Hot futures

Is anyone considering the possibility that environmental effects from global warming could make Sacramento unlivable?

Photo Illustration by Don Button

On an afternoon in the middle of May that reached an unseasonable 97 degrees, three planners for the city of Sacramento sat around the conference table in Room 3100 of the new City Hall, silent after detailing the predicted effects of global warming on the Sacramento region. The expected impacts include an additional two months of summer temperatures per year, with Sacramento experiencing 50 to 110 days of 95 degrees and above (currently the annual average is 18 such days); intrusion into and possible flooding of the Delta by saltwater due to Pacific Ocean sea-level rise and storm surges; a dramatic decline of water available for drinking and irrigation caused by a substantial loss of Sierra snowpack; et cetera.

The planners’ silence at the conclusion of their discussion served to highlight the ominous but unasked question: Is anyone considering the possibility that the environmental effects from global warming could make Sacramento unlivable?

When the question was explicitly posed, more silence followed and then was finally broken when city planner Helen Selph responded, “Not publicly,” a toss of her head and a smile indicating that her answer was half in jest. But only half.

Though no specific weather event can be definitively attributed to global warming, the lethal two-week heat wave in July seemed to confirm the worst fears about the changing climate and what it might portend for Sacramento. The convergence of the scientific evidence confirming global warming with real-world weather events like the heat wave is stimulating an unprecedented upsurge in activity in the Sacramento region by individuals, communities, businesses and government agencies to combat climate change.

“There’s so much innovative action on this issue happening here in California and across the U.S. at the grassroots level,” observed Larry Greene, executive director of the Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District. “It’s a bright spot, something of which we can really be proud.”

Inquiries to community groups and local agencies in the Sacramento region bear out Greene’s observation. Marcy Barnett and a couple of interns run the Sacramento Area Green Business Program for Sacramento County, helping businesses from REI to Midtown’s Café Bernardo implement a certifiable range of energy-conservation, pollution-prevention and other environmental measures. At UC Davis, students successfully lobbied the university to launch a campus-wide greenhouse-gas-emissions inventory. A new single-family-home subdivision going up on Orchard Lane in South Natomas is designed with solar panels and conservation features to be “electric neutral.”

Still, given the facts and the cascade of studies on potential impacts, one has to wonder: What really will be required to counter global warming? And will all this activity be enough to keep Sacramento habitable?

A new paradigm
Last month, the first state-mandated biennial report on the effects of global warming on California was released by the California Climate Change Center. Drafted by more than 70 leading scientists in the field, and financed in part by the California Energy Commission and the California Environmental Protection Agency, the report documented three scenarios resulting from global warming. Each of the scenarios was based on the level of greenhouse-gas emissions and the consequent rise in temperatures in the decades between now and the period 2070-2099. Taken all together, the scientific consensus for the range of predicted impacts, as compared with 1961-1990, were the following:

• 30-percent to 90-percent loss in Sierra snowpack

• 6 to 30 inches of sea-level rise

Last month, the first state-mandated report on the effects of global warming on California was released. Drafted by more than 70 top scientists in the field, “Our Changing Climate: Assessing the Risks to California” (right) documents various scenarios that may result from global warming. Another example of a government agency making preparations for climate change is a recent technical report (left) from the California Department of Water Resources.

• two to four times as many heat-wave days in major urban centers

• two to six times as many heat-related deaths in major urban centers

• 25-percent to 85-percent increase in days conducive to ozone formation

• up to 2.5 times more critically dry years

• 7-percent to 30-percent decrease in forest yields (pine)

• 10-percent to 55-percent increase in the risk of large wildfires

As translated by the report’s authors, those kinds of impacts might mean a Sierra Nevada without a ski and snowboard season, a radical reduction in the quality and quantity of California fruits and vegetables, billions of dollars required to pay for flood damage and flood control, and two to three-and-a-half months when high temperatures mean just being outside will be not only unpleasant, but also a health risk to many.

To counter or at least minimize these and other impacts of global warming, all efforts are being directed toward reducing “greenhouse gas” emissions. While there are seven greenhouse gases that, when emitted into the atmosphere, contribute to global warming, the most significant one in terms of quantity is carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide accounts for more than 80 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions.

While there is now substantial experience in controlling other air pollutants from cars and power plants, such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, carbon dioxide has never previously been considered a pollutant. Attempts to control carbon dioxide, and its global-warming effects, take us into what might be considered our carbon conundrum.

