In Alviso, the water has always posed an existential threat. The shoreline community lies on the front lines of climate change, fighting a losing battle against a rising sea.
Founded in the mid-19th century as a port city, Alviso was expected to grow into the industrial heart of the Santa Clara Valley. But as the rest of the region evolved into a world-class commercial center, toxic silt and invasive weeds choked the estuary and made the bay all but impossible to dredge. The steamboats stopped their daily trips from San Francisco. The Alviso Slough turned into a catchall for toxic runoff from the mercury-laden Almaden mines. Cargill Salt Co. divided the waterfront into saline ponds that served as makeshift dikes. The Southern Pacific Railroad rendered the port moot.
By the time San Jose annexed the town to expand its sewage-treatment plant in 1968, nature had already begun to reclaim the bayside. The town of 2,500 splintered, rusted and sank as groundwater was over-pumped, sea water rose on all sides and storm surges whelmed the backed-up drains. Mark Espinoza, a third-generation Alvisan, remembers the muddy deluge in 1983 that breached a levee and engulfed the town for a month.
“All this brown water came rushing in from the side streets,” the 41-year-old auto mechanic recalls. “People were running around trying to evacuate. They barricaded everything, but it filled up all the homes and destroyed businesses.”
The water subsided and, despite Alviso’s precarious geography, the shoreline population continued to grow. Tech companies continued to build state-of-the-art campuses in the floodplain. Insurance skyrocketed and residential building codes changed so that all new homes must be built on elevated mounds or on the second story over an uninhabitable ground floor. Espinoza lives in one of those newer homes raised 10 feet from the earth.
“I feel pretty safe now,” he says from his back balcony, lush with potted plants and decorated with vibrant Mexican folk art.
Still, the tides keep rising faster than ever, precipitated by melting glaciers and warming oceans. Experts predict that the bay waters will ascend another 3 feet by 2050. Today, the primarily Latino working-class enclave, tucked amid salt marshes at the convergence of Coyote Creek and the Guadalupe River, lies 15 feet below sea level.
“Alviso is a mini New Orleans,” says Louisiana-born wetland ecologist John Bourgeois, a California Coastal Conservancy project manager for one of the first climate adaptation measures in Silicon Valley. “We’ve created something that we can’t walk away from.”
The tiny bayside hamlet is part of a growing number of shoreline communities bracing for a hotter, wetter and more volatile future. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, more than 40 percent of the world population lives within 62 miles of the ocean, which puts trillions of dollars worth of property and infrastructure at risk.
The South Bay is especially vulnerable because of its dense population and concentration of world-famous technology firms, whose headquarters lie at or below sea level. About 260 technology companies lie in the region’s flood zone, including Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Dell, Cisco, Intuit and Oracle, according to the Silicon Valley Leadership Group. The only defense against a major storm is a decaying network of salt pond levees—some more than a century old and none up to par by Federal Emergency Management Agency standards. Even if the water never reached their campuses, these companies would face enormous losses from flooded highways, airports and access ways.
But the region has only in the past decade begun to study how to prepare for the rising tides. Officials chose to defend Alviso—the only part of San Jose that touches the San Francisco Bay—before anything else because of the human element and the San Jose-Santa Clara Wastewater Treatment Plant, which serves more than a million people. The shoreline district has since become a template for cities throughout the state as they figure out how to bolster for the immediate effects of a warming planet.
“If we do nothing, we’re setting ourselves up for catastrophic failure,” Bourgeois says. “That’s not an option.”
Public officials raising the alarm about the slow-motion cataclysm have only recently begun to make headway against systemic complacency. Now, they fear, a Donald Trump presidency and Republican-controlled Congress could undermine what marginal progress has been made to adapt to—let alone prevent—climate change.
“Trump’s election could not have come at a worse time, and it will doubtless add inches if not feet to the eventual height of the planet’s oceans,” renowned environmentalist and author Bill McKibben tells San Jose Inside. “That’s how close to the edge we are.”
