What does upcoming U.S. climate policy mean for San Diego County?

 Workers from Sullivan Solar Power, of San Diego, install solar panels on the roof of a home in Vista.
File photo of workers from Sullivan Solar Power, of San Diego, install solar panels on the roof of a home in Vista.
(Charlie Neuman / UT San Diego)

Investments in infrastructure, renewed research funding and cross-border cooperation could be in the pipeline, experts say


San Diego County officials say new climate initiatives under the Biden administration could bolster local efforts to adapt to rising seas, build housing powered by green energy, clean up border pollution, and fund globally recognized climate research.

President-elect Joe Biden has signaled that combating climate change will be part of broader economic and infrastructure packages in his White House, and a tenet of his foreign policy.

As the U.S. officially withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement on Nov. 4, Biden pledged to rejoin the treaty the day of his inauguration. On his website Biden announced goals of bringing the United States to a clean energy economy by 2050, shoring up infrastructure against climate change, aiding communities at risk of climate impacts, and pressing other nations to raise their domestic climate targets. With those actions on the table, local leaders are contemplating what that means for the San Diego region.

Climate Scientist Shang-Ping Xie, Scripps Institution of Oceanography

As a coastal community in an arid climate, San Diego is at risk from both water and fire, as ongoing beach erosion and the catastrophic California wildfires this year demonstrate, said Shang-Ping Xie, a climate scientist and Chair of Environmental Science at Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

“I think that in San Diego, the climate change effect is loud and clear,” he said.

Xie, who studies interaction between the ocean and atmosphere, said the Biden administration may tackle the problem through economic changes, such as withdrawing subsidies to fossil fuel industries, and directing them to solar or wind power systems. And it could seek engineering solutions, such as better battery storage for solar energy, and more efficient power grid distribution. Both of those could offer opportunities to San Diego-based energy companies.

Investment in analyzing and forecasting climate change is also crucial, he said. Long-term research funding would enable the next generation of scientists, such as those studying at Scripps Oceanography, to think big on the topic of climate solutions.

“The younger generation of scientists deserve to have such support that will allow them to look beyond today, to what they might be able to do in a decade, or two decades,” he said.

Xie said the COVID-19 pandemic has sharpened awareness of the existential threats we face, and reinforced the role of science in curing global ills.

“I think the vaccine (development during) the pandemic just shows that people can rise to the occasion if they have to,” he said. “So I really hope climate change is the next thing we’re going to inspire.”

Mayor Serge Dedina, Imperial Beach

Surrounded on three sides by water, the low-lying city of Imperial Beach filed a lawsuit against major fossil fuel companies, demanding they pay for damages associated with rising seas. Last year, the state of California backed that litigation, which alleges that petroleum companies covered up evidence that their activities contributed to climate change damage. Mayor Serge Dedina said he expects that the Biden administration will support that court battle as well.

“It’s clear that they’ve said they do support the rights of cities and states to file these lawsuits,” he said.

Biden’s pledge to re-enter the Paris Climate Agreement can also open doors for tackling carbon emissions and other pollution at the border, where heavy vehicles line up idling for miles, Dedina said.

“For San Diego to address climate, we need to have the U.S. and Mexican governments working together under the Paris treaty to reduce emissions at the border,” he said.

Dedina is also hopeful that the new administration will wrap climate adaptation into broader infrastructure measures, and include funding for efforts such as shoring up coastal areas that are subject to flooding.

“By focusing on infrastructure and adaptation, it can really be a win-win for our economy and our environment,” he said.

Chief Sustainability Officer Cody Hooven, City of San Diego

After years of effort on its Climate Action Plan, San Diego will welcome any federal contribution, said Cody Hooven, the city’s sustainability officer.

Some of that support could be financial subsidies or incentives, she said. As the city upgrades aging coastal infrastructure and reinforces it to withstand greater flooding, it would be useful to access matching federal funds, she said. Tax credits for renewable energy development can also speed along improvements in the energy sector. And San Diego’s efforts to install electric vehicle charging stations will be more effective if they are part of an interstate network, she said.

But even policy changes that aren’t tied to specific funding increases would be helpful, she said. Setting federal standards for local climate action plans can help cities better compare and measure their progress, and a consistent national policy can help the U.S. raise the bar for climate action by other countries, she said.

“It’s going to also put us on better footing internationally, and allow us to share ideas with other countries,” she said. “That’s another way we can be a leader in the world, is to raise our own standards, so we bring something to the table for the international arena.”

Executive Director Masada Disenhouse, San Diego 350

Just as COVID-19 has struck people of color hardest, climate change is projected to have disproportionate effects on low-income and minority communities, researchers have warned. Storms, drought, heat waves and shifts in infectious diseases increase health risks in poorer communities, and among people with limited health care access. Efforts to combat climate change should address that directly, said Masada Disenhouse, executive director of the nonprofit San Diego 350.

“The main thing I would like to see from the Biden administration is that they have a comprehensive vision that doesn’t try to address these things in silos, but integrates how they’re investing in climate solutions, and how they’re addressing environmental and racial justice and recovery from COVID-19,” Disenhouse said.

In San Diego, she said, communities south of Interstate 8, including Barrio Logan, City Heights, and southeast San Diego have traditionally born the brunt of pollution, and should be targeted for improvements under climate action plans. That should align with economic recovery efforts she said, including construction of energy-efficient housing and transit systems.

“Everybody knows we need more affordable housing in California,” Disenhouse said. “Let’s make sure that that housing is all electric, and as efficient as possible, and that we’re building out public transit to serve the housing.”

Climate Researcher Natalya Gallo, Scripps Oceanography

As officials respond to drought, wildfire and other climate impacts on land, they should also plan “big and bold initiatives for funding sustained ocean observations,” said Natalya Gallo, a researcher at Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

The ocean has absorbed 90 percent of the warming that has occurred on the Earth over the last 50 years, mediating climate change impacts on land, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. So climate change policy should include stable funding for long-term projects such as the CalCOFI Survey of the California Current, a 70-year program based in San Diego that measures and maintains a wealth of data on fisheries and ocean conditions.

“It’s a really important time series to understand how the ecosystem is changing over time, and how climate change is affecting the West Coast ecosystem,” Gallo said

San Diego wetlands also have a role to play, she said. The lagoons that dot the coastline have the dual benefit of soaking up excess carbon through plant growth, and buffering storm surges associated with sea level rise. The region used to have more wetlands, but better management can restore the ones that remain, Gallo said.

As Biden convenes his administration, scientists at Scripps and other research institutions are ready to help confront climate change, she said.

“I’m really hoping that with this administration, that science will have a front seat at the table,” Gallo said.

—Deborah Sullivan Brennan is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune