The timing of the IPCC’s sixth assessment report (AR6) could not have been more pertinent. After a summer of record-breaking heatwaves and marine die-offs, both the United States and the rest of the globe are starring down the barrel of what may turn out to be the worst Atlantic hurricane and global wildfire seasons on record.
The Dixie fire, now officially the second largest fire in California history, continues to rage across the northern part of our state, and while faulty PG&E equipment “may” have started the fire (here we go again), the conditions which have allowed it to rampage across over 700,000 acres and level a small town are now unquestionably linked to climate change. The Caldor Fire has burned more than 200,000 acres and is still potentially threatening South Lake Tahoe.
While this may have been somewhat obvious to anyone who’s been paying attention (The 8 largest wildfires in state history have occurred in the last four years), until the release of AR6, a definitive causal link between global climate change and optimal fire conditions had yet to be explicitly stated.
The new report, released a few weeks ago, contains a wealth of new information on both the physical science of climate change and what can be done to stave off the most catastrophic outcomes. The 37-page summary for policymakers is easily digestible, and contains most of what the average community member or elected official needs in order to understand where we are and what we need to do with respect to climate change and greenhouse gas emissions.
Please, go read it. The fate of our planet’s climate is far too important to leave to climate scientists and environmental engineers.
In addition to an amazing interactive atlas, AR6 lays out five potential emissions trajectories, and weighs their relative effects and consequences for our climate system and global society. For me, these scenarios span an emotional spectrum regarding my future, starting at “Hey, it may not be totally irresponsible for me to have kids one day” and ending with “Where the fuck am I going to find diapers in the apocalypse?”
Even SSP2-4.5, the supposed “middle ground” (and in my opinion, the most likely) scenario, in which global emissions continue to slowly rise for the next few decades then begin to decrease around 2050, is absolutely terrifying. It would mean near total collapse of most of the world’s fisheries. “Once in a century” weather events would likely become annual. Hundreds of millions of people would be displaced, mostly from the global south. The potential for economic damage due to climate disasters, pandemics, and inundated infrastructure would likely exceed global GDP every year.
It would mean that, if I started applying to grad schools today, the last coral reefs might die before I get a PhD, and if I have kids they probably wouldn’t get to play in the sand on a beach unless it was artificial.
Fortunately, there are signs of hope. Both the White House and San Francisco have committed to net-zero emissions no later than 2050 and 2040, respectively, with SF planning to cut emissions in half within the next two decades. If these goals are met on a global scale, our emissions would reflect scenario SP1-1.9—the best possible outcome outlined in this report.
As I said in my last piece, these goals are highly encouraging. If executed, they have the potential to save millions of lives and maybe even allow me to enjoy some non factory-farmed sushi in retirement.
Again, these goals need to be achieved on a global scale, and unfortunately neither the United States nor San Francisco has the luxury of shooting for average. We are too wealthy and too technologically capable (to say nothing of our disproportionate per-capita emissions), and therefore have a moral obligation to reside on the greener side of the global emissions spectra.
Recently, the Board of Supes passed a resolution that requires implementing the Department of the Environment’s Climate Action Plan sometime this fall. A draft of the proposed plan can be found on the department’s website. It contains an ambitious plan of action, and if it is executed, could have the result of dramatically reducing municipal emissions, potentially achieving net-zero years before the 2050 goal.
While it doesn’t include any mention of the emissions impacts of digital goods and services (emissions from bitcoin mining alone are estimated to offset the reduction from every solar panel on the planet), it does address almost every other aspect of the city’s emissions in an aggressive, practical, executable manner.
The proposed plan should be a perfect example of how climate change, at its core, is wholly intersectional. Solutions to climate problems are also solutions to social problems.
This includes housing and tenant rights, which on the surface may not seem like an environmental issue, but actually play a huge role in emissions from the transportation sector. For example, new residents, particularly those who work in the tech sector, are more likely to commute to work in Silicon Valley, and the tenants they displace are more likely to keep their jobs in the city and commute from the greater bay area.
And even though the COVID pandemic has shifted many higher paying jobs to remote or work from home hybrid formats, the city’s essential workers never had that luxury. The vast majority continue to commute to work, sometimes from dozens of miles away. Additionally, lower paid workers (with the exception of ride-share drivers) tend to drive older model vehicles, which emit far more carbon per person per mile than, say, an electric google bus, compounding commuter emissions. If, as their marketing rhetoric and NYT coverage would suggest, big tech is truly committed to fighting climate change, why not donate a couple of free electric bus routes to and from Antioch, Vallejo, or Stockton?