Unchecked emissions of heat-trapping gases over the past century have profoundly altered the Earth’s climate, elevating sea levels and blighting ecosystems, such as coral reefs. The world’s average temperature has risen by more than 1 degree Fahrenheit since 1900. This year will go down as the hottest on record. Sea levels along the California coast have risen more than eight inches in the past century. And yet, the president-elect has vowed to overhaul the nation’s direction on climate and energy by withdrawing from the landmark Paris agreement, which seeks to limit the effects of global warming through drastic emissions cuts and socio-structural adaptations. The accord, ratified by the majority of the 197 signatory countries, marks the first time the U.S. has agreed to collaborate with the rest of the world on climate change.
Trump has also suggested dismantling the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and deregulating the oil and gas industry, which would make it all but impossible to meet the targets spelled out in the Paris pact. The New York City real estate mogul famously tweeted about global warming being a Chinese “hoax” designed to make U.S. manufacturing less competitive. He tapped Myron Ebell—a man who’s made a career out of climate change denial—to lead his EPA transition team. This week, Trump reportedly named Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, one of the agency’s most vocal critics, as head of the EPA. Meanwhile, Trump’s senior campaign adviser, Bob Walker, dismissed NASA’s climate change research as “politically correct environmental monitoring.”
The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 6, 2012
“We see NASA in an exploration role, in deep space research,” Walker told the Guardian last month. “Earth-centric science is better placed at other agencies where it is their prime mission. … I believe that climate research is necessary, but it has been heavily politicized, which has undermined a lot of the work that researchers have been doing. Mr. Trump’s decisions will be based upon solid science, not politicized science.”
Trump’s critics worry that he may spell the end for President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Act, which allocates $2 billion in grants to promote investments in clean energy and requires coal mines to clean up or close up shop. Or that he may open up public lands to fracking, ignite a resurgence of science denial and squelch the political will to fund anything remotely linked to environmentalism. Once in office, Trump could make many of these changes unilaterally. His appointees could approve pipelines and issue drilling permits. They could scuttle regulations for smog and coal ash or change the course in legal fights over clean air.
The impending ideological shift in the White House may require California and local governments to double down on fighting the causes and effects of climate change, says Mark Jacobson, a professor of environmental engineering at Stanford University.
“I think the Trump administration will try to cut all climate change research, including for adaptation, in the U.S.,” he says. “This could affect the work of federal employees and many of those dependent on federal grants for research.”
Thankfully, Jacobson says, his own work on developing renewable energy solutions requires no federal funding. If anything, he plans to redouble his efforts. But slashing funds for climate change will hurt graduate students, who rely on federal grants.
“California, nonprofits and individuals will hopefully take up the slack,” he says.
South Carolina Republican Bob Inglis, a former congressman from the reddest district in the reddest state, says there’s a chance Trump could boost the clean energy market.
— Bob Inglis (@bobinglis) December 6, 2016
“I think it’s totally unpredictable,” says Inglis, head of conservative climate action nonprofit RepublicEn. “Al Gore was meeting with Ivanka Trump, and her dad joined the meeting. What that means for climate change—who knows?”
After all, Inglis points out, it was Republican President Richard Nixon who mended relations with socialist China. It was Democratic President Bill Clinton who scuttled welfare protections for the poor. It was purportedly progressive President Barack Obama who ramped up deportations to record-breaking numbers. Could President-elect Donald Trump, an ideologically inconsistent Republican, promote sustainability as a path to energy independence?
“He may surprise us,” Inglis says, adding that he’s holding out hope. “Maybe Trump will be the one who takes on climate change.”
Inglis is part of a growing coalition of conservative climate champions who are trying to rally Republicans behind renewable energy as free-market solutions to a warming planet. The former lawmaker flatly denied climate change until his children persuaded him to take a closer look at the science. That change of heart exacted a political price, costing a re-election in 2010 after 12 years in Congress. The next generation of Republicans, however, seem more receptive.
“Young conservatives are our best audience,” Inglis says. “They plan on living a while.”
What the Trump effect means for massive public works projects related to climate change adaptation, such as the levees slated for the South Bay waterfront, remains to be seen.
“I’m in a wait-and-see mode,” says Melanie Richardson, the interim chief operating officer for the Santa Clara Valley Water District, the agency spearheading the region’s flood protection efforts. “Actually, I’m in a wait-and-hope mode. From our perspective, we already know our facilities are at risk, so we continue to move forward regardless of what’s going on at the national level.”
