Unfortunately, signs of warming are widespread and often out of sight, from rising temperatures, vanishing polar bear habitat and accelerating glacial melt. Those who choose to ignore these faraway and often far-off warning signs can just say, "things aren't that bad." And even when we do believe that a crisis is coming, it is all too easy to ignore our carbon footprint as we fill the SUV up with another tank of gas.
But although we may not be concerned enough, we luckily have some serious public servants in the Bay Area who are totally focused on what global warming will mean for us. These people work for the alphabet-soup agencies such as BCDC (San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission), ABAG (Association of Bay Area Governments) and others.
Their message comes with a good news/bad news component. The good news is that we are getting the bad news early, although unless we mend our ways in a hurry, the bad news is going to get really bad. Here are some of the key points of last week's cover story Sea Level Rising:
• The sea level in the Bay is already rising — it was up 6 inches in the 20th century.
• Our best case scenario, if we find a way to effectively reduce our output of greenhouse gases, is a 3 degree increase in temperature, which would raise Bay sea levels 5 to 7 inches by 2100.
• If we do nothing, the temperature would rise up to 10 degrees, pushing the Bay sea level up 1 meter — more than 37 inches — by the turn of the century.
In both cases, estimates are based on warming temperatures expanding the world's oceans (remember your early science — warming water expands, freezing water contracts), and does NOT include increases from melting icecaps in Greenland and Antarctica, which scientists say could add another 5 to 7 meters to high tide levels.
All of this somber news, and the specific impact points of Bay Area flooding, are included in a presentation given to county supervisors and city councils by Will Travis, executive director of the BCDC. And perhaps for the first time, these governing bodies are getting a sense of just how this serious problem will continue to grow and grow, if it is not contained.
Maps included in the presentation show water lapping over the runways at San Francisco International Airport, over the Bayshore freeway in Palo Alto and across the Bayfront Expressway in Menlo Park, into the Bohannon Industrial Park, with a 3-foot rise in sea level. Mr. Travis said the projections are based on a report by the California Climate Action Team.
The job of protecting vital government institutions, as well as private property, falls to local, regional and federal agencies, which will be forced to make hard decisions on what to do with each property that could be overrun by the rising tides. If an airport, freeway or industrial park is deemed worth protecting, financing would have to be found for expensive levees built strong enough to hold back the water and withstand severe earthquakes.
Given the magnitude of the possible impact, the big question is what action local government agencies will take in the wake of the sobering scenarios contained in the BCDC report. Is there enough political will to invest resources now to prepare for the almost certain inundation of large portions of our shoreline?
To combat the "Inconvenient Truth" of global warming will require a worldwide response, but local communities will have to act on their own to counter some direct impacts. The BCDC report is a tool that we hope will awaken local agencies to add tidal protection plans to their list of challenges in the years ahead. This report cannot and must not be ignored. There is much to do, but thanks to Mr. Travis and others who moved this study forward, we at least know what we are up against.