Friday, Dec. 28, 2007 | Taken together, the region’s numerous environmental challenges can seem overwhelming. The world is getting warmer. Massive fires have scorched the region’s native vegetation twice in the past four years. The air is cleaner than it once was, but each rainfall closes the region’s beaches and sends millions of gallons of sewage coursing into the Pacific Ocean near the U.S.-Mexico border.

We posed this simple question to the region’s researchers, politicians, activists and educators: Are we toast? And we took it a bit further: Despite the challenges, is there any reason for hope? Can you have an understanding of the region’s environmental issues and still be an optimist?

The responses were generally optimistic, though few were full of Pollyanna-like vim. While the outlook was mixed, one common thread wove through many of the responses. For the respondents to be truly optimistic, they said the region needed one thing: Leadership.

Here’s what they had to say:

Scott Anders, director, Energy Policy Initiatives Center, University of San Diego: “There are some days when I look at our industrial society and the momentum and inertia we have and the amount of money invested in the current system, and I get very discouraged. But then I hear about projects or technologies up and coming and I think there really is the possibility to make a difference. I try hard when I’m talking to people not to be gloomy. But I don’t think it’s fair if you say everything’s going to be fine. If you just say we need more wind turbines and solar, everything will be fine — that’s naive. [Climate change] could be the biggest challenge in human history. The worst is yet to come. I hate to say it.”

Bruce Reznik, executive director, San Diego Coastkeeper: “We’ve actually made tremendous strides … stopping the bleeding. We deserve credit for that, Coastkeeper and the entire community. That’s the most urgent. We’ve shown that when we put our mind to it, we can accomplish a lot in a short time. We need to take that to the second and third phases, restoring the damage done and addressing the root causes.”

Rick Van Schoik, director, North American Center for Transborder Studies, Arizona State University and a former San Diego State professor: “It is bloody dismal. But business is seriously changing. Religion has finally got it. These kids I teach, they see the big picture. I come away at the end of the semester thinking thank goodness I influenced 100 kids, so they not only have it as a tool, they have it as an affect. It’s part of their ethos. I can come away optimistic on the whole. But San Diego, Tijuana, boy. (He sighs.) You also need some leadership.”

Oscar Romo, coastal training program coordinator, Tijuana National Estuarine Research Reserve: “In my everyday experience, I’ve found people willing to do something, but also a lot of ignorance among decision-makers. They’re not educated about environmental issues. It’s easy for politicians to just point a finger — to industry, a group of people, those invisible producers of pollution. There’s a lot of rhetoric and finger pointing, but very little on developing policies. I still believe they can be educated, and that eventually funding to solve the problems will be found somewhere.”

Donna Frye, San Diego City Council: “The fact that we’re at least looking at a pilot program to increase our water supply locally (with sewage recycling) gives me hope that we’re understanding the necessity to do that. The same thing with energy. The fact that we’re looking at producing our own energy and generating it on a local level, that gives me hope — that technology will solve some of our immediate problems.”

Tim Barnett, marine physicist, Scripps Institution of Oceanography: “Trying to be realistic, I’m not very hopeful. On the other hand, I have an appreciation for what humans can do if they’re really motivated. Like global warming, we can really pull that problem up on a fairly short lease. Idealistically, I have a feeling of what we could do. Realistically, I have doubts we’ll do it.”

Rick Halsey, executive director, California Chaparral Institute: “How many millions are we spending on the lagoon at the end of the San Dieguito River? Wow. And the efforts we’ve made to restore the bald eagle population? And the public’s desire to donate money to buy land to preserve it for the future? There are some remarkable things the public is doing. A lot of people really do care. That’s what maintains the level of natural integrity that we have. What’s the use in moping around? You need to enjoy what we’ve got.”

David Bainbridge, associate professor of sustainable management, Alliant International University: “I’m a pessimistic optimist. I have great faith in humans’ abilities to fix things. But we don’t do a good job doing it until we’re facing the edge of the cliff. The generational shift in leadership is going to make a big difference.

But there are certainly some big challenges coming, and we may wait too long. We don’t like to make changes until we have to.”

Jim Peugh, conservation chairman of the San Diego Audubon Society: “I’m not a fatalist. I have lots of hope that we will have a significant learning experience. And it won’t be one that wipes out all of nature. I’m so excited by what we can do. But it’s just that it’s not a priority on anybody’s list.”

Jim Waring, chairman, CleanTech San Diego: “If we are able as a region to improve our dialogue around issues and solutions, without labels and the attacks that follow from labeling people, then I believe we can solve them. The trigger to that action is leadership. Leadership around the issue. We have it in our community in the broad sense. It’s not always demonstrated in the political world because of the pressures they’re under. But there are a lot of people talking about how these issues can be addressed in a collaborative sense.”

Carolyn Chase, founder, San Diego EarthWorks: “What’s hopeful to me is that we begin to see plans coming from a different place. The challenge is to find the leadership to get behind them. The biggest challenge, honest to God, is leadership. These are all people problems. Whether it’s sewage, habitat, clean air, polluted run off, they all have solutions. Some of them take money, but none of them are going anywhere without leadership.”

Mary Sessom, chairwoman, San Diego Association of Governments and Lemon Grove’s mayor: “We are finally waking up. Do I think it’s too late to reverse global climate change? Yeah I do. Is it too late to avoid radical impacts on our way of life? Oh yeah. But I think we are starting to understand that we need to do something to make life for our kids livable. And I think we’re doing it. We’re finally saying, ‘We have a problem.’”

Please contact Rob Davis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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