Indicator city

If cutting edge San Francisco can't meet the challenge of climate change and related environmental issues, are we all doomed?


When biologists talk about the health of a fragile ecosystem, they often speak of an "indicator species." That's a critter — a fish, say, or a frog — whose health, or lack thereof, is a signal of the overall health of the system. These days, when environmentalists who think about politics as well as science look at San Francisco, they see an indicator city.

This progressive-minded place of great wealth, knowledge, and technological innovation — surrounded on three sides by steadily rising tides — could signal whether cities in the post-industrial world will meet the challenge of climate change and related problems, from loss of biodiversity to the need for sustainable energy sources.

A decade ago, San Francisco pioneered innovative waste reduction programs and set aggressive goals for reducing its planet-cooking carbon emissions. At that point, the city seemed prepared to make sacrifices and provide leadership in pursuit of sustainability.

Things changed dramatically when the recession hit and Mayor Ed Lee took office with the promise to focus almost exclusively on economic development and job creation. Today, even with the technology and office development sectors booming and employment rates among the lowest in California, the city hasn't returned its focus to the environment.

In fact, with ambitious new efforts to intensify development along the waterfront and only lackluster support for the city's plan to build renewable energy projects through the CleanPowerSF program, the Lee administration seems to be exacerbating the environmental challenge rather than addressing it.

According to conservative projections by the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, the Bay is expected to rise at least 16 inches by 2050 and 55 inches by the end of the century. BCDC maps show San Francisco International Airport and Mission Bay inundated, Treasure Island mostly underwater, and serious flooding the Financial District, the Marina, and Hunters Point.

Lee's administration has commissioned a report showing a path to carbon reduction that involves promoting city-owned renewable energy facilities and radically reducing car trips — while the mayor seems content do the opposite.

It's not an encouraging sign for Earth Day 2013.



Last year, the Department of the Environment hired McKinsey and Company to prepare a report titled "San Francisco's Path to a Low-Carbon Economy." It's mostly finished — but you haven't heard much about it. The department has been sitting on it for months.

Why? Some say it's because most of the recommendations clash with the Lee administration's priorities, although city officials say they're just waiting while they get other reports out first. But the report notes the city is falling far short of its carbon reduction goals and "will therefore need to complement existing carbon abatement measures with a range of new and innovative approaches."

Data presented in the report, a copy of which we've obtained from a confidential source, shows that building renewable energy projects through CleanPowerSF, making buildings more energy-efficient, and discouraging private automobile use through congestion pricing, variable-price parking, and building more bike lanes are the most effective tools for reducing carbon output.

But those are things that the mayor either opposes and has a poor record of supporting or putting into action. The easy, corporate-friendly things that Lee endorses, such as supporting more electric, biofuel, and hybrid vehicles, are among the least effective ways to reach the city's goals, the report says.


It doesn't matter if we reduce carbon emissions in San Francisco to ZERO immediately - India and China's surging demand for energy along with the growth of Africa's middle class and its attendant demands for raw materials would render our sacrifice meaningless.

Progressives like Steven can't see the reality of this situation - which is that this is a global problem, a human problem and that without global agreement on this local action is pretty much totally worthless. More bike lanes are not going to stop increasing global temps.

Posted by Lucretia Snapples on Apr. 16, 2013 @ 7:51 pm

As the article made clear, cities cause climate change and they are where the solutions must come from. The defeatist attitude that San Francisco can't help solve the problem is why it keeps getting worse. As I wrote, we have the wealth, knowledge, and technological innovation to play an important leadership role, yet we're choosing to value short-term economic fears and gains over long-term sustainability. And yes, LS, leadership does involve a series of decisions like completing the bike network on dangerous, unwelcoming roads like that three-block stretch of Oak Street rather than placing such high value on a couple dozen street parking spots.
If we chose to do the right thing, making sacrifices where necessary, and lead, other cites around the world would follow, which is the only way to address this "global problem." Instead, it appears we're going to just wait for China to hopefully do the right thing and follow them, delaying the transformation by decades and taking a huge toll on future generations. Do you have a better plan?

