What Global Warming Will Mean for the Bay Area (And It’s Not Good)

By Jonathan Marshall

By the end of the century, billionaires competing in the America’s Cup may be sailing their rigs over the submerged remnants of San Francisco’s Marina Green and Fisherman’s Wharf unless the world finds a way to stop climate change soon.

A new study led by scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) spells out the harsh local realities of that otherwise amorphous and distant concept called “global warming.” Rising sea levels, extreme weather, possible long-term droughts, and the ravaging effects of rising heat and salinity may dramatically change the face of the San Francisco Bay Delta watershed.

Delta view

Climate change threatens the California Delta, which provides water and irrigation for crops. (Photo courtesy of www.csac.counties.org.)

In these tough times, it’s hard to get anyone to look seriously beyond the next year or two. But the need to deal with impending climate change became all the more urgent last week with the release of new data by the U.S. Department of Energy showing that global greenhouse gas emissions jumped 6 percent in 2010, exceeding the worst-case scenarios modeled by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007.

At that time, the scientific consensus called for global temperatures to rise between 4 and 11 degrees F by 2010.

The new USGS-led report shines a spotlight on the local stakes. Potentially at risk is the source of drinking water to 25 million people, the supply of irrigation water for $36 billion in annual crops, and the 270,000 people and $62 billion worth of development that could be displaced or drowned by a sea-level rise of three to four feet.

Projected warming also will reduce snow accumulation, decrease hydropower generation, devastate many native plants and animals, increase wildfires, and threaten human health.

Many of these problems may arrive not gradually but with a bang. As the report notes, “today’s extremes could become tomorrow’s norms.” Planners must “anticipate shifts into regimes of environmental conditions unprecedented in the period of our social and economic development,” it warns.

California is taking a leadership role in combating global warming, but unless the rest of the world joins in, we may face a brave new (warmer) world in coming decades. This new report is a powerful wakeup call that we had better start planning for it now.

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