Cover story: Cooling it -- Official Portola Valley is preparing to cut CO2 emissions. Is the specter of global warming on the radar yet in Atherton, Woodside and Menlo Park?
If there's any comfort in knowing that heat-retaining gases such as carbon dioxide are building up in the atmosphere and changing the climate of the planet, it may be in the common expectation that the really significant impacts are 50 or 100 years off.
The ice cap at the North Pole is shrinking, but scientists have said that higher sea levels won't be a serious issue as long as the deep and massive reservoirs of ice accumulated over millennia in Greenland and Antarctica remain intact.
Maybe it's time to worry. The polar ice is melting and it's moving.
In Portola Valley, with the urging of some 400 Sierra Club members who reside there, a unanimous Town Council recently joined some 320 U.S. municipalities large and small in signing the Mayors Agreement on Climate Change.
The agreement, which echoes the international treaty known as the Kyoto Protocol, commits the council and staff to a plan to lower greenhouse gas emissions from town operations to 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. Residents and local businesses will be encouraged to participate.
Mayors in Menlo Park and Woodside have told the Almanac that they will seriously consider the agreement. The mayor of Atherton says he was unfamiliar with the agreement, but senses a concern in the community over global warming.
Midway through Al Gore's documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth," are before-and-after satellite images of the San Francisco Bay Area showing the effect if sea levels rose 18 to 20 feet. The water advances well inland in the vicinity of Menlo Park and Atherton.
Water could rise to that level if half the ice on Greenland and Antarctica were to melt, Mr. Gore says.
Is that likely? In Antarctica, scientists expected a century to pass before the melting of the Larsen-B ice shelf — a 4,500-square-mile, 700-foot-thick mass estimated at 12,000 years old. The Larsen-B is now history, Mr. Gore says. It collapsed and disappeared over 35 days in 2002.
Meanwhile in Greenland, ice is melting at an accelerating rate and the massive ice sheet there is getting restless.
Concern in Portola Valley
Portola Valley's Mayor Steve Toben says he signed the climate change agreement because the scientific opinion "is increasingly settled." Although the town already uses green practices, Mayor Toben says he "really wanted to extend the town's commitment to environmental protection."
Indeed, another green commitment is hardly novel. The new Town Center complex incorporates so many green-building practices that it may meet the top green-design standard. Town Hall also has a purchasing policy favoring green products.
This year, the town's Architectural and Site Control Commission began requiring residents with remodeling or rebuilding plans to answer a detailed checklist on how they might make their projects greener.
What else can a town of 4,600 do? Ideas may come from the town's new Climate Protection Task Force, a brainstorming group hosted by Mayor Toben and composed, so far, of about 25 residents who met twice in October. Former Planning Commissioner Craig Breon is a member, as is Shelley Sweeney, who initiated the town's bike-to-school day.
Ms. Sweeney says she hopes to expand bike-to-school to a monthly routine to get parents used to the idea and out of their cars.
In a Sept. 5 memo to the council, Planning Manager Leslie Lambert suggested running some town vehicles on bio-diesel, a so-called zero-emission fuel. The recycled vegetable oil used to make it emits CO2 absorbed by recently living plants, unlike the ancient CO2 released in fossil fuel combustion.
Residents might also think about buying more green products, making bulk purchases, carpooling and switching to hybrid cars, Ms. Lambert says.
To measure progress, the town may enlist the Toronto-based International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives. For a $600 yearly fee, ICLEI offers to any city or town with a population of less than 50,000 an energy audit of the community and long-term guidance.
Will Portola Valley's progress involve inconvenience, the theme of Al Gore's movie? Mayor Toben called the climate-change agreement secondary to matters such as street repaving and field maintenance.
"I will unequivocally state that people will see no cost to other programs in the town as a result of this," he says. "I would say that this issue is kind of woven into the fabric of the community in ways that don't interrupt the business of the day."
Asked whether push lawnmowers might be used on town property, Mayor Toben says they would not. "The point here is not to go to some immediate extreme measures," he says. "I say, give this a platform and let (residents) see where they can take it."
