S.F. Needs ‘Behavioral Changes’ to Address Climate Change, Say Experts

The heads of the Department of Emergency Management and the Port juggle climate change prevention with disaster preparation.

Mary Ellen Carroll and Ellen Forbes. (Photo: Lia Russell)

“My son is an undergraduate in Environmental Studies at UC Santa Barbara, and we often debate about the Green New Deal,” said Mary Ellen Carroll, the executive director of the Department of Emergency Management. “It’s aspirational. If we are going to tackle climate change, we need to make some serious behavioral changes.”

Tuesday night, Carroll and Elaine Forbes of the Port of San Francisco, sat in conversation with Emanuel Yekutiel, owner of Manny’s Cafe as part of a “Local Leaders” series to address the question of whether San Francisco is prepared to face the effects of climate change.

The truth is, the city is facing a lot; from wildfires to rising sea levels, earthquakes to temperature increases. Carroll and Forbes, respectively, are tasked with our city’s response.

In November, California saw the worst fires in its history with the Camp fire in Northern California and the Thomas Fire in Southern California. For days, air quality in the Bay Area was on par with major third world cities like Dhaka, Bangladesh, and New Delhi, from the Camp fire’s smoke. Though the actual cause of the Camp fire was allegedly a downed electrical line, it was clear that years of drought accelerated the fire. Both departments under Forbes and Carroll have ramped up their focus and devoted resources to preparing for the inevitability of climate change, such as developing emergency protocols for when an earthquake hits.

In November, San Franciscans voted by an overwhelming margin to approve a $425 million bond to overhaul the city’s seawall, a 3.5-mile coastal defense that runs underwater from Fisherman’s Wharf to Mission Creek. While San Francisco has set the standard for which cities react to climate change, the century-old seawall shows wear and tear and requires serious repairs to contend with the threat of rising sea levels and the floods they bring. By 2100, one report estimated, the Bay Area could see its seas rise to six to 10 feet.

“The reason for rising sea levels isn’t [just] the ice caps melting, but instead the oceans warming and expanding,” said Forbes. “The $425 million is a down payment. We expect the [seawall project] to cost up to $5 billion.” 

One 2018 report stated the project could reach completion in 2026.

At the Department of Emergency Management, the strategy has been coordination between city agencies and a focus on “community and communication,” says Carroll.

One tool the Department of Emergency Management uses to quickly inform citizens of pertinent news is through the opt-in program AlertSF, which texts users useful information about disruptions to city infrastructure, from natural disasters and other emergencies.  Another is SF72, a program that connects people with their neighbors to mobilize in case of natural disaster, and through initiatives such as Healthy Streets, which provides housing and other essential services to homeless people, who are often in greatest need of city services during emergencies but often the least likely to receive them.

Despite this, both Forbes and Carroll admit that the threat of climate change is that it is unprecedented and unpredictable, following no easy metrics for which cities can gauge their threat levels. One audience member asked how groundwater could be utilized — a tactic that was used during the last drought — to provide alternative sources of drinking water during the next inevitable earthquake.

“What’s more worrying is the recovery trajectory,” Carroll said. “We’ve only just fully recovered from the effects of the Loma-Prieta earthquake a few years ago.” 
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