Flooding, heatstroke and raw sewage being swept into the Bay: Climate change just doesn’t sound like much fun at all.
By Joe Eskenazi
If, in the near future, the sea level raises by only about a meter – a conservative estimate – the computer image displayed above will be the de facto new downtown plan. At AT&T Park, for one, the words “hit” and “splash hit” will be interchangeable.
And if your first reaction is to think, “Big deal, so I’ll wear a pair of rain boots around town,” then Melissa Capria will be the first to tell you that you’re missing the point. The fact that a single extra meter of ocean and Bay water will inundate San Francisco International Airport, Oakland International Airport and large swaths of SoMa is just the tip of the iceberg – not that there’ll be many of those left.
Capria, the city’s Climate Action Coordinator, sat down with me last week at her office in the San Francisco Department of the Environment. Multiple images like the one accompanying this article adorn the walls; perhaps that helps explain why everyone in the department seems to ride a bike to work.
Citing a 1990 study, Capria says that staving off the one-meter jump in sea level will cost the city a cool $48 billion – and those are 1990 dollars, by the way. But like Chlamydia, global warming is the horrible gift that just keeps giving. Not only will San Francisco be deluged by water from the sea, it will also be buffeted from above.
As humans push the earth’s temperature further and further into the red, “the-once-in-100 years storms will begin happening every 10 years,” says Capria. “You remember how El Nino in 1997 and ’98 caused hundreds of millions of dollars of damage. Imagine having that happen on a more regular basis.”
And while you’re at it, imagine our sewer system is not up to the task. Unlike many cities, the water that flows down San Francisco’s curbs and into the storm drains ends up in the very same pipes that remove sewage from our homes. This is a mixed blessing. One the one hand, it means the water that runs through our filthy, oily streets is treated before being pumped into the Bay. But, if torrents of rainwater enter the system it shuts it down; imagine Best Buy opening up its front doors and giving away free copies of Halo 3. Except in this case, millions of gallons of raw sewage make their way into local waters (this already happens several times a year with regular storms).
Finally – and most intuitively – when it gets hotter, expect more people to suffer heat-related maladies. A scorching heat wave that blazed across Europe in August of 2003 claimed 35,000 lives; France alone lost nearly 15,000 people. While stiff U.S. import laws make it difficult to bring unpasteurized French cheese into the country, there’s no reason we can’t experience France-style heat deaths.
If by now you’re dying for some good news, there is a little. Capria reports that the city has been able to significantly cut down its emission rate of Carbon Dioxide and other greenhouse gasses; In 1990, S.F. pumped out 9.1 million tons and jumped to 9.7 million by 2000. Now we’re at an estimated 9.2 million tons per year. If the city continues to decrease at this rate, we’ll hit 8.5 million tons of greenhouse emissions by 2012.
But here’s some more bad news. The city’s ambitious goal is to be down to around 7.3 million tons of emissions by then. And while San Francisco’s population declined between 2000 and today, it will probably be growing in the next five years.
In a nutshell, we need to stop driving so damn much. Some methods of changing our behavior can be positive – improving Muni, for one. Others will be punitive – like charging us for the privilege of driving on the city’s busiest streets.
At this point, Capria cracks a smile. And why not? After all, how many other people can say that their day job is attempting to solve the biggest challenge in the history of humanity?
Image | Courtesy of Ed Mazria, www.architecture2030.org