Living with the change: Sacramento’s climate action plan resigns itself to blistering future

County could experience eight times more extreme heat events by 2050

This is an extended version of a story that ran in the November 23, 2016, issue.

The president-elect may believe climate change is a China-propagated hoax, but Sacramento County officials are taking a serious, if somewhat resigned, look at how to limit the projected local impacts.

According to NASA, 97 percent of the world’s scientists agree that climate change is real and being sped up by human activity. With county officials saying the region’s famed Mediterranean climate is under threat for as much as eight times the current triple-digit weather, the question isn’t only how to mitigate it, but how to live with it.

To address both questions, officials are developing a local climate action plan in five stages. The process involves updating baseline emissions estimates and inventorying current emission levels, forecasting future population growth and emissions, developing reduction targets, adopting climate change adaptation strategies, and then monitoring the results. Sacramento County held two public workshops as part of that plan, on November 15 at the Louise Perez Resource Center in south Sacramento and on November 16 at F.C. Joyce Elementary in North Highlands.

According to John Lundgren, senior planner and environmental analyst for the county’s Planning and Environmental Review, the public needs to be informed about what to expect from a warming 916.

“In Sacramento County, some of the risks we expect to see are increased temperatures [and] increased frequency of extreme heat events,” Lundgren said.

Extreme heat events constitute days where the temperature exceeds 102 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the presentation given by Erik de Kok, senior planner and project manager for Ascent Environmental Inc., an environmental consulting firm in Sacramento. The county may start experiencing these events 20 to 40 days a year by 2050, de Kok said—as opposed to the historical average of four days per year.

Concrete sprawl is another problem. There are areas in the county where stretches of pavement go unbroken by trees and shade, creating an urban heat-island effect, de Kok said, trapping smoggy, stagnant air between buildings and reflecting it off hot asphalt during extreme heat events.

And Sacramento, like the rest of the state, is gradually losing its natural water reservoir in the Sierra Nevada thanks to California’s record-setting drought. Anita Johnson, a Sacramento resident who attended the first workshop, said the public needs to realize “how dire the situation is.”

In September, the state passed Senate Bill 32, extending and expanding the target emissions reductions of the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006. “SB 32 calls for a steep 40 percent reduction below 1990 emission levels by 2030,” de Kok said. “We’re on track to get there.”

The county is hoping to chip in with by reducing emissions 15 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. de Kok emphasized the need for the county to update its targets for 2030 and 2050, as well as find ways to reduce or eliminate emissions altogether.

According to a 2015 inventory study, the greatest causes of greenhouse gases in the unincorporated county were on-road vehicles, residential energy usage, and commercial and industrial energy usage—in that order. County government is a big contributor in all categories, through employee commutes, on-the-job vehicles and government buildings that suck a lot of power.

But state and local efforts to keep the earth going run in stark contrast to the next president’s environmental priorities. President-elect Donald J. Trump picked a climate-change denier to lead his Environmental Protection Agency transition team and has pledged to sabotage America’s participation in the Paris climate deal signed last December by nearly 200 nations.

Not everyone thinks Sacramento is doing enough. Workshop attendee Veronica Herrera expressed the concern that lower-income and suburban areas in the unincorporated county lack access to public transit and bike and pedestrian pathways.

And Katie Valenzuela Garcia, who represents Sacramento on the California Environmental Justice Advisory Committee and attended the first meeting, suggested local efforts fell short in specific areas.

In particular, she argued the county wasn’t doing enough to concentrate development in vacant and under-utilized parcels in already developed urban regions. Valenzuela Garcia was also skeptical that state officials would properly incentivize companies to participate in California’s cap and trade program, which sets emission limits for private entities but allows them to purchase polluting credits on the open market.

“I was pretty disheartened to hear that most of our reductions are going to come from state measures,” Valenzuela Garcia said. “We’re a little passive in how we plan. I think we could be holding ourselves a lot more accountable for things we can do at the local level to make ourselves more resilient.”