Posted by steven on Apr. 17, 2013 @ 10:34 am

The foremost being that San Francisco knows best and the rest of the world can just follow along.

You haven't addressed the quantitative aspect of what I said which is our emissions are a drop in the bucket and China and India, in particular, have shown ZERO interest in controlling their emissions. Yet there you are, again, banging on about the Wiggle and how that's just so crucial to everything here when in reality that's important to a few alternative white bikers who don't drive anyway - people like you.

Posted by Lucretia Snapples on Apr. 17, 2013 @ 3:07 pm

Can we not have both? We all do what we can. Fixing the Wiggle will bring more people out of their cars. We "alternative white bikers" do what we can to make our city as green as possible, and we hope and pray that others are working on international levels to deal with the rising energy needs of India and China. It's no good to just give up because the task is so daunting.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 18, 2013 @ 2:25 pm

That's what. Stop pretending it's altruistic - you want an easier ride so you couch it in the language of "saving the world" when it's not.

Posted by Lucretia Snapples on Apr. 18, 2013 @ 2:56 pm

You are a douchebag, stop pretending you are not.

Posted by glenparkdaddy on Apr. 19, 2013 @ 10:39 pm

Something makes me think you're the kind of daddy with a sling in their living room and not a playpen.

Not that there's anything WRONG with that.

Posted by Lucretia Snapples on Apr. 20, 2013 @ 1:54 pm

Homophobia is sooo 1980s.

Posted by glenparkdaddy on Apr. 22, 2013 @ 11:20 pm

@Lucretia Snapples - I would say, rather, that you're making bogus race-based assumptions. San Francisco is home to some of the best environmental justice groups and efforts in the nation, true grassroots efforts led by people of color. They're underreported by the _Guardian_, but that's no excuse to lazily dismiss environmental concern as a white people thing.

Posted by Jym Dyer on Apr. 24, 2013 @ 7:45 am

The transit system was supposed to sequester carbon as well. But the Transportation Authority says that there is no funding for the $10b in transit improvements required to meet those goals.

"Just building bike lanes," and "Congestion pricing" are like sending a someone with cancer home with aspirin and calling it a day.

Posted by marcos on Apr. 16, 2013 @ 8:05 pm

and Co's advice on this or on any issue. I wonder how much Steven really knows about the ideology behind McKinsey's and Co's agenda. Hint - it's not designed to encourage participatory democracy or sustainable practices in any industry.

Again - the ends justify the means.

Posted by Lucretia Snapples on Apr. 16, 2013 @ 8:26 pm

Transpo enviro people are not necessarily progressive or politically left. I'm not one to say that any of identity, race, gender, queer is central to all politics, they all play a role in reinforcing the worst elements of social organization onto politics.

In reading public comment at the TA Transportation Plan CAC on the equity analysis, one pedestrian leader questioned whether we really needed to have any consideration for race or income in transit planning. That's pretty messed up right there.

Posted by marcos on Apr. 16, 2013 @ 8:50 pm

With an agenda, as all consulting groups have. That agenda is money, money, MONEY.

Posted by Lucretia Snapples on Apr. 16, 2013 @ 9:22 pm

And its report does a bottom line economic analysis, which is why I would hope that Mayor Lee and other money-oriented local leaders would heed it. For example, its City Carbon Economics Tool shows how bicycle and commercial building energy efficiency programs more than pay for themselves, whereas electric and biofuel vehicles are expensive ways to reduce carbon emissions. Congestion pricing is also expensive, but as the report notes, "It is important to note, however, that the infrastructure for congestion pricing is self-funding and will not be an incremental expense for the city." Yet it will help fund improvements to Muni and discourage reliance on private automobiles, which are both important goals. But has anyone heard a peep of progress on congestion pricing since Ed Lee became mayor?

Posted by steven on Apr. 17, 2013 @ 10:45 am

Right, because one comment obviously tars every possible person who is a transit activist.

Are you really this stupid, or do you troll for a living?