The first twist in the carbon conundrum is that, until now, producing carbon-dioxide emissions actually has been something of a measure of our success. “We break carbon bonds to create energy,” explained John Quinn, lead engineer for Constellation Energy, a company with a diverse portfolio of power plants throughout California. “What you try to throw off is carbon dioxide. It’s not a byproduct like the other pollutants. It’s what you’re aiming to get when you do fossil-fuel combustion.”

“Dealing with carbon dioxide as a pollutant,” said Quinn “is a paradigm shift for everyone.”

A team of city of Sacramento experts, including city planner Helen Selph and city energy engineer Keith Roberts, has been working on climate change since last year. Said Roberts: “This [global warming] is no longer a bumper sticker. This is something that we really need to deal with.”

Photo By Larry Dalton

This “paradigm shift” strikes at the very heart of our way of life, built upon energy systems based on fossil-fuel combustion—burning oil, coal and natural gas to create energy to run our cars, our computers and our air conditioners. Getting carbon-dioxide emissions under control means changing the ways we produce and consume energy. Or, as Bud Beebe, the regulatory-affairs coordinator for the Sacramento Municipal Utility District put it, “To get out of a hole, you’ve first got to stop digging the hole. That means we’ve got to stop putting carbon dioxide in the atmosphere today.”

But no one, at least not yet, is suggesting that power plants be shut down or that all cars and trucks be banned. Instead, the effort is to bring carbon dioxide under some kind of control while simultaneously developing the new technologies to replace fossil fuels.

At the federal level, a few years ago the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a draft rule that carbon dioxide could be regulated under the existing Clean Air Act. The Bush administration rescinded this rule, and lower courts so far have upheld this decision. Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear this case, with its decision expected next spring. This will be the first time in history that the nation’s highest court will issue a decision on carbon dioxide.

John Stanton, vice president for climate and air programs at the National Environmental Trust, which is a party to the case, views the situation as highlighting the country’s paralysis on climate change. “The executive branch refuses to regulate carbon dioxide. We’ve gone to Congress, which also says they won’t regulate. In fact, the chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, has a Web site stating that global warming is a hoax.”

But California seems to be on the verge of breaking this paralysis. State Assembly Bill 32, titled “The Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006,” is now in the final stages of negotiation, with final passage and the governor’s signature seemingly all but assured, though some business groups are working hard to water it down. With support from the governor, the legislative leadership, environmental groups and even significant segments of the business community, A.B. 32 could put into statutory law, for the first time in the nation’s history, mandatory, enforceable limits on carbon-dioxide emissions. According to the bill, which is authored by Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez and Assemblywoman Fran Pavley, a regulatory board will enact caps on greenhouse-gas emissions so that total emissions in 2020 are no greater than those in 1990.

But the state’s goals for greenhouse-gas emissions go far beyond this initial plan. A 2005 executive order signed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger calls for an 80-percent reduction in carbon-dioxide emissions below 1990 levels by 2050.

As ambitious and significant as they are, neither passage of the Global Warming Solutions Act nor the governor’s executive order will mean that the emission of even one molecule of carbon dioxide has yet been prevented. Instead, these measures begin to put into place targets and caps on carbon-dioxide emissions and create the framework for devising the mechanisms to manage a market for such emissions. There’s only so much carbon dioxide, it turns out, that can be put in the atmosphere without risking even more extreme catastrophic effects. One way or another, in the years ahead carbon-dioxide-emission caps are coming to us all.

Welcome to the new carbon-constrained world.

More than a bumper sticker
On April 4, 2006, a team of city of Sacramento planners held a workshop to review the creation and implementation of a “sustainability agenda” for the city. Included in that agenda was addressing global warming. As Keith Roberts, the city’s energy engineer, recalled in an interview, “This provided a Sacramento context for the global issues. With talk about a 90-percent decline in Sierra snowfall by the end of the century, and the days above 95 degrees in Sacramento rising to a hundred, that got all of us to really think, ‘This is no longer a bumper sticker. This is something that we really need to deal with.’”

The city of Sacramento has become the first city to join the California Climate Action Registry, a voluntary public-private effort for corporations, utilities, governments and other institutions to take an inventory of their greenhouse-gas emissions and post them on a Web site.

Carbon-dioxide emissions from human activities, like the burning of fossil fuels, were negligible until we entered the industrial age in 1850. A look at the projected emissions rate in 2100 (think of Al Gore on his hydraulic platform elevator in <span style="font-style:normal">An Inconvenient Truth</span>) tells the global-warming story. <a href="/binary/fda7b2dd/cover-4b.jpg">Click here</a> for a larger version.

