Regional Study Encourages Immediate Action to Prevent Alarming Effects of Climate Change

By Tiffany Fox, (858) 246-0353,

San Diego, CA, Dec. 5, 2008 — If significant measures aren't taken to mitigate current climactic trends in San Diego, in just 40 years the number of days above 84 degrees Fahrenheit could triple, Scripps Coastal Reserve and Cabrillo National Monument might lose much of their coastal wildlife, and most of the Mission Beach community could be under water.
San Diego sunset

Coping with Climate Change: What You Can Do to Reduce the Impacts of Global Warming

  • Government, industry and individuals should drive less, and when they do, drive fuel-efficient cars powered by lower emission fuels.
  • Regional planning and transportation agencies must improve the connectivity of our transit systems so more San Diegans can rely on public transport.
  • Local governments can update building codes and implement "smart-growth" principles to enable developers to create more climate-friendly, compact and fire-resistant buildings and communities.
  • Local governments should also consider prohibiting development in fire-prone areas and advance the development of an interconnected network of nature preserves across the variety of landscapes and elevations. 
  • All consumers should alter their irrigation practices and switch to drought-tolerate landscaping, while maintaining defensible space around their homes in case of fire danger.
  • Water districts can modify water rates and offer incentives for water conservation and water managers should invest in significant new water supplies from water reuse, efficiency and desalination practices.
  • Conservation professionals can manage vegetation in forests to reduce fire intensity, and actively manage specific species and habitats to enhance their resilience to climate change.
  • Public health planners, practitioners and caregivers should plan for the expected health impacts of climate change.
Photo courtesy of Erik Jepsen

These are some of the findings of the Regional Focus 2050 study, a report recently released by the San Diego Foundation that combines the research of more than 40 interdisciplinary experts from San Diego's universities, local governments, nonprofits, public sector agencies and private sector organizations. The year-long study investigated the projected impacts of climate change in the year 2050 if the county were to carry on in a "business-as-usual" scenario, with the ancillary goal of generating political interest and community awareness about the topic so that steps can be taken to stave off some of the most severe regional impacts of global warming.

Lisa Shaffer, executive director of the Environment and Sustainability Initiative (ESI) at the University of California, San Diego, served as the study's project manager (ESI is based at the UCSD division of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, also known as Calit2). Shaffer and her ESI staff were charged with expanding and guiding the teams of experts recruited by the Foundation in various fields of environmental study, organizing interdisciplinary workshops to determine where there was overlap or gaps in knowledge about San Diego's climactic future, running a peer review, as well as writing segments of the report.

"The idea was to get this information out to the public so that something could be done," Shaffer says. "What remains unknown are the policy decisions that will be made between now and 2050 as a result of this report. We're calling for regular assessments and long-term planning for public investments. The more orderly fashion in which we do that, the more efficient we'll be in making those investments. But we'll have to keep re-assessing, because we're learning more all the time."

All told, the report, which numbers nearly 200 pages, predicts that if measures aren't taken worldwide to curb greenhouse gas emissions, San Diego will be a hotter, drier, more dangerous place to live in the coming decades. 

"San Diegans have a long and rich history of local community pride and protection of our region's clean air and water, natural resources and quality of life," remarks Emily Young, director of environment analysis and strategy for the San Diego Foundation. "But the region faces challenges, like all others throughout the world, from climate change and its implications on our clean air and water, natural lands and the health and well-being of our people and our future generations."

The picture painted by the report is stark and disturbing. The average temperature of San Diego could rise by as much as 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit, and heat waves will increase in frequency, magnitude and duration (Miramar is projected to be warmer than 84 degrees Fahrenheit for more than a third of the year). More frequent episodes of extreme heat are likely to cause illness and death, especially among the elderly and children, and more hot, sunny days will increase air pollution levels, exacerbating respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.

Warmer temperatures could also lead to growing mosquito problems (increasing the occurrence of West Nile virus) and will increase the length of the fire season. Santa Ana winds might occur for longer periods, prolonging extreme fire conditions, which are estimated to increase in frequency by as much as 20 percent. Furthermore, hotter inland areas will lead to higher energy demands, as more and more people turn to air conditioning to stay cool. It's expected that San Diego will require 60 percent more electricity by 2050.

