How San Diego Is Getting Climate Right

For many people, “getting” climate change is an epiphany. They’ve been in doubt or denial for years. Then, all of a sudden – wham – it hits them. They realize that the seasons and weather they around them really are changing. They confront a new reality for the first time: we have a big problem on our hands.

Then they are amazed. Why doesn’t everyone get climate change, they wonder? Every government, university, religious faith, scientific organization – even the fossil fuel companies – says that climate change real and caused by burning fossil fuels. Everybody knows that burning things poisons the air and water. Anyone can look at simple temperature data for their own city and see the trends.

Then, they take action, and try to get others to do the same. They lean in, learn more, get a Prius and try to convince their groups and friends to pay attention. Maybe they even join an environmental group. And then they start trying to get others to do the same. If we just get the word out, they reason, then others will also come to realize that climate change is the dominant issue of our time — probably of all time.

When San Diego leaned in a couple years back, it looked like this:




The epiphany moment is right there on the cover: “A Regional Wake-Up Call.” Open the page, and they hit you with the realities: It’s going to be hotter and drier; sea levels are going to rise; we’re going to have water shortages and more wildfires. San Diego even printed the call on a dead, grey, colorless background to communicate the severity of the problem. They got the facts right, presented them in in a straightforward, rational manner, and got the word out.

But it didn’t quite seem to have the desired impact. This failing of the rational appeal for common sense and action presents an unmovable obstacle for some. If the facts and reality don’t move people on climate, what will?

At this point, San Diego had three choices:

1. Keep trying! Go with variations of the same strategy. Examples: maps, quotes, better pictures of the impacts and potential devastation.
2. Retreat into some combination of fatalism and resignation. Believe that America won’t change until the problem becomes a crisis or a catastrophe.
3. Make the leap away from explaining the problem and consequences to an alternative strategy.

The San Diego Foundation decided to go with option #3. Emily Young, their V.P. for Environmental Initiatives and Nicole Hedge, Director of Climate Initiatives, teamed up with Steve Alexander of The Steve Alexander Group, and began listening. They interviewed dozens of local leaders and discovered that the vast majority were concerned about climate change, but thought that their peers were not.

Knowing that we are all more motivated by positive energy rather than negative, and by people we know and trust, the team set about trying to build community collaboration to address climate change. From the new guiding brochure…

2014_focus2050report_lowres-1 1


If you don’t live in San Diego, you probably won’t recognize all the people on the cover and almost every other page of this cornerstone document. They’ve got the Mayor, the President of the Chamber of Commerce, the Chairman of the City Council, local business, health and military leaders, all delivering the same message, “We know climate change is real and we’re doing something about it.” The document even highlights how doing something about climate change is bringing positive benefits to the community.
Instead of gloom and doom, the San Diego Foundation is turning climate change into an opportunity for shared responsibility that can bring the community together. This model will be far more successful in building support for the mitigation and preparation steps San Diego needs to take in order to successfully respond to climate change. Future generations of San Diegans will be better off for it. And so will the rest of the country, if other cities will just take a page from San Diego’s book.

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