Climate Change in California: San Francisco Faces Rising Seas

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Recently, my colleagues Somini Sengupta and Chang W. Lee traveled to two very different cities, Manila and San Francisco, with one big thing in common: They’ve been forced to adapt to rising seas. They explored how in this expansive, beautiful and unsettling project.

We asked Somini to write about how the piece came together. Here’s her dispatch:

We’ve all read dire projections of how rising global temperatures are raising sea levels.

I wanted to better understand what that means for people in coastal cities right now. Not in the distant future, but right now. I chose sprawling, fast-growing Metropolitan Manila and the San Francisco Bay Area.

I grew up in California, though very far from the ocean, in the flat, inland suburb of Covina. Like many Californians, I thought living by the ocean would be dreamy, and until recently I had not really give much thought to the risks we have inherited by building right up to the water’s edge. Houses, highways, sewer mains: They’re now at risk. Saving them means building costly walls and barriers — or moving people and property out of harm’s way. Those are hard choices.

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Reporting this story sharpened three lessons for me. First, the hazards of the present are shaped by decisions of the past. According to the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, more than 20,000 households and 13 miles of highway are at risk of permanent inundation with two feet of sea level rise.

Second, climate change has starkly unequal impacts. How you face the rising sea, I wrote, “depends mostly on the accident of birth,” whether your property is worth millions or is little more than a tin roof.

Third, dealing with the impact of sea level rise means not just moving people away from hazardous parts of the coast, but reimagining these sprawling, car-congested metropolitan areas altogether.

My photographer colleague, Chang W. Lee, and I planned our reporting days in the Bay Area to avoid the chockablock traffic on Highway 101. (We were not always successful.)

In Manila, we rode tricycle cabs, hired a boat to get around a few times, and sat in traffic for hours. Commutes are typically two hours or more each way. Housing is scarce and expensive in both places.

I heard experts press for a climate solution that on its face has nothing to do with sea level rise: Build more dense, affordable housing, they said, close to jobs, schools and public transportation. That’s politically difficult, including in the Bay Area.

Two weeks before Super Tuesday, a new poll from the Public Policy Institute of California showed Senator Bernie Sanders leading the field of Democratic presidential contenders in the Golden State. He was the choice for 32 percent of likely primary voters, while 14 percent picked Joe Biden, 13 percent supported Senator Elizabeth Warren and 12 percent each supported Michael Bloomberg and Pete Buttigieg.

Last month, the survey showed the race at almost a three-way tie with 27 percent supporting Mr. Sanders, 24 percent supporting Mr. Biden and 23 percent supporting Ms. Warren.

Read more about how the battle for California’s 20 million voters started early this year. [The New York Times]

And here’s what to know about registering to vote. [The New York Times]

  • The president landed in California for the fourth time in his presidency on Tuesday, where he met with organizers of the 2028 Olympics and attended a fund-raiser. [The Los Angeles Times]

  • After London Breed, San Francisco’s mayor, disclosed that she and Mohammed Nuru, the ex-Public Works director, briefly dated and were longtime friends, she said on Tuesday that accepting $5,600 in gifts from him was a lapse in judgment. [The San Francisco Chronicle]

  • Representative Devin Nunes, the Fresno-area lawmaker, excluded The Fresno Bee from a water discussion with a top federal official. Observers said it was troubling that a lawmaker would bar his hometown paper from an event. [The Fresno Bee]

  • If you missed it, Los Angeles’s district attorney announced that her office had dismissed 66,000 marijuana convictions in the county, effectively erasing the felony records of 22,000 people. [The Los Angeles Times]

If you missed it, here’s more about why the process of clearing marijuana convictions across the state is complicated. [The New York Times]

  • Graduate students at the University of California, Santa Cruz, have said they plan to continue to strike even after Janet Napolitano, the U.C. president, said teaching assistants must turn in grades by Friday or risk being fired. [Santa Cruz Sentinel]

Here’s why students started the wildcat strike. [The New York Times]

  • School districts, particularly ones with large Asian populations, are grappling with fear and how to comply with federal guidelines for students who have traveled to China amid the coronavirus outbreak. [California Healthline]

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