Global Warming and San Diego

Reprinted from San Diego Union Tribune
By John H. Reaves
November 13, 2007 

By now, I have to wonder who does not believe we have a global warming crisis and who does not see the connection with energy and water consuming development (40 percent of the state’s electricity moves water around the state). When I was in college in the 1970s, environmental professors described how greenhouse gases trap heat and how the world has emitted immense quantities of such gases since the Industrial Revolution began. They said our insatiable consumerism would inevitably lead to a day of reckoning with potentially dire results. Well, here we are. More than 30 years later, leading scientists across the world say global warming is real and happening at a faster pace than many first predicted.

We need to stop contributing to the problem now so that future generations will face less turmoil. It is not just higher waters that threaten us, but drastic changes in weather, hurricanes, droughts, agriculture, challenged resources, species extinction, disease and dislocation of people with attendant battles for turf.

San Diego’s water problems dovetail with global warming. Our region imports 90 percent of its water from the Sacramento Delta, which may be cut 30 percent, and the drought-stricken Colorado River, and our reservoirs are low. Our state projects major additional shortages due to global warming. Even if we reduce consumption, we would likely face drastic mandatory cuts within a few years. How can our region afford new development that further strains water and energy supplies and is modeled after the failed designs of waste that helped get us to into this problem?

San Diego County projects population growth from 3 to 4 million in the next 25 years and a 25 percent increase in water use, despite anticipated aggressive water conservation. What? Why aren’t politicians making immediate changes when serious crises are just over the horizon? Many politicians’ backers are invested in the status quo. This is not a battle society can afford to lose. But, if global warming is as bad as scientists predict, the amount of worldwide misery will be numbing.

A Yale survey in September found 68 percent of respondents were “completely” or “mostly convinced” that global warming is occurring, and favor policies to slow it. With the state Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 and other laws, our state and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger have taken the lead, and greenhouse gases must be reduced to 1990 levels by 2020 and reduced 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

The state has no current mandate affecting localities’ discretion over land use, so local politicians can make a huge difference or add to the problem. There are laudable, but insufficient, examples of local efforts to reduce greenhouse gases. For instance, the city of San Diego reduced such gases 10 percent from its own operations (mostly methane removed from landfills and sewage) between 1990 and 2004, but the city government’s overall share of greenhouse gases in San Diego is now only 1 percent. Buildings represent the greatest source of greenhouse gases in the United States, at 43 percent in 2002. That means we should not allow new development of the same old type that adds to our greenhouse gas and water problems.

Where do our local politicians stand on global warming and the water shortage? What are they doing on a local level to stop it right now? Green LEED (Leadership and Energy and Environmental Design) “silver” buildings, solar and wind energy, distributed energy generation, conservation, wastewater reuse, xeriscape, should now be the norm. People keep asking for leadership.

The price of admission has changed. “No Net New Greenhouse Gases” should begin today. Regional governments should create renewable energy complexes in the desert and seek new legislation to allow off-site energy distribution. New development that lacks room on-site to be energy independent could improve energy efficiencies in the most needy neighborhoods or generate additional energy off-site. With the right vision, we could actually be a county that is energy independent and free of foreign oil dependency by 2050.

New development should be accommodated only if it does not tax supplies beyond what will actually be available. We should anticipate water shortages, implement conservation and modest mandatory rationing, permit desalination, and commit to aggressively pursuing sewage wastewater reuse for groundwater and reservoir recharge. But to make no immediate changes when serious crises are known is like the proverbial crazy person who repeats an unsuccessful action hoping for a different result.

Changing to a greener society now would create new jobs and make us stronger. The time for action is now. A simple majority on every government council in San Diego could radically revamp antiquated development standards by emergency ordinances and make a real difference.


Reaves is an environmental lawyer in San Diego who is examining ways to reduce global warming.



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