Climate change entered the policy discussion at the water district in the early 2000s, years ahead of meaningful action at the federal level. Wendy Ridderbusch, director of state relations for the Association of California Water Agencies, says that’s because local leaders face a level of accountability from which national officials are often shielded.
“Water agencies have been ahead of the climate change curve for several years,” Ridderbusch said at a recent Little Hoover Commission hearing. “Adapting to climate change is only one of several significant challenges that water agencies have faced in the last decade, including preparing for and coping with the historic drought, incorporating expensive regulatory requirements, planning for California’s expanding population, updating aging infrastructure and complying with changing water quality requirements.”
The Coastal Conservancy project to restore South Bay wetlands as a buffer against sea level rise kicked off in 2003, when Sen. Dianne Feinstein secured about $100 million in federal cash to buy 15,000 acres of tidal marshes from Cargill Salt Co. The decades-long project is funded by several agencies, including the water district, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Building new levees and restoring wetlands to soak up some of the rising seas for a 4-mile stretch of the Alviso shoreline alone comes with a price tag of roughly $175 million.
Expanding those protections to the 14 remaining miles of South Bay shoreline would cost another $700 million or so and would only address the problem for a few decades. About half of that money would come from federal agencies, and a big chunk from congressional appropriations, which means the South Bay’s ability to adapt to a changing climate depends on the will of federal policymakers.
“We’re on the table as one of 25 of these projects nationwide,” Richardson says. “So we are eligible for federal funding.”
Of course, it takes tireless lobbying to secure that kind of money. The water district recently sent one of its twice-yearly delegations to Washington, D.C., to vie for funding to complete the design of the first 4 miles of shoreline levees, so construction can start as planned in 2018. That first stretch of levees will protect hundreds of millions of dollars in homes and businesses, as well drinking water and electrical, sewage and transportation infrastructure. Authorization would have to come in a Water Resources Development Act bill, which is supposed to happen every two years but often runs into protracted delays amid partisan quibbling.
Richardson says the imminent political shift doesn’t shake her confidence, because the project has such a broad base of support from environmentalists as well as the private sector, which would face enormous losses without the planned flood protection. In 2005, a Republican-controlled Congress authorized the Bay Area shoreline study that led to the flood protection efforts in the South Bay.
If conservatives do end up limiting funding for projects related to climate change, Richardson acknowledges, that would put the pressure on Bay Area governments to keep up the momentum. That has long been the case in California and the rest of the nation. The vast majority of flood protection funding is offered only after a disaster occurs, according to the National Research Council.
Bay Area residents care enough to pay for at least some of the shoreline protections. In June, 70 percent of the region’s voters approved a $12 parcel tax that will raise $500 million over two decades for the projects that include the South Bay wetland restoration.
“There’s a lot of money for local agencies to raise on their own, but we’re off to a good start,” Richardson says. “It’s going to take a lot of collaboration to get this done.”
The cost of inaction would be far greater—$6 billion in Santa Clara County alone. That’s according to the Bay Area Council Economic Institute, which estimates that a 150-year storm event would cause $10 billion in damages to the Bay Area, with the South Bay shoreline bearing the brunt of the devastation. In 2009, the Pacific Institute released a report predicting that a 100-year flood coupled with a 5-foot sea level rise would exact $100 billion in damage statewide, with most of it concentrated in the Bay Area.
Yet local governments and private businesses have barely begun to plan, let alone adapt, to the “new normal” of heat and high water.
California has long stood out as a national leader in cutting carbon pollution. Its auto emissions standards are among the more rigorous in the nation. In 2006, the state imposed a new mandate to reduce climate-warming greenhouse gas output to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. While Congress has failed to pass a single bill in the past decade that tackles climate change, California has considered Obama an ally when it comes to environmental issues.
“We will protect the precious rights of our people,” Gov. Jerry Brown declared after Trump’s election, “and continue to confront the existential threat of our time—devastating climate change.”
Even with a Democrat in the White House, only modest progress has been made on environmental issues. Secretary of State John Kerry boasted last month that wind and solar power have grown 30-fold under Obama’s tenure, but they still generate little more than 5 percent of the nation’s energy, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Chances of renewables beefing up their share of the national energy market look dismal under the incoming administration, which has cozied up to the coal and gas industries. Trump’s incoming chief of staff, Reince Priebus, clarified that Trump’s “default position” on climate change is that “most of it is a bunch of bunk.”
