“It Won’t Happen Here”: The Unforgiving Reality of Climate Change

Fall 2020 — Special Topics #3

When you hear the phrase “climate change,” do scenes such as raging fires, devastating hurricanes, rising sea levels, and abandoned cities play in your head? Yeah, me too. These cinematic depictions taken from news clips or Netflix documentaries are so sensational that they almost have no anchor in what is true. The reality of our situation, teetering on the edge of some unending void of hopelessness, is suppressed based on the sensation. As I have written before, Americans are selfish and we tend not to heed warnings that we don’t believe will have a direct impact on us, our property, or livelihood, or our immediate loved ones. The examples offered to us in mass media are not tangible or small-scale enough to be truly relatable.

As an American, and someone who needs concrete examples of the effects of climate change on my immediate surroundings to express true empathy toward the matter, I became curious about how climate change may affect that place we all love and hate — Berkeley & the Bay Area.

A view from Sausalito shows a smokey haze settling over the Golden Gate Bridge. Photo by SF Gate.

One of the distinct and memorable threats of climate change if you’ve lived in Berkeley any of the past three years is wildfire season. Although Berkeley has not faced a large scale fire since the 1991 Oakland Firestorm, the city does suffer heavily from smoke and ash pollutants that carry right over the Berkeley hills, settling in and coating the area with a thick layer of ashy, smokey barely-breathable air. Berkeley often experiences power shut offs on high-wind days and the University has cancelled school both due to poor air quality and power shut offs. Fire seasons in California will continue to lengthen with drier forests due to drought and higher temperatures. San Francisco could go from 12 days a year of 80+ degree temperature to 70 or 90 days a year. San Francisco’s lack of heat history actually leaves residents more vulnerable as they lack resources to bear the heat such as air conditioning or cool zones, as compared to San Diego or Los Angeles. Higher temperatures can also cause urban heat islands filled with concrete and asphalt and lack of vegetation. Infectious disease risks also increase in extreme heat.

A illustration of worst-case scenario sea level rise in the Bay Area by 2100. Photo via the 2011 SPUR Climate Change Report.

Another trope of climate change is rising sea level. Berkeley, California rests right on the San Francisco Bay. The SF chronicle projects that in a worst-case scenario (which we seem to be heading toward), we will experience 2.7 feet of sea level rise by 2050 and 10.2 feet of sea level rise along the shoreline. That’s over 20,000 households and 13m miles of highway, as reported by the New York Times. This will effectively put the Berkeley Marina underwater, as well as downtown Emeryville and parts of the Eastshore Freeway. On top of this, rising sea levels lead to higher risks of flooding and storm surges. Most of San Francisco and even the Oakland airport would be engulfed with 3 feet of water rise. On top of this, both droughts and winter storms will become more common. The rising sea levels, in combination with pollution, toxify water supplies and ocean food chains, causing many animals to starve.

Perhaps you follow Karl the Fog on Twitter or Instagram? Well, even his life is threatened by Climate Change, with the potential for the coastal fog so common to Berkeley to become less so. A 2014 Berkeley found decreases in fog levels.

View from the Berkeley Hills as fog settles in the Bay. Photo via Berkeley Center for Long-Term Cyber Security.

So what about less ecological impacts of climate change? What about infrastructure and the economy? Increasing numbers of individuals will be displaced from their places of residence due annual fire damage and increasing sea levels and flooding. Unfortunately, many government and project officials ignore climate change risks to encourage individuals to live on unsafe land. As the crisis continues, this deceit will no longer be possible. Individuals will have to move inland to less habitable areas as they are pushed away from shorelines and fire zones. Unfortunately, as the California population increases, the state is running out of habitable space, also causing affordable housing shortages. Furthermore, home and land owners may be mandated to fire-proof their space such as clearing vegetation out 30 feet around residences. This strain on housing will affect vulnerable populations such as the low-income, the elderly and the young with less ability to cope and recover from environmental disasters.

More large scale corporations are shifting to renewable clean energy, with California’s goal of 100% clean energy by 2045. Over half of the state’s energy is from renewable sources. Many startups in the Bay advocate and offer solar and windmill options for Bay Area residents. Recently, governor Gavin Newsom signed an executive order requiring all passenger vehicles sold in California to be zero-emission by 2035. More electric vehicle charging stations are needed across the bay.

A proposal for a car lane that charges electric vehicles as they drive. Artist’s rendering from NBC Technology.

The peril of climate change hits you in odd ways. It hits you multiple ways multiple times. For me, my most recent ‘oh-shit’ moment was when I went wine tasting in the wine region of New South Wales after the summer of the 2020 Australian Bushfires. One of the owners of the winery told our group that they had lost their whole crop of grapes for the year. I was confused because the fire had not come anywhere near the winery. However, smoke travels and the smoke from hundreds of miles away settled upon the wine valley and ruined the taste of the grapes. The grapes had developed a smokey flavor — ridiculously unsuitable for wine-making.

The Bay Area has long been a leader in the green movement. Still, with its size and population, California is the second highest polluter of greenhouse gas in all 50 states. Us little people can combat climate change individually by voting and advocating for climate-friendly policies in government, avoiding air travel (especially during Covid-19), walking and biking, and eating less meat. Furthermore, the individual voice is only strengthened by joining climate-focused organizations such as The Sierra Club, EarthJustice, the GreenBelt Alliance, the California Environmental Justice Alliance, SF Environment, along with many others.


  1. 350 Bay Area is a SF-based grassroots movement focused on deep CO2 emission reduction
  2. Virtual Berkeley City Council Meetings are a great opportunity ask questions about what the city is doing to combat climate change during Covid-19 as well as city-specific questions
  3. The 2011 SPUR Report offers adaptation strategies for climate change in the San Francisco Bay Area

Author: Mary Ford | Editor: Serena Lowe | Graphics: Natalie Chu | Team: Social Good

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