After several years of droughts, floods and fires, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors passed a nonbinding resolution in September acknowledging the role of climate change in the events and highlighting the need for increased local action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
However, local activists and a climate-science expert at Sonoma State University say the county's emergency resolution, similar to resolutions passed by a handful of other local jurisdictions, does not sufficiently meet the challenge of climate change.
In the past several months, local groups joined an international movement pushing for governments at all levels to treat climate change as a current threat to society rather than as an issue that can be ameliorated by reducing emissions over the next several decades.
On Sept. 17, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution "endorsing the declaration of a climate emergency and immediate emergency mobilization to restore a safe climate." Petaluma and Windsor passed similar declarations. Sebastopol and Santa Rosa are expected to consider similar resolutions soon.
While jurisdictions in Marin and Napa counties have been slower to pass similar resolutions, some residents are pushing them to do so.
But activists ask: Will the declarations change anything? Not fast enough, according to Dr. José Hernández Ayala.
Hernández Ayala, a climate scientist at Sonoma State University, compared the county's recent emergency declaration to a New Years Resolution and noted the goals set are not sufficiently urgent.
"We're saying we're not going to eat as much and we're going to do a lot of exercise," he says. "We make all of these promises that we really want to be reality but, at the end of the day, there's nothing really forcing us to actually achieve those things."
During their discussion of the resolution on Sept. 17, several supervisors seemed to agree the resolution is inadequate; however, they did not immediately amend it.
"The verbs are incredibly passive," said District 3 Supervisor Shirlee Zane, of the resolution. "It needs to go well beyond 'explore' and 'coordinate.'"
District 5 Supervisor Lynda Hopkins went somewhat further.
"This is scary stuff and we have to stop acting as if business as usual is cutting it, because it's not," Hopkins said. "We need a transformation ... we really have 10 years to dramatically transform ourselves into a post-carbon economy."
The current resolution won't meet that high bar, according to Hernández Ayala and other local climate activists.
The supervisors also discussed creating a new, ad hoc committee to focus on possible actions to address climate change. It was not clear at the end of the meeting when they will form the committee or when they will amend the resolution.
Supervisor Hopkins did not immediately respond to a request for comment about what specific amendments she would like to see made to the resolution.
This year, activism around climate action increased in urgency.
Around the world, groups like Extinction Rebellion and the Sunrise Movement took to the streets en-masse to push for immediate action on climate change.
On Sept. 20, hundreds of students and adults in Sonoma County participated in the Climate Strike, a worldwide movement that called on students to leave school that Friday to draw urgency to the issue.
The Sunrise Movement, a national organization with regional chapters which organized strikes nationwide, advances the idea of shaming politicians into taking immediate action on climate change. Politicians, they argue, are negligent in sitting idly by while the earth continues to heat, setting off a chain of negative consequences.
Christine Byrne, organizer of the Sunrise Movement's Sonoma County Hub, says the current crop of climate activists is more prone to anger than previous generations of activists.
Byrne says they should keep the focus on systemic change, with a focus on those profiting from carbon emissions.
In 2017, a report by the nonprofit CDP concluded that just 100 companies are accountable for 71 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions since 1988.
"It's good for us in our individual lives to take some ownership [for our lifestyles.] ... but more and more, especially young people, are recognizing that they as individuals did not create this problem," Byrne says. Instead, a select group of businesses and the politicians who enable them are to blame.
That causes anger among young people who realize they will live with the cascading damage of climate change for the rest of their lives.
The Regional Climate Protection Authority, a body that coordinates the actions of governments within Sonoma County, developed the template behind recent emergency resolutions passed in Sonoma County. The resolutions differ slightly, but all commit the signatories to participate in "the development and implementation of the 2030 Climate Emergency Mobilization Strategy."
Once completed, the "Strategy will identify key local actions, including a list of the most impactful local policies to drive system changes and identify key areas for state level advocacy," according to a staff report.
Pete Gang, a member of Climate Emergency Resolution Santa Rosa, a group pushing Sonoma County governments to pass emergency resolutions, says the county's current resolution isn't sufficient.
"The current resolution before you is a good first step, but as it is understood this morning, it is timid and doesn't go nearly far enough," Gang said at the Sept. 17 Board of Supervisors meeting.
However, a truly comprehensive climate emergency resolution would set a goal of zero net emissions by 2030 or sooner, Gang said at the meeting.
The county's resolution acknowledges that "an urgent global climate mobilization effort to reverse global warming is needed to achieve zero net emissions as quickly as possible," but does not set a date for reaching the milestone. Last September, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed an executive order calling on the state to reach carbon neutrality by 2045 at the latest. Brown's order is nonbinding.
The goal local activists call for—zero net emissions—means eliminating all current and future emissions and removing man-made emissions already in the atmosphere, rather than just reducing future emissions to zero. Put simply, it's a higher bar than the state's current goal.
The difference is crucial, says. Hernández Ayala, because of the damage already done by man-made emissions already in the atmosphere, which fuel a dangerous feedback loop of damage.
"Even if we stopped all of this today, the sea levels will continue to increase. The planet will continue to warm up. Now we're in damage control," Hernández Ayala says.
If humans keep pumping gases into the atmosphere until 2045, even at a reduced rate, it will make the situation that much worse.
After passing the emergency declaration ordinance unanimously, the discussion amongst the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors turned to the potential cost of the actions and other competing county projects.
Board Chair David Rabbitt said the county laid off nine county staff members this year due to budget shortfalls.
"This is a tough budget year," Rabbitt said.
Hernández Ayala suggests local governments take a bolder approach to the problem of financing climate action, keeping in mind that large investments in resiliency and efficiency now could potentially reduce future expenses incurred from natural disasters.
He has pushed local politicians to declare a legally binding state of emergency around climate change similar to the declarations the supervisors passed after the October 2017 North Bay fires and March 2019 West County floods.
Although he admits local leaders met his proposal with some skepticism by, Hernández Ayala argues there is no downside to trying it.
In an ideal world, declaring a state of emergency would open state and federal coffers for climate change measures, similar to the way FEMA money floods—albeit more slowly than disaster survivors would like—into regions affected by disasters.
At the very least, such an action would start conversations, Hernández Ayala says. If state and federal officials decided not to release any money, they would have to defend their decision.
Napa and Marin County Proposals
To date, Napa and Marin county governments have yet to pass any climate emergency resolutions. However, there are early signs they may face pressure to do so.
The Napa Valley Unified School District Board of Education adopted a "Call to Climate Change Action" this May and the activist group Napa Climate NOW! prepared an emergency resolution for consideration by the county, according to the Napa Valley Register.
In Marin County, emergency declarations are slow to get off the ground, but there may be hope yet.
"So far, in Marin County the only city to pass a Climate Emergency Declaration is Fairfax; we want Mill Valley to be the next, with the goal of getting all other Marin County towns to follow suit," the Mill Valley Community Action Network announced in a newsletter on Monday.