“California’s role is more important than it’s ever been,” says Assemblyman Ash Kalra, who recently ended his second term on San Jose’s City Council. “We have to stand out as the shining example in our nation. We don’t need to wait for Washington, D.C.”
The Golden State has one of the most comprehensive energy efficiency rules on a vast range of applications, including new construction and kitchen appliances. In the absence of a national cap-and-trade program, California rolled out one of its own that forces power plants, factories and refineries to pay to pollute. The state set a goal to derive 50 percent of electricity from renewable sources by 2030. Gov. Brown has even taken it upon himself to approach heads of state, signing a climate deal endorsed by 136 cities and nations to cut emissions by 80 percent from 1990 levels within the next few decades. The multinational agreement covers a population of 832 million residents who produce a third of the world’s economic output.
“Local governments will have to take more of an initiative to act on this, too,” Kalra says. “We already have been. Environmental issues are inherently local anyway. Every decision that we make, from the cars that we drive to the food that we eat, has a cumulative impact on the climate.”
In 2010, Santa Clara County established its Office of Sustainability to incentivize energy saving by offering home improvement rebates. San Jose this past March voted to become a municipal energy provider, a plan supported by Kalra and endorsed by environmentalists. Under the Community Choice Energy program, which rolls out next year, the city would buy electricity for residents. In addition to saving energy overall, the model will create 12,000 jobs and bring in an estimated $1.25 billion in economic activity over the next six years, according to a study by the Center for Climate Protection. Several other local cities plan to launch similar energy programs in 2017. San Mateo launched one this fall and San Francisco rolled its own out last year.
“At the local level, we kind of have to push politics aside and get to work,” says Kerrie Romanow, San Jose’s director of environmental services. “We’ve already accepted that climate is changing, and we have no choice but to adapt to that. Climate change informs all our contracts, all our policies, essentially everything that we do, from the building standards we impose to what kind of fuel our garbage trucks use or how easy we make it for people to install solar panels.”
Local action is crucial, she adds, especially when cities make up most of America’s carbon footprint. However, most of those emissions come not from municipal agencies but private citizens and private enterprise, according to a report by global infrastructure firm AECOM. Still, simple changes, such as planting more trees or paving more bike lanes, wield a huge collective impact, Romanow says. While global warming hasn’t always been an overt part of the policy conversation at City Hall, it has shaped San Jose laws. Former Mayor Chuck Reed didn’t talk about greenhouse gas emissions, but he did focus on how to make the city a leader in clean tech. Mayor Sam Liccardo has been more outspoken about global warming than his predecessor, which drives home the point that urban centers have a big role to play in addressing the most far-reaching issues.
“In a way, climate change is part of everything we do, whether we specify the direct link or not,” Romanow says. “It’s why we’ve been innovating the heck out of everything.”
In 2014, the Little Hoover Commission criticized state agencies for failing to coordinate climate change strategies with local governments, essentially leaving cities and counties to their own devices. The state’s adaptation strategy remains in the planning stages while actions by lawmakers to prepare, plan and invest in defenses against climate impacts have been largely lacking, the report found. In Sacramento, the conversation was limited to strategies to keep the climate from changing. No one really addressed how to adapt to the changes already underway.
“I was surprised when I got to the state Assembly that not one piece of legislation had been introduced related to sea level rise,” says former Assemblyman Rich Gordon, who termed out this month. “Nobody in Sacramento was talking about adaptation.”
During his tenure in the state Legislature, Gordon, who began working on local climate change policies in the 2000s as a San Mateo County supervisor, rolled out a statewide database for local governments to share adaptation strategies for the rising sea levels. The hope was to get local governments to share ideas for how to protect tens of millions of people along the state’s waterways, as well as their homes, ports, roads and other infrastructure. The proposal passed despite opposition from most of the Legislature’s Republicans, who questioned the dangers posed by the rising seas.
In their legislative analysis, GOP lawmakers fretted about how the sea level rise database “appears to try and shame cities and counties” that aren’t preparing for the eventuality. It’s unclear how useful the database has been. Part of the problem is that too many of the state’s jurisdictions are languishing in the planning stages without taking any concrete action. Bourgeois, who’s in charge of the South Bay wetlands restoration—a project that spans a surface area the size of Manhattan—says he hadn’t even heard of it.
