower rainfall causes the brush in Mission Trails and our canyons to become even drier at the end of the summer, significantly increasing the risk of wildfires again impacting our district. Drier winters will also move the fire season forward by several months.
Anyone who went in the ocean during the summer of 2018 will recall that the water was almost bathtub-warm. In fact, the Scripps Institute of Oceanography recorded the highest ever water temperature reading - 78.6 degrees, at Scripps Pier in August. While this may at first seem like a pleasant change, higher summer ocean temperatures could have a potentially catastrophic effect, were an eastern Pacific hurricane track towards our coast instead of staying over southern Baja California. Hurricanes require very warm water to “feed” them, and as a result, high ocean temperatures could lead to an increased risk of hurricanes around San Diego. And while we’ve not had a hurricane here for over 160 years, further extremely warm summer oceans temperatures could continue to leave us at risk for one hitting the city. This could devastate low-lying areas throughout San Diego, and Mission Valley could be particularly hard hit.
3. Stronger winter storms
The climate change-warmed ocean that increases our risk of hurricanes could also leave San Diego more likely to be hit by intense winter storms. We can expect to see more frequent, wetter and windier events, like the storm in January 2016, which dropped several inches over the city and led to flash flooding, particularly in Mission Valley. More intense storms will likely have a significant impact on District 7, as the San Diego River cuts through the middle of the district. Increased development - especially in Mission Valley - will likely cause more runoff, making traditional flood zone even more hard hit.
4. Scarcer, more expensive water
San Diego residents already pay some of the highest water rates in the country. San Diego’s sources of water have been changing over the past several years. We are buying less water from the Metropolitan Water District, and have replaced that with water both from the Colorado River and also from the recently opened desalination plant in Carlsbad. And while seawater is unlimited, the Carlsbad plant only produces enough water for about 10% of the county’s needs, and it’s twice as expensive as traditional sources.
With winter rainfall (and therefore snow in the Sierras and Rockies) becoming less predictable, droughts becoming more common and warmer weather increasing water use, we will likely see more restrictions, like those we saw in 2015 and 2016. It’s a near-certainty that water prices will continue to rise in the city.
How can we fix this?
Despite the current administration’s short-sighted decision to leave the Paris Climate accord, California continues to be an environmental leader, thanks in large part to the efforts of former governor Jerry Brown.
Here in San Diego, we can take steps to both reduce our carbon footprint as well as mitigate the impacts that climate change will bring. The City of San Diego established its Climate Action Plan (CAP) in 2015. While its aim is admirable and will have a major impact on our city’s carbon footprint when implemented, we are still lagging behind in many areas. The city hasn’t kept pace with its goals to introduce electric and low-emission vehicles, to lower its fleet’s greenhouse gas impact. In addition, the CAP’s goal of 20% of commuters using public transportation isn’t even close to being hit, due in significant part to the lack of last-mile options to get commuters to Trolley stations and other transit hubs.
We need to ensure that the city sticks to its CAP goals, but we can all play a role in minimizing our contribution to climate change, and mitigating its impact. Some of these are very straightforward. For example, instead of throwing plant-based food scraps and garden waste in the trash, we should be composting more. Even in the absence of a structured city program, residents can buy low-cost compost bins, or even build their own. This alone could eliminate thousands of tons of methane-producing waste from entering our landfills each year.
To reduce the future impact of wildfires in our community, we can all help by becoming more aware of areas which could easily burn, even in our own backyards. Simply cutting back dead trees or scrub can stop fire from spreading through our community, possibly saving both homes and lives.
As a city, we can’t solve the climate change issue alone, and it will take a concerted global effort to try to minimize and hopefully reverse the damage done. However, both the City of San Diego and its residents can - and must - take steps to reduce their contribution to greenhouse gases. In the meantime, we must all be aware of the impact that climate change may have on us, and take steps to mitigate its impact on our district.