What residents think
Mayor Toben says he's heard "a couple of (critical) voices here and there." Among them is Bernie Bayuk.
"I think that Portola Valley has no place getting involved with what the Berkeleyites would do and have done," Mr. Bayuk says. "'Let's stop pumping oil, let's stop driving cars. Everybody stay home; the planet's warming.' ... There was no vote, no poll. For (the council) to take a position for Portola Valley is really off the track."
Ed Wells, noting the governor's Sept. 27 approval of a greenhouse gas reduction law, says he was "very happy to have any Town Council of mine support (Gov.) Arnold Schwarzenegger in an attempt to get people to pay attention to global warming."
Steve Dunne sees the council's action as consistent with its green emphasis on the new Town Center complex: "They're thinking globally and acting locally."
The Berkeley council has indeed signed the climate change agreement, as have councils in Palo Alto, Los Altos Hills and Fremont, according to a list kept on the Web.
In Palo Alto, the seven-month-old Green Ribbon Task Force has divided its 30 members into six subgroups with missions that include outreach, transportation and waste reduction. The task force will report to the Palo Alto City Council on Monday, Dec. 18, says member David Coale.
The outreach group has categorized target audiences, including businesses, neighborhoods and faith communities, says Debbie Mytels, an associate director with the Palo Alto environmental group Acterra.
Will Menlo Park take up the effort? Mayor Nicholas Jellins, who says he was aware of the Mayors Agreement, has asked the city manager to put it on the City Council's agenda. It could be discussed by December, he says.
"Our city is actively pursuing any number of environmental efforts," he adds. "With that said, we can do more."
One step already taken is a new "cool roof" atop the senior center at the Onetta Harris Community Center, says Public Works Director Kent Steffens. The roofing material reflects sunlight to reduce the air conditioning load. PG&E is currently offering rebates for putting a cool roof on a home.
Menlo Park may also seek garbage haulers that use bio-diesel in their trucks, Mr. Steffens adds.
Woodside, too, may be moving on the climate agreement. "It certainly has been on my mind to look that up," says Mayor Deborah Gordon. "I certainly see (global warming) as something that we need to address now. We do have a responsibility to set an example to the emerging countries."
Ms. Gordon sits on the county's Utilities & Sustainability Task Force, originally formed to plan for the energy needs of San Mateo County but now focusing on lowering CO2 emissions, she says.
The group is still getting organized, says task force member Jill Boone, the county's Resource Conservation Program Manager. While it will not have binding authority, it is likely to sponsor joint emission-lowering efforts among cities and towns and offer incentives, she says.
Asked for her views on global warming, Ms. Boone commented that the pleasant Northern California climate makes it easy to ignore ominous events elsewhere on the planet.
"There's a lot to be worried about," she says. "We are reaching a point at which it will be very difficult to turn back. Certainly when you understand what's going on in Greenland and some other arctic ice floes, and see the melting that goes on there, and the feedback loops ... if you really grasp that, it's a little depressing."
Feedback loops are self-reinforcing cycles. Permanently frozen land above the Arctic Circle, when it thaws, sends stored CO2 into the atmosphere, which raises temperatures and thaws still more land. A similar effect is occurring at the North Pole as the white ice cap melts and becomes dark water, which absorbs heat and melts more ice.
Governments at all levels need to act, Ms. Boone says.
In Atherton, Mayor Charles Marsala has taken steps. He renamed the Waste Reduction Committee the Environmental Programs Committee to give it a wider charter.
Six residents have offered to join, he says. "There is a big interest in town to promote environmentally friendly programs," Mayor Marsala says.
He says he also tried to lower to $0 the town's fee for advice on installing solar panels, but was outvoted on the council.
When informed of the emissions-lowering guidance available from ICLEI, Mayor Marsala says it could be a possible next step.
Asked to comment on Atherton's large, energy-consuming homes, he says residents use them in ways "that benefit the world," including "creativity in their businesses" and entertaining Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.
"My vision of Atherton is that we should allow those types of activities to happen in homes," he says.