During high tides in Santa Cruz, the San Lorenzo River rises dangerously high. Water seeps through the gravel-y underground sediment around the river levees by the clock tower, possibly even flooding downtown. The Santa Cruz Harbor and the Beach Boardwalk are in peril whenever a big winter storm rolls in.
This could be Santa Cruz’s future in the decades to come, according to a 2011 climate change analysis from UCSC professor Gary Griggs.
It’s a possibility that, with sea levels rising, feels more real than ever. But experts raising the alarm about the slow-motion cataclysm have only recently begun to make headway against systemic complacency. Now they fear that a Donald Trump presidency and Republican-controlled Congress could undermine what marginal progress has been made to adapt to—let alone prevent—climate change.
“Trump’s election could not have come at a worse time, and it will doubtless add inches, if not feet, to the eventual height of the planet’s oceans,” renowned environmentalist and author Bill McKibben says. “That’s how close to the edge we are.”
Unchecked emissions of heat-trapping gases over the past century have profoundly altered the Earth’s climate, elevating sea levels and blighting ecosystems, such as coral reefs. The world’s average temperature has risen by more than 1 degree Fahrenheit since 1900. This year will go down as the hottest on record. Sea levels along the California coast have risen more than 8 inches in the past century. And yet, the president-elect has vowed to overhaul the nation’s direction on climate and energy by withdrawing from the landmark Paris Agreement, which seeks to limit the effects of global warming through drastic emissions cuts and socio-structural adaptations. The accord, ratified by the majority of the 197 signatory countries, marks the first time the U.S. has agreed to collaborate with the rest of the world on climate change.
Trump has also suggested dismantling the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The New York City real estate mogul famously tweeted about global warming being a Chinese “hoax” designed to make U.S. manufacturing less competitive. He nominated Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, a climate change denier himself, as head of the EPA.
Trump’s critics worry that his election may spell the end for President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Act, which allocates $2 billion in grants to promote investments in clean energy and requires coal mines to clean up or close up shop. Or that he may open up public lands to fracking, ignite a resurgence of science denial, and squelch the political will to fund anything remotely linked to environmentalism. Once in office, Trump could make many of these changes unilaterally. His appointees could approve pipelines and issue drilling permits. They could scuttle regulations for smog and coal ash.
The impending ideological shift in the White House may require California and local governments to double down on fighting the causes and effects of climate change, says Mark Jacobson, a professor of environmental engineering at Stanford University.
“I think the Trump administration will try to cut all climate change research, including for adaptation, in the U.S.,” he says. “This could affect the work of federal employees and many of those dependent on federal grants for research.”
Thankfully, Jacobson says, his own work on developing renewable energy solutions requires no federal funding. If anything, he plans to redouble his efforts. But slashing funds for climate change will hurt graduate students, who rely on federal grants.
“California, nonprofits and individuals will hopefully take up the slack,” he says.
South Carolina Republican Bob Inglis, a former congressman from the reddest district in the reddest state, says there’s a chance Trump could boost the clean energy market.
“I think it’s totally unpredictable,” says Inglis, head of conservative climate action nonprofit RepublicEn. “Al Gore was meeting with Ivanka Trump, and her dad joined the meeting. What that means for climate change—who knows?”
After all, Inglis points out, it was Republican President Richard Nixon who mended relations with socialist China. It was Democratic President Bill Clinton who scuttled welfare protections for the poor. It was purportedly progressive President Barack Obama who ramped up deportations to record-breaking numbers. Could President-elect Donald Trump, an ideologically inconsistent Republican, promote sustainability as a path to energy independence?
“He may surprise us,” Inglis says, adding that he’s holding out hope. “Maybe Trump will be the one who takes on climate change.”
Inglis is part of a growing coalition of conservative climate champions who are trying to rally Republicans behind renewable energy as free-market solutions to a warming planet. The former lawmaker flatly denied climate change until his children persuaded him to take a closer look at the science. That change of heart exacted a political price, costing a re-election in 2010 after 12 years in Congress. The next generation of Republicans, however, seems more receptive.
“Young conservatives are our best audience,” Inglis says. “They plan on living a while.”
Newly elected City Councilmember Chris Krohn says there’s a lot Santa Cruz leaders can do on the climate change front—both cutting emissions and reducing the threatening impacts that climate change poses to the community. Krohn would like to see Santa Cruz plant more trees, protect its marshes, require solar panels on new buildings, make water restrictions last year-round, and encourage people to turn off their sprinkler systems, like he did.
“My lawn went from brown to green, almost like leaves falling off a tree, as soon as it became October,” says Krohn, who also served on the council 15 years ago and works for UCSC’s sustainability program.
The City of Santa Cruz adopted a Climate Action Plan in 2012 to cut emissions 30 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050—going above and beyond regulations signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006. Some critics at the time derided the city’s plan for not being ambitious enough, but the city is spending $18 million, according to its budget, on environmental projects ranging from water sustainability to transportation, and the city looks poised to meet its target.
California has long stood out as a national leader in cutting carbon pollution. Its auto emissions standards are among the more rigorous in the nation. While the state passed its 2006 law, Congress has failed to pass a single bill in the past decade that tackles climate change.
Even with a Democrat in the White House, only modest progress has been made. Secretary of State John Kerry boasted last month that wind and solar power have grown 30-fold under Obama’s tenure, but they still generate little more than 5 percent of the nation’s energy, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Chances of renewables beefing up their share of the national energy market look dismal under the incoming administration, which has cozied up to the coal and gas industries. Trump’s incoming chief of staff, Reince Priebus, clarified that Trump’s “default position” on climate change is that “most of it is a bunch of bunk.”
The Golden State has one of the most comprehensive energy efficiency rules on a vast range of applications, including new construction and kitchen appliances. California rolled out one of its own cap-and-trade programs that forces power plants, factories and refineries to pay to pollute.
More local efforts may have their limits. Here in Santa Cruz, as the city prepared to approve its Climate Action Plan four years ago, climate activist Michael Levy helped organize an underwater tour of downtown, complete with sea anemone costumes, people in wetsuits, a big bicycle-pulled boat, and song re-writes, like “Sitting on the Dock of the Highway.”
In the years since, Levy, a private music teacher who’s recording an album about climate change, has found that in order to have a big impact, you sometimes have to work on the national level. He has gotten involved with nationwide movements, even marching in Washington D.C. to protest the Keystone XL oil pipeline that Obama eventually halted.
“The United States could risk becoming a rogue nation where the rest of the world works on climate change, and we ignore it,” Levy says. “Who knows what Trump really thinks, but a lot of his cabinet picks are very, very pro-business. There’s such a strange level of denial from these guys. Eventually, it will all come crashing down.”
Additional reporting contributed by Jacob Pierce.