Meanwhile, South Bay cities have been tackling the problem on their own. Palo Alto appointed a chief sustainability officer in 2014. Milpitas drafted a plan to deal with greenhouse gas reductions, though it conspicuously failed to address sea level rise despite its proximity to the eroding shoreline.
Sunnyvale drummed up a climate action plan in spring of 2014, though it lacked language that conveyed any sense of urgency and lacked the funding commitments to translate its goals into reality. San Jose requires developers to factor in the rising waters when building in affected areas. Redwood City has been grappling with how to protect massive development by Dreamworks and EA Sports along its shorelines. Mountain View, which Bourgeois calls “one of the most progressive and collaborative” cities in the region when it comes to sea level rise, drafted a growth plan that requires developers to build higher and chip in for “adaptive planning” such as levees. The city also completed a hazard inventory and revised its flood maps to plan for a retreating shoreline.
And still, on a regional level, there has been an alarming lack of collaboration. A 2015 report by Santa Clara County’s Civil Grand Jury said the dearth of communication among cities has created a sense of complacency.
“Since the effects of sea level rise are not imminent, there is a lack of urgency in addressing this pending emergency,” jurors wrote. “The scientific community, however, is giving long-range future projections, indicating possibly devastating consequences in Santa Clara County. Nevertheless, the grand jury was told those consequences are seen by some jurisdictions as so far off in the future, that they have not seen a need to address its effects on the [local] infrastructure and economy.”
The county’s Office of Sustainability has been working on creating a software tool—Silicon Valley 2.0—that calculates the economic effects of ignoring sea level rise, which it plans to share with other jurisdictions.
“Hopefully, this can help us start planning for the long term,” says Kevin Armstrong, interim director of office. “It’s more than a checklist. It can also be a reminder that while this is a global problem, there are certain things to be done right here at a local level.”
Though California’s climate change politics have been lauded as progressive, the most populous state in the union is as much to blame for global warming as any comparable economy. In 2013, California spewed more more carbon dioxide pollution than any other state but Texas. Most of that pollution came from burning petroleum and private vehicles. Meanwhile, five states with some of the highest wind energy outputs are all “red” states that voted for Trump.
“Big oil is still big business—even in California,” says Kalra, who was sworn in Monday to the 27th Assembly District, where he succeeds Assemblywoman Nora Campos.
The oil lobby has played an outsize role in state elections. Oil companies bankrolled Campos’ failed campaign to unseat state Sen. Jim Beall (D-San Jose). Statewide, oil giants amassed more than $10 million since 2015 to spend on this year’s legislative races—a $3 million bump from the preceding election cycle. That may have been in response to Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León’s Senate Bill 350, which sought to slash petroleum use in half. A number of other issues have galvanized lobbying efforts from the industry, including fuel standards that require California refineries to undertake costly measures to limit the carbon content of their fuels. Although this past weekend, the state Democratic Party issued a decree to refuse political donations from oil companies in Sacramento. At least for now.
“We’re seeing a lot of pushback from the industry,” says Kalra, who was the first San Jose councilman to speak out against having oil trains barrel through the South Bay from the Phillips 66 refinery on the Central Coast. “I’m very concerned about this. We’ve already created enough trauma to our earth and enough damage to future generations.”
The week after his election to the state Legislature, Kalra personally delivered supplies to the protesters at Standing Rock, where thousands of people have been camped out for months to oppose a $3.8 billion pipeline. The multi-state conduit, which the Army Corps agreed last week to reroute, aims to pump fracked oil for 1,200 miles from North Dakota. Native American reservations just 2 percent of the U.S. but hold as much as a fifth of the nation’s gas, oil and coal reserves.
“I wasn’t going there as a council member or an Assembly member,” Kalra says. “I wanted to be there to personally experience it, to contribute whatever time and resources I could and to get some perspective.”
On Monday, the start of the 2017 legislative session and the day Kalra was sworn in to the Assembly, he introduced his first bill. AB 20, if it passes, will prevent California’s public pension funds from investing in the companies behind the Dakota Access Pipeline.
“I know it’s not a matter of us just stopping this one pipeline,” he says. “It’s a start.”