San Mateo County’s opportunity to lead by example

This blog is a part of SeaChange SMC’s Guest Blog series. The series will feature members of the SeaChange SMC Community Task Force’s perspectives on sea level rise.

By David Harris

When my daughter was born 13 years ago, I remember staring at her tiny hands and wondering what they would enable her to do over the course of her lifetime. Play basketball? Ride a bike? Write a book? Raise her children if she eventually became a mother?

It’s hard to look at young children, particularly the children of family members and friends, and not think about what the future will hold for them.

Though there are too many unknowns to predict what their lives as adults will be like, climate change and rising sea levels will almost certainly impact their opportunities and choices. Even if they choose to live somewhere far from the Bay Area where the impacts may be less, climate change is likely to define the way they think about their world.

Though not a perfect analogy, consider how the Great Depression and World War II shaped the lives of our parents and grandparents. For many baby boomers, the Vietnam War was the defining event of their generation. For Gen X’ers, 9/11 and the war on terrorism have loomed large as they grew into adulthood, and for many Millennials, the 2008 financial crisis has influenced how they see their future.

But climate change and sea level rise are different in a fundamental way.

The enormity of the impact of the events I mentioned on the generations that were most affected was either largely or completely unanticipated. Sea level rise we can see coming a mile away. Sometimes referred to as “a slow-moving emergency,” it may well be the defining event of our children’s generation and those that follow.

Scientist predict that more than 350,000 people in the Bay Area’s nine counties will have to move to higher ground if sea levels rise three feet by the end of this century, according to a recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle.[i] More than 680,000 people will have to move if it rises six feet.

The article also quotes Stanford climate specialist Katherine Mach as saying 190,000 people in San Mateo County would have to move if sea levels rise three feet and 250,000 would have to move if sea levels rise six feet.

Why aren’t we doing more about it?

If one part of your brain is thinking “I’ll be long gone by then,” think again. Before those levels are reached, there will be more flooding as severe storms inundate low-lying communities and erode the coast collaboration tools. And if you don’t live in either of those areas, you rely on roads, wastewater treatment plants and other infrastructure that will be affected.

The fact is that most of us will act on something if we feel our actions will have an impact on us, our families and our communities. For example, one of the things that makes many San Mateo County communities attractive to parents is the quality of its public schools. Like many other places, parents’ time and energy make an enormous difference, helping out with everything from schoolyard duty to aiding teachers in the classroom to organizing fundraisers.

But how can parents, or anyone who cares about the generations that follow us, prevent the climate from changing or the sea level from rising?

Like so many other problems facing the world, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and powerless.

As I said, we all know is that we can make a difference at the local level, regardless of what’s going in Washington, and that’s what some people are doing.

San Mateo County, one of the counties in California that is most at risk from sea level rise, is conducting a vulnerability assessment through an organization called Sea Change San Mateo County. This assessment is evaluating how representative assets including waste water treatment plants, roads, schools, airports and wetlands will be impacted as water levels rise on both the bayside and coast.

The county, partnering with state’s Coastal Conservancy, is working with city governments, community groups, businesses and other organizations. When the study is completed later this year, the county will continue to work with these groups to begin to develop mitigation and other options for the future.

The Bay Area, and the Silicon Valley in particular, prides itself as a place with the talent, resources, energy and courage to translate big ideas into practical solutions. While technology and the marketplace have important roles in addressing climate change and sea level rise, political will and grass roots community activism are also critical.

If the people of San Mateo County can effectively marshal all of these forces together in coming years, we will not only find a way for successive generations living here to cope and hopefully thrive with the changes ahead. We’ll also have an opportunity to show the rest of the country — and maybe the world — how it can be done.

David Harris lives in Burlingame and is a member of the Sea Change San Mateo County Community Task Force

*Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SeaChangeSMC (or the County of San Mateo).