Editorial: Coming to grips with greenhouse gas Editor's note: An earlier version of this editorial had incorrect information, based on a story from the Bay City News Service. The story quoted the scientist as saying that if worldwide carbon emissions continue to rise at the present rate, rising temperatures could cause the Sierra Nevada to lose 80 percent of its winter snowpack in just 40 years. The correct numbers are that the Sierra Nevada could lose 80 percent of its winter snowpack by the end of the century (not 40 years), according to Leslie C. Gordon, a USGS spokesperson.
When will the world, or the U.S. or California, begin to panic about climate change?
As this slow-moving freight train heads inexorably for the abyss, the numbers that many politicians continue to ignore or dispute keep rising. Just last week, at a talk in Menlo Park, U.S. Geological Survey scientist Tom Suchanek told it like it is: If worldwide carbon emissions continue to rise at the current rate, rising temperatures could cause the Sierra Nevada to lose 80 percent of its winter snowpack by the end of the century, which would wipe out the source of water for most Bay Area homes.
Mr. Suchanek had some other scary news: Projection models show average temperatures will keep climbing, between 3 and 6 degrees higher, producing more heat waves, more intense fire danger, and more frequent and violent winter storms. Sea levels could rise at least 1.4 meters in Northern California by 2100.
There is hope, but only if the biggest users of fossil fuels — the U.S., China, India and Russia — work to develop more alternative energy sources and sign on to a treaty that would lower worldwide emissions. Such a treaty would need Congressional approval, an unlikely prospect as long as the current gridlock continues.
On the positive side, there is little hesitancy in Menlo Park about adopting greenhouse gas reduction programs, although not all council members agree on the urgency. Peter Ohtaki and Andy Cohen dissented on a measure calling for the city to reach the ambitious 27 percent greenhouse gas reduction by 2020 recommended by staff. The quibble came over the estimated cost of up to $400,000 to reach the higher goal, which staff appropriately suggested be covered by raising the utility users tax. To reach the 27 percent goal would require the city to cut 330,938 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.
The city will achieve some emission reductions from actions taken by the state, such as new standards to reduce residential and commercial energy use by 20 and 10 percent respectively. Utilities must obtain 33 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2020 and vehicles sold in the state must reduce greenhouse gas emissions 22 percent this year and 20 percent by 2016. And the city is offering up to $4,000 in PG&E rebates to homeowners who participate in a statewide energy upgrade program.
Another green initiative being considered by Menlo Park is eliminating carry-out plastic bags from grocery stores, joining 14 other cities in the county. Shoppers would be encouraged to bring their own reusable bags or pay a small fee for paper bags. A similar initiative is being mounted by the county in unincorporated areas.
And finally, the initiative aims to prohibit polystyrene (also known as Styrofoam) containers, which are popular for take-out food at local restaurants. Alternative, biodegradable products are available and could be accepted into the recycling program in the future. By eliminating bags and utensils, the city will be able to meet a new mandate from the Regional Water Board to reduce trash in storm drains by 40 percent by 2014 and a goal to divert 75 percent of trash from landfills by 2020.
In our view, it is the grass roots work undertaken by Menlo Park and similar cities that eventually will lead to at least a leveling off of greenhouse gas production before it is too late. Federal, state and local governments all need to play a role in solving this problem. Much more needs to be done, but we hope the continuing pressure to further reduce emissions here will spread elsewhere and hopefully, begin to make a difference.