Posted by glenparkdaddy on Apr. 19, 2013 @ 10:45 pm

Good news for people who pay attention to actual data:

Climate scientists struggle to explain warming slowdown

By Environment Correspondent Alister Doyle
OSLO | Tue Apr 16, 2013 6:25am EDT
(Reuters) - Scientists are struggling to explain a slowdown in climate change that has exposed gaps in their understanding and defies a rise in global greenhouse gas emissions.

Often focused on century-long trends, most climate models failed to predict that the temperature rise would slow, starting around 2000. Scientists are now intent on figuring out the causes and determining whether the respite will be brief or a more lasting phenomenon.

Posted by Demented, Yet Terribly, Terribly, Persistent on Apr. 16, 2013 @ 10:54 pm

Figures don't lie, but liars can figure.
The "respite" will be brief, if it ever existed at all.
"Global" solutions begin at home; set an example
to show it can be done.
The Oil Age is over; deal with it!

Posted by TrollKiller on Apr. 17, 2013 @ 6:49 am

Climate deniers who deny the scientific fact that the climate hasn't warmed in more than fifteen years should be ostracized, Citizens!

Posted by Demented, Yet Terribly, Terribly, Persistent on Apr. 17, 2013 @ 11:07 am

I do deny those who claim to see a pattern in the random, chaotic nature of weather, and especially when they hijack it to further their nihilistic, negative, NIMBY agenda.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 17, 2013 @ 11:18 am

You are ignorant. Probably stupid as well.

Posted by glenparkdaddy on Apr. 19, 2013 @ 10:45 pm

SF'ers like to think that but it's largely a myth.

There's more world-changing though, technology and culture coming out of LA and Silicon Valley than emits from conservative, self-satisfied SF.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 17, 2013 @ 8:44 am

San Francisco is "cutting edge" in what exactly?
Architecture: No
Any one industry: No
Art world: No
Music: No

We're a medium sized city full of people with tiny minds which fight any measurable change in any direction.

We're a lovely storybook published in the late 50's early 60's and not changed since then.

Posted by Bizarro on Apr. 17, 2013 @ 10:33 am

too many losers and whiners here for SF to achieve anything.

Sadly, SF attracts the less than adequate, who do not fit in anywhere.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 17, 2013 @ 10:53 am

can i help you pack?

Posted by janarchy on Apr. 17, 2013 @ 11:15 am

it is quite easy to ignore all the riffraff.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 17, 2013 @ 11:23 am

You can't ignore shit, you're compelled to come here as if your inteventions on an internet chat board against a political movement that by all measures has flat lined demonstrates that.

Posted by marcos on Apr. 17, 2013 @ 12:27 pm

minority. I can live with that, as I anticipated that.

You seem more angry about that failure than I. I am merely lightly amused by it, and I guess just a tad smug.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 17, 2013 @ 12:41 pm

The progressive electoral project was coopted by the poverty and health nonprofits and public sector unions who stand down from contesting power and cut deals to prevent others from contesting power under threat of being cut off from the cash.

The leftist idealists sold out, took the money and are now running their constituencies into the ground and getting paid for it.

Posted by marcos on Apr. 17, 2013 @ 1:11 pm

They're only human, and they get bought.

Those remaining have no power.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 17, 2013 @ 1:22 pm

I am quite wealthy and still have not sold out. In fact, I am going to start using my money for progressive causes. Look at Tom Steyer. I want to be like him some day.

Posted by glenparkdaddy on Apr. 19, 2013 @ 10:47 pm

50s: Beat
60s: Hippies
70s: Gays
80s: Punks
90s: DotCommers
00s: not much
10s: Social Media

Posted by glenparkdaddy on Apr. 19, 2013 @ 10:42 pm

Pretty good but (I guess this could pedantic) :

80's: Punks and Goths
90's: DotCommers and Rave & Ambient techno (man I loved that)
00's: not much but also psychic thug culture..did anyone else notice that? Truly sucked.

Posted by PK on Apr. 24, 2013 @ 8:09 am

Dot.commers and social media are economic driven migrations while the previous waves were social driven migrations.