The city has completed a greenhouse-gas-emissions inventory that is now being certified by an independent analyst before being posted. Sacramento will be the first California city to have achieved this.

“I’ve calculated that the city of Sacramento’s own operations, which include around 500 buildings and a vehicle fleet, emit approximately 80,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide,” said Roberts. “Fifty-two percent of our carbon-dioxide emissions are from electricity purchases. Twenty-seven percent are due to the emissions from our 2,500 vehicles. Fifteen percent is from our closed landfill, and 5 percent comes from burning natural gas and propane for space and water heating.”

For the city of Sacramento, achieving reductions to 1990 levels may not prove difficult. “We may already be there,” suggested Roberts. “We did not have a landfill-gas-recovery system on our landfill in 1990, so our emissions were much worse in 1990 than they are today.

“In addition, to tell the truth, over the last 25 years the city has done lots of energy conservation, alternative-fuel vehicles and so on, but we haven’t been measuring it.”

While the city officials have a range of programs and options for addressing their greenhouse-gas emissions, such as buying smaller and hybrid vehicles, city engineer Roberts acknowledged that achieving a 25-percent reduction below 1990 emission levels by 2030 is “a big job.” The heart of the strategy, said Roberts, may well be expanding the urban-forest program. “Trees on average sequester about 100 pounds of carbon dioxide per year and 2 to 3 tons over their life.” Roberts’ rough calculation is that several tens of thousands of trees planted in the city at a cost of less than $10 million “could achieve the 25-percent reduction doing strictly trees.”

City planner Selph added, “The benefits of trees providing additional shade and keeping the city cooler are really valuable in a greenhouse climate.”

But the city’s efforts to address carbon-dioxide emissions also go beyond its own operations. “We regulate land use and development in the city,” mentioned Gary Stonehouse, the former longtime director of planning for the city who is now working as a consultant with Roberts on these issues. “We don’t really have the same kind of inventory of greenhouse-gas emissions for the city as a geography of 450,000 people living here. So, we’re working with our general plan to deal with that, to bring a focus on greenhouse-gas emissions from a development perspective.”

“It’s really important to look at land use,” agreed Selph, another member of the sustainability team with Roberts and Stonehouse, “because over 40 percent of energy used is transportation. If you lay out your built environment in a way that requires you to take the car everywhere, there’s always going to be an energy-efficiency problem.”

The city has processed about a billion dollars’ worth of private development each for the last four or five years, said Stonehouse. “So, we will be interested in how that development can continue and be sensitive to these issues.”

Getting the carbon out
The city’s greenhouse-gas emissions, though, are minuscule compared with the single largest emitter in the region, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District. SMUD put out a little over 3 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in 2005, according to the utility’s regulatory-affairs coordinator, Beebe. A third of those emissions come from its own power plants, while the remaining two-thirds results from the generation of electricity it imports from other power producers.

“2006 should see a change for the better,” said Beebe, mentioning that this has been a good year for hydroelectric production, a technology that creates no emissions. Beebe also cites the coming online this year of the new 500-megawatt Cosumnes power plant, which is a “combined cycle” natural-gas plant, producing power much more efficiently and displacing a half of the dirtier power that was formerly imported.

Sacramento is projected to experience many more days of extreme heat as we move into the future. The result will be more summer weather for the region. Both this graphic and the one above appear in the state’s recent report “Our Changing Climate: Assessing the Risks to California.”

Looking ahead, Beebe sees little difficulty in meeting SMUD’s internal goal of reaching the utility’s year-2000 level of emissions by 2010. “But getting to 1990 levels by 2020, as mandated by the new state legislation, will be much more difficult,” he said. “That’s because the easy gains in reductions will have already been achieved, and we’ve got to accommodate continued population growth with reliable power.”

While Beebe expresses concern that the electric-power industry not be penalized to compensate for the emissions from what he terms “the excesses of transportation,” he fully accepts the necessity for power generators to reduce emissions. “We acknowledge the problem,” Beebe said. “Twenty percent of greenhouse-gas emissions in California are due to electric generation. We belly up to that part of it.” Indeed, the SMUD Board of Directors just recently approved a set of principles for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.

