A damning new report shows climate change is inevitable. How can S.F. adapt?

‘California and the West are, in many ways, crosshairs of vulnerability to climate change impacts’

It is already too late to reverse some of the devastating effects of climate change. Instead, humanity must learn to adapt.

A sobering new report released this week by the world’s top climate scientists warned that the window to stave off the most devastating impacts of climate change is rapidly shrinking and that some impacts of global warming have already been baked in.

On Monday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a body convened by the UN, offered a grim report that served as a guidebook for how to survive in an increasingly hotter world. It’s a reality that has become all too familiar in the Bay Area as record droughts, scorching wildfires, rising seas and blistering heat waves have become benchmarks of this new normal.

“California and the West are, in many ways, crosshairs of vulnerability to climate change impacts – whether that’s drought or wildfire or coastal erosion or excessive heat,” said Chris Field, Director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. “We have seen all of those in recent years, and we’ll continue to.”

The report makes clear that these extreme events are poised to worsen in the coming decades if humans fail to curb greenhouse gas emissions by transitioning energy, transportation and buildings away from fossil fuels.

“We’re really running out of time – we are out of time, basically – and unless we can make super dramatic changes, essentially now, we’re really going to be stuck with totally unacceptable levels of impacts,” said Field, who was a co-chair of a previous IPCC report released in 2014.

The good news is that San Francisco, which has long billed itself as a leader on environmental issues, rolled out a plan late last year to reach net-zero emissions by 2040, a decade ahead of the deadline set by climate scientists.

“San Francisco is admired around the world as an icon of how to be thoughtful with investments,” said Field. But he added if it wants to remain a leader on climate issues, it needs to commit to achieving net-zero “substantially before the rest of the world.”

That said, at the moment, The City’s Climate Action Plan remains merely a plan – and its ability to persuade nearly a million residents to wean off fossil fuels swiftly has yet to be seen. Despite bans on natural gas in new buildings and The City’s investment in programs like CleanPowerSF, many San Franciscans still depend heavily on fossil fuels to power their homes, cars, and offices.

The Examiner also found that the Department of the Environment, which has been tasked with the plan’s implementation, has been historically underfunded. The department recently announced it would be requesting General Fund dollars this year – the first time in nearly two decades.

It also remains unclear how San Franciscans will begin to adapt to the extreme events inflicted by a warming world. There’s still much work to be done around how rising sea levels might displace shoreline communities and the ways in which blistering heatwaves and wildfire smoke will impact human health, Field noted.

But glimmers of hope for adapting to a warming world do exist. The IPCC report stressed the importance of “nature-based solutions,” as a critical component of adaptation. These solutions include wetland restoration, conservation of forests and greening cities – projects, experts say, that have the greatest potential to sustain the quality of life for Bay Area residents and protect the region’s biodiversity.

“Backing nature is the best way to adapt to and to slow climate change while providing jobs and boosting economies,” said Inger Andersen, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme. “We need to bring nature into baking hot cities to keep them cool. We need to conserve mangroves, coral reefs, and other nature’s defenses. We need to protect and restore wetlands for nature and incorporate wetlands into our cities.”

San Francisco Crissy Field’s wetland restoration project is one such example. The former military base has been converted back to a tidal marsh modeled off the ancient salt marsh system that flourished for thousands of years before development rerouted watersheds and paved over the natural dunes.

“The National Park Service has actually developed a plan for Crissy Field that incorporates climate change and sea-level rise,” said Patrick Gonzalez, a forest ecologist and climate change scientist at the University of California, Berkeley and an author of the latest IPCC report. In practice, he said, this means “using the natural dunes but also restoring the wetland inland so that it can accept increasing storm surge and absorb the shock.”

But even before this report’s publication, many in the Bay Area’s environmental community had already conceded that people have warmed the planet past the point of no return.

“There’s an important distinction to be made between resilience and resistance,” said Cole Burchiel, a field Investigator at the environmental watchdog Baykeeper. “The dominant philosophy regarding climate change for many years and persists really prevalently today is resist: We’re going to build the seawall. We’re going to put out the fires. We’re going to do all these things. But it’s really hard to engineer away a natural disaster – and when the world becomes one continuous natural disaster, that’s going to become even more difficult.”

Still, that doesn’t mean an inaction is an option either, the report urgently points out. “Humanity has spent centuries treating nature like its worst enemy,” said Andersen. “The truth is that nature can be our savior, but only if we save it first.”


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