Global climate change is no longer something to anticipate and plan for; it’s a reality that challenges us every day. San Diego has collaborated with consulting and engineering experts to create a Climate Action Plan, but the city and region have yet to implement many sustainable policies.

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The scientific consensus on climate change leaves little room to dispute its validity. According to NASA, 97 percent of climate scientists agree that “climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities.”

And the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change wrote in its fourth assessment report that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal.”

But San Diegans don’t need evidence from scientists across the world to see the phenomenon for themselves. The rising frequencies and intensities of drought and wildfires make it all too apparent. Sustainable development can mitigate the causes of climate change, but it doesn’t address the consequences we’re already seeing. Our region’s response must transcend sustainability. San Diego’s approach to climate change needs to be resilient.

I first learned about resiliency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s “100 Resilient Cities” campaign, but the concept is an emerging focus for city planners around the world. Resilience literally means “the ability to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens.”

Climate change will continue since the world isn’t reducing its greenhouse gas emissions. Our region should expect additional impacts of climate change in the future. We’ll need to improve our systems and infrastructure accordingly.

San Diego’s water system may face the greatest risk from climate change. The region has a considerable history of droughts and wildfires — and a future with higher temperatures and more sporadic rainfall will amplify both.

Because local water sources are insufficient, we’re forced to rely on the San Francisco Bay Delta and the Colorado River for approximately 80 percent of our water supply.

We’re building a desalination plant in Carlsbad, but removing salt from sea water is extremely costly and energy intensive. Some other options for improving local reliance include recycling waste water, like we do at the North City Water Reclamation Plant, and managing stormwater to prevent pollution and simplify purification processes. There’s also the approach of reducing our per capita consumption.

SANDAG has projected our county’s population will grow by another million people by 2050. San Diego will need to import and produce more energy locally, and improve the efficiency of its energy system to meet the increased energy demand.

One of the greatest challenges that San Diego faces, however, is the complex transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. Scaling back San Diego’s dependency on fossil fuels could significantly reduce industrial and residential greenhouse gas emissions, and stimulate our region’s economy by improving energy security, creating jobs and developing our clean tech industry.

Building resilient water and energy systems are just two of the issues that San Diego needs to address in the face of climate change. There’s also transportation, food and agriculture, waste and health services to consider. One significant barrier for progress in San Diego has become apparent: The lack of economic incentives for transitioning to renewable energy sources makes it difficult for city planners to develop sustainably, much less resiliently.

Most renewable energy sources are still not as economically efficient as fossil fuels, and the upfront capital investments that they require further deter city planners from their integration.

Although San Diego has taken steps toward researching and developing a resiliency plan, there is work to be done.

The global transition from natural resource depletion to sustainable economies may be the defining issue of our generation. San Diego cannot afford to leave this challenge unanswered. We will pay the price of climate change sooner or later, and postponing our decisions only increases the cost.  We need to adapt our strategies for the long-term and develop a resilient San Diego.

Cameron Bernhardt, a San Diego resident who’s a senior at Claremont McKenna College in Los Angeles, participated in a World Resources SimCenter program this summer for international environmental engineering students to talk through San Diego’s climate change response. Bernhardt’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

Catherine Green

Catherine Green was formerly the deputy editor at Voice of San Diego. She handled daily operations while helping to plan new long-term projects.

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