Beebe, though, understands that, ultimately, “we have to figure out how to get the carbon out of making electricity.” With SMUD’s natural-gas plants having a 40-year lifespan, the decisions over truly significant future reductions such as ones that could result in emissions being 80 percent below 1990 levels will be made in the next decade or two. A thermal-systems mechanical engineer who has been at SMUD for 20 years, Beebe believes that the technological issues surrounding nuclear power plants, which produce no emissions, can be resolved. “But a societal maturity is not there yet, in the U.S. or globally, to take care of nuclear waste and assure that it doesn’t go toward nuclear-weapons proliferation. Maybe we’ll have achieved that maturity 100 or 200 years from now.”

As a transitional technology to get us to the future, Beebe looks to the prospects for “carbon capture and sequestration,” a process by which the carbon-dioxide emissions are captured at the plant and then transported by pipeline and injected into deep underground reservoirs. This is a proven technology on a small scale and one already used by oil companies, which inject carbon dioxide into oil wells as a means to drive out hard-to-get oil reserves. The federal government and other nations around the world are now spending billions of dollars on testing this technology, which is viewed by some as a savior for the atmosphere and for the coal industry. The editorial writers of the science journal Nature recently opined that while “carbon capture and storage is no panacea,” it “is the only credible option that would allow the continued use of fossil energy without the threat of dangerously altering the Earth’s climate system.”

Beebe, though, is impatient with the rate of progress. “There’s a big difference between testing and doing,” he asserted. “We experienced that in California with renewable energy resources.” When it comes to concerns about whether the carbon dioxide will stay underground once injected, Beebe says that we already know that large quantities of it won’t come out. “And if it does come out a little bit at a time,” he asked, “would we be worse off?”

Vehicle miles traveled
Even if SMUD’s power plants and large consumers like the city of Sacramento successfully reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions, that still leaves the major source of emissions untouched: automobiles and trucks. As Al Gore put it, “We’ve evolved a pattern of lots of driving, so we take 3,000 pounds of metal with us everywhere we go.” Carrying around 3,000 pounds takes a lot of energy that creates a lot of carbon-dioxide emissions.

In fact, the state Climate Action Team analysis found that 41 percent of the state’s greenhouse-gas emissions come from the transportation sector. An area as large and sprawling as the Sacramento region certainly must come close to matching that or exceed it.

But the sources of these emissions are the dispersed millions and millions of cars and trucks in California required for daily living. The current big play for addressing these emissions is Proposition 87 on the November ballot, which taxes California oil production $4 billion over 10 years. The monies would be spent on alternative fuels and vehicles, such as ethanol and plug-in electric hybrid cars, with the goal of reducing the use of oil 25 percent in a decade. Shelley Luce, an environmental-science and engineering Ph.D. who is serving as in-house science adviser to the Yes on 87 campaign, says that a study on the greenhouse-gas-emission reductions that would result from implementation of the measure has been conducted and will be released soon. The numbers, she said, are “significant.” As an example, she cites the fact that corn or switch grass used to create ethanol would only release the carbon dioxide taken in while the plants were growing, with an equivalent amount removed from the atmosphere when new plants are grown for additional fuel.

Whether or not the initiative passes and is successfully implemented, Sacramento-area officials are attempting to cut into the problem by altering land-use and development patterns. Under the guidance of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments and its executive director, Mike McKeever, the region’s 28 cities and six counties have carried out a Blueprint Project to concentrate development in a way that reduces transportation needs—or VMTs (vehicle miles traveled) as the bureaucratic acronym has it.

While SACOG has no explicit policy addressing climate change, executive director McKeever says studies show that the Blueprint plan will reduce emissions by 15 percent over what would have occurred otherwise. “There is a lot in what we have done that will beneficially impact that issue,” said McKeever. “We just came at the problem from a different entry point.”

McKeever even sees a benefit to this strategy from the projections for substantial population growth, which most see as a pressure for more energy, resulting in more emissions. “While population growth is a reasonable concern, the upside is that this can transform the way people travel. The region’s main activity centers do need to be urban and high-use intensity in order to afford a really good mass-transit structure,” he said.

Three feet high and rising. This sea-level-rise graphic is based on maps from the U.S. Geological Survey, storm-surge data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and predictions of sea-level rise by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It shows the effects of a Category 2 storm on the Bay Area region—extending out toward Sacramento—when seas already have risen about 3 feet. (This is the amount that forecasters most often use in predicting the effects of global warming over the next 50-100 years.)

Though SACOG has no statutory authority over land use, a province that remains in the hands of the organization’s 34 local governments, SACOG does have significant influence through its control of $30 billion of funds for transportation projects over the next 25 years.

The city of Sacramento’s planners laud the SACOG Blueprint. “We’re going to be implementing the Blueprint through the city general plan,” said former planning director and now-consultant Stonehouse. “But some cities,” he lamented, “evidently aren’t as interested in going in that direction.”