The draft also includes strong environmental justice commitments, including access to high paying green infrastructure jobs for people in low income and historically disadvantaged communities, and calls for increased communication and the centering of BIPOC voices when addressing the needs of the city’s infrastructure and future transit development.
It even attempts to address housing as a historical barrier to intergenerational wealth in black and brown communities, with the first proposed supporting action in the housing section (H1-1) being to “Leverage every housing action and investment to help reverse historic racial, ethnic, and social dispossession, and enable wealth-building for affected communities.”
If enacted, this would represent a commitment to disadvantaged communities, from both the Mayor’s Office and the Board of Supervisors, to essentially advance a reparations agenda addressing decades of discriminatory housing policy in the name of fighting climate change.
The plan, unfortunately, generally follows the Yimby line on housing. The document calls for substantial upzoning along transit lines and a complete upzoning of the entire city by 2023—as if more commercial and housing density will magically get people out of their cars and bring down housing prices. The data says the opposite:If you increase market-rate development in vulnerable communities, you drive out existing residents, who then have to move far out of town and commute to work in their cars. That would negate the entire premise of reducing car miles.
The draft calls for only 400 new units of affordable housing a year, which is far, far less than the city needs.
Any serious climate plan needs to start with protecting existing communities and ending displacement.
There is, meanwhile, a major gap between the strategies and actions laid out in the draft of the Climate Action Plan and actual substantive policy. Following through on each and every one of the actions detailed in this plan may require dozens if not hundreds of unprecedented policy initiatives and hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars. It would undoubtedly represent the largest expenditure of both political and economic capital in the history of the city, and perhaps of any city in the history of the United States.
The world has seen what happens when cities develop and execute aggressive climate plans. Copenhagen, Denmark’s capital city, is on track to become carbon neutral sometime in the next 36 months. Our goals put us a quarter of a century behind them, and that’s only if we can find the political will to take substantive action.
Is this really going to happen? Will the Mayor’s Office support a housing policy based on reparations? Will there be adequate funding for every one of the dozens of absolutely necessary strategies and actions described in this plan? Will real, actionable policy be passed? Will we, the residents of San Francisco, hold them accountable if it isn’t?
At this point, the Department of the Environment isn’t ready to say much. When I asked for specifics on the draft’s short-term action items, 28 of which were scheduled for completion by 2022, I received this response from Policy and Communications Director Joseph Sweiss:
I can’t comment more specifically on action items in the Plan because it’s still going through a draft and review phase- as it shapes up more firmly in the coming weeks we can reach out to discuss the action items in more detail. As mentioned, some action items have already been codified or accomplished ahead of schedule, such as banning natural gas in new construction and our accelerated carbon neutral goals. You’re also correct in noticing that action items to be completed in 2022 will likely be pushed back in the final Plan due to the pandemic.
That final sentence gave me a resurgence of anxiety regarding one of the cruelest ironies of climate change; that its resulting societal disruptions could severely limit our ability to stave off its worst effects.
AR6 plainly states that if we want to avoid anything resembling a nightmare scenario, we need to act now. It also explicitly states that the frequency of disruptive natural disasters, such as wildfires, major storms, and pandemics will likely increase in the coming decades.
Let me be absolutely clear. There is no evidence that this most recent pandemic is climate-related, and working through COVID has been hard for everyone. However, we simply cannot afford to have the impacts of climate change reduce our ability to combat it.
It’s all well and good to set accelerated carbon neutral goals, but we’re not going to achieve them by pushing the deadlines for two dozen other necessary steps. The French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once said “A goal without a plan is just a wish.” I would have followed with “A plan without action is just bullshit, and the excuses that come after are just politics.”
Yes, climate change presents a serious existential problem for both our world and our city. It also provides an unprecedented opportunity for radical societal change in the positive (or negative) direction.
Let’s create our own future, and let’s make it a better one. I’ll say it again, the future of our world’s climate is far too important to leave in the hands of climate scientists and politicians. We should all read the city’s new Climate Action Plan in detail when it comes out, and hold our elected officials accountable to it at the ballot box.
Michael Redmond is an environmental science student at UC Santa Cruz.