Even as global warming causes ocean levels to rise by a foot and half (at a rate more than twice as fast as during the last century), potable water supplies in San Diego county will diminish in the face of population growth, increased drought and river and snowpack shrinkages. The effect could be a nearly 20 percent water deficit county-wide, which would further increase the risk of catastrophic wildfires.

Rising sea levels could cause fragile sea cliffs to collapse and beaches to shrink, with some beaches disappearing completely. Existing tide pools are expected to be destroyed and coastal wetlands lose their capacity to filter polluted runoff.

"The sea level projections are pretty scary," Shaffer notes. "The numbers show much of Mission Beach disappearing, areas of Del Mar and Coronado going underwater. It's really kind of astonishing."

Population growth will also have profound implications for the San Diego region, Shaffer says, noting that 1.5 million people are expected move to the county in the next four decades, increasing the population from 3 million to 4.5 million. More people means more fire danger, since most ignitions are caused by human activity, and since more and more development is expected in San Diego's fire-prone back-country areas. San Diego's growing population also threatens the habitats of local plant and animal species — many of whom will already be imperiled by more severe and frequent wildfires, extended droughts, sea level rise, higher temperature and poor air quality.

"Our native plants and wildlife will be pushed to the brink of extinction," Young warns. 

But the report also emphasizes that much can be done to slow and even halt the effects of climate change.
The report predicts more frequent episodes of extreme heat, which  are likely to cause illness and death, especially among the elderly and children. More hot, sunny days will increase air pollution levels, exacerbating respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.
The report predicts more frequent episodes of extreme heat, which  are likely to cause illness and death, especially among the elderly and children. More hot, sunny days will increase air pollution levels, exacerbating respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. Photo courtesy of Erik Jepsen.

"It is essential that our local governments and public agencies act now to develop and implement local action to reduce both our greenhouse gas emissions and our local vulnerabilities to climate change," Young says. "In such plans, our local leaders will have to make tough decisions. For instance, we may need to plan for coastal retreat, abandoning some coastal properties.

"We need to develop public-private partnerships to invest in efforts to make our community more climate-friendly," she adds, "by increasing energy efficiency and renewable energy, water conservation and reuse, as well as by developing more compact, walkable communities that use green buildings and are located near public transit hubs. We must also continue public and private efforts to protect an interconnected network of natural areas across a variety of landscapes and elevations in our region, to allow animals and plants to relocate and adapt to climate change."

Importantly, the study notes that the anticipated effects outlined for the San Diego region are not the maximum levels that can be expected, as the impacts of climate change are projected to worsen after 2050 if measures aren't taken immediately. The Foundation will therefore be focusing its future efforts on funding technical assistance to local governments and public agencies to develop climate action plans, Young says.

"We also plan to develop a special Local Climate Action Fund to support innovative, demonstration projects to make our community more climate friendly," she adds. "In addition, we plan to support efforts to build broader community support for local climate action. Finally, we are funding additional research on climate change and what it means for our region.

Although the Foundation has been working to publicize the report by conducting briefings for elected officials and reaching out to the media, local citizens are encouraged to read the report, send a copy to their elected representatives and demand action.
UC San Diego, which aims to become the leading user of renewable energy among U.S. universities, has plans in place to install solar power panels on 26 campus buildings, and develop fuel cells and wind farms to help power dorms, labs and cafeterias.
UC San Diego, which aims to become the leading user of renewable energy among U.S. universities, has plans in place to install solar power panels on 26 campus buildings and will develop fuel cells and wind farms to help power dorms, labs and cafeterias.

"I encourage everyone in San Diego to become educated about this topic. There's a lot in this study that will interest and amaze you about our region," Shaffer says. "We're also asking that San Diegans communicate with their elected officials and public agencies both on a national level, as well as state and local levels, and let them know that you are concerned and want them to take action. The more politicians understand that people care about this and that it's a priority, the more likely we're going to get action. We need to support the people who are already doing good things. Individual contributions are important, but the problem is big enough that we need action on a larger scale.

Shaffer says she's "cautiously optimistic" that the report will lead to positive change in San Diego.

"I'm hopeful that we can move forward in a more sustainable way," she enthuses "and I think perhaps in a perverse way, the economic metldown will make it easier to make changes.

"We're late, but hopefully we're not too late."

Media Contacts
Tiffany Fox, (858) 246-0353,

Related Links
Regional Focus 2050 (report summary)
Regional Focus 2050 (full report)
San Diego Foundation
Environment and Sustainability Initiative