Greene, the executive director of the Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District, said that the state’s new Clean Cars Law and a program to reduce truck idling will make real differences, too. “When you reduce the other pollutants, the effect is to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions as well.”

Although the Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District is not a major emitter, it is also moving aggressively to cut carbon-dioxide emissions from its own activity. “We’re inventorying and registering the emissions of our own organization,” said Greene. “All our vehicle fleet are now Prius hybrids. We pay a 100-percent premium to SMUD to buy clean electricity. We’re exploring the potential for putting solar panels on our roof.”

Greene’s commitment is not just a matter of not wanting the agency that regulates air pollution to be viewed as a laggard. “What people fail to understand,” he said, “is that, at least in my opinion, we’re already in the midst of climate change. It’s happening.”

Post-petroleum city
If there is a concentrated group of citizens in the region who more than understand that climate change is happening, they are those who have united under the banner of APPLE-NC, the Alliance for a Post-Petroleum Local Economy-Nevada County.

On a hot evening in May, more than 40 of them gathered in the Unitarian Universalist Church in Nevada City following a weekend conference they had held on climate change. Sitting on the hard wooden pews, speaking to each other of the visible global-warming-induced effects they are already seeing in the mountains (“forests now drier than our own firewood,” said one person), they seem like pioneers of old urgently meeting to address an imminent threat. On this evening, Reinette Senum, a 40-year-old native who is among their leading organizers, reminded the group that APPLE is “not political. We need to reach out to the Rotary and the Chamber of Commerce, to the religious community.” She then paused to tell the audience of one encounter with a religious perspective that might prove problematic. “At the conference, there was someone who said that global warming is an indication that the ‘end times’ are coming—and he couldn’t wait!”

Reinette Senum is an organizer for a Nevada County group that has taken up the task of creating a “carbon-neutral” community. This is “not political,” she said. “We need to reach out to the Rotary and the Chamber of Commerce, to the religious community.”

Photo By Tracy Ward

During the meeting, information was traded about making biodiesel (“there’s a guy on the ridge who’s interested”), personal carbon-emission audits (“makes you aware of your impact on the planet”), creating a tool bank (“how many people have log-splitters”) and holding block parties for vegetable sharing (“we can no longer afford a 1,500-mile head of Romaine lettuce”).

Educating themselves over the past two years on the possibility of simultaneously entering a period of global warming and scarce energy due to “peak oil” depletion, they’ve conducted a series of town-hall meetings with energy and environmental experts. As a result, APPLE-NC, like similar groups around the country, has taken on the task of transforming its community to ultimately be free of fossil-fuel use. “One of our goals now,” said Senum, “is to make Nevada City ‘carbon-neutral.’”

But as much as they are focused on reducing carbon emissions and eliminating fossil-fuel use, these Placer County residents believe that adapting to global-warming-induced changes is equally important. One of the adaptations that they believe necessary is to prepare for a potential flood of thousands of refugees from the Sacramento Valley, fleeing either unbearable temperatures or flooding due to sea-level rise and storm surges. “We’ve seen it here before,” said Senum, referring to the 1986 floods, “when you would find dozens of people from Sacramento sleeping on your front lawn.”

Whatever success APPLE-NC has in transforming its economy and energy use, in reducing emissions or adapting to the future, there are some who believe that climate change will make a future even in the Sierras unviable. Carol Kennedy, a soil scientist and the Watershed Program manager for the Tahoe National Forest, is one of them. Kennedy regularly gives expert lectures on the impact of climate change in the Sierras and possible solutions. But, she said firmly, “my granddaughter will not be living here.”

While some fully appreciate Kennedy’s stance, they believe that there is still hope for the region, though it is at least an open question. “The question is: Are we going to control what’s going on and be able to adapt,” said Greene, “or will the changes be so catastrophic as to be too difficult to adapt? A lot of the impacts coming can be adapted to readily, while some will clearly be more difficult.”

What would it mean, for example, to adapt to two to three-and-a-half months of temperatures above 95 degrees, year in and year out. “I remember one year when we had 43 days over 100 degrees in the late ’80s or early ’90s,” recalled Sacramento city engineer Keith Roberts. “That was pretty miserable.”

Still, whatever the climate to come, some believe that there will be no other choice than adapting. As the energetic Senum said, “There’s nowhere to go. There is not another ship to jump to. The biggest answer to all of it is literally right in our own backyard, and that’s community.”