Business is boring, culture is interesting, business destroys culture in order to replace it with "experiences" that can be monetized, "experiences" that are boring.

Posted by marcos on Apr. 24, 2013 @ 8:32 am

The sfpuc is unethical and clueless. they want cleanpowersf to send our tax dollars to Shell and with zero build out plan. And the assistant manager, JULIET ELLIS, is a corrupt employee who bullied some non profits to exchange support this clean/dirty power sf program which will raise our electricity bill and send our tax dollars to an oil company.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 17, 2013 @ 12:09 pm

Paying more for the same thing doesn't tick any boxes for me.

PG&E is already 60% sustainable and I'm comfortable with that commitment.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 17, 2013 @ 12:21 pm

No, PG&E's energy portfolio is about 30 percent renewable, according to the California Public Utilities Commission, which fined the utility for failing to meet state clean energy standards. Even if you count its nuclear power plant -- which only a fool would call "sustainable" -- you still don't get to 60 percent.

Posted by steven on Apr. 17, 2013 @ 1:49 pm

Technically it's not everlasting but it is nothing like burning carbon.

It's clean and green but we might run out of uranium in a few thousand years.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 17, 2013 @ 3:47 pm

Each of your assertions is wrong. Mining uranium, transporting it, building nuclear plants, and storing the spent rods also release carbon:
There's also nothing clean or green about producing waste that will remain lethal for 10,000 years. Uranium itself is also not renewable, and we are near peak production now, rather than have the "few thousands years" worth that you ridiculously claim.

Posted by steven on Apr. 18, 2013 @ 10:13 am

SF and our planet cannot win when we have dead beat unethical people drawing $195k tax dollars. Step 1: Fired Juliet Ellis!

Posted by Guest on Apr. 19, 2013 @ 7:01 am

The SFPUC assistant manager needs to quit or get fired! Juliet Ellis, I hope you name will be heard all over the green community.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 17, 2013 @ 2:46 pm

I never read the SF Weekly website. My strongest initial observation is that the public commentary there is much more constructive than the commentary here.

The openness and anonymity of this site unfortunately lead the discussion to the lowest depths.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 18, 2013 @ 8:47 am

@Guest - Openness is fine. Anonymity is the problem. This site should at the very least consider using disqus, which promotes a bit less anonymity.

Posted by Jym Dyer on Apr. 24, 2013 @ 7:57 am

Waiting for Adam Smith's “invisible hand” is like waiting for the second-coming of Jesus Christ. Guess which will happen first and consider what the very natural consequences will be?

Posted by Awayneramsey on Apr. 17, 2013 @ 12:12 pm

Without it, you'd have no home, food, power, transport, job etc.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 17, 2013 @ 12:22 pm

@Guest: Scary things, belief systems: To believe the incredible, unnatural and unthinkable. Even those having acute minds, including scientists who study and analyze data sets can be distracted and deceived.

Posted by Awayneramsey on Apr. 17, 2013 @ 12:38 pm

But there is no harm done, since Adam Smith's metaphor does not require for it's validity that everyone understands it.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 17, 2013 @ 1:02 pm

God put fossils there to test our faith.

Posted by marcos on Apr. 17, 2013 @ 1:17 pm

And anyway, man has superceded God.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 17, 2013 @ 1:24 pm

This commenter apparently believes Adam Smith is God, whose Invisible Hand/Holy Spirit creates everything. And speaking of His Holiness, who warned of the "natural selfishness and rapacity" of the rich, Smith lived well before the time of human-induced climate change and yet was still a proponent of a redistribution of wealth.
As He wrote in Wealth of Nations: "What improves the circumstances of the greater part can never be regarded as an inconveniency to the whole. No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable."
So sayeth your Lord, guest, He who works in mysterious ways.

Posted by steven on Apr. 17, 2013 @ 1:52 pm

anything. He sought merely to describe what happens anyway.

My post was in that vein as well. I offer no opinion on whether it is right - only that it is.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 17, 2013 @ 3:38 pm

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