Jeff Smith noon, Nov. 25
Studies on population increase, climate change 'collide' at public talk
The World Resources Simulation Center on the evening of March 7 played host to a discussion of what Center director Peter Meisen termed “an oncoming collision” of projections – one from the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) on the region’s projected population growth through the year 2050, and another from the San Diego Foundation on the expected effects of climate change in the region over the same period.
The discussion is part of San Diego Green Scene, a broader series of once-a-month events at the Center focusing on various issues affecting sustainability in the region.
Clint Daniels with SANDAG presented projections from the 13th Regional Growth Forecast, a document that has been updated approximately every four years since the early seventies.
Over the next forty years, Daniels said, population within the state is expected to grow by 13 million, to a total of 50 million people. Six percent of that growth will occur in San Diego County, meaning SANDAG anticipates roughly 950,000 additional residents during that time, growth of about a third based on current population and requiring another 333,000 housing units to be built (75 percent of which are expected to be placed in already-developed areas through urban infill and increased density projects).
An item of concern presented by Daniels was a projection showing that 60 percent of the new population would be aged 50 or older, based on expectations that birth rates in the region would decline and a portion of younger residents would depart for more affordable locales, leaving behind a smaller percentage of working-age individuals to support the local economy.
“This is what we refer to as an age pyramid,” Daniels explained, pointing to a graph shaped more like an hourglass. Most elder-care benefits, such as Social Security and Medicare, depend on an actual pyramid-shaped structure, with a large base of young people effectively supporting a smaller, tapering group at the top. Demand for local services and benefits would be stressed based on the projection showing larger numbers of children and elderly requiring care than workers to provide or pay for those services.
Another issue that had Daniels worried was the growth of the Hispanic population, expected to rise from comprising 32 percent of the region in 2010 to 48 percent by 2050.
“Fifty-five percent of Hispanics don’t have a high school diploma,” said Daniels, though he later revised that figure to 38 percent based on a chart error. “I look at this as the red light that says we’ve got to do something,” he continued, advocating outreach programs to improve education rates among that demographic to fill the expected job growth in the professional services, health, and education fields that SANDAG’s projections show will replace manufacturing and the military in the region.
Low wage work in the leisure and hospitality industries, however, is expected to remain strong. Overall, the organization expects to add 479,000 jobs through the study’s duration.
Daniels’s talk concluded with a question session that included some heckling from the crowd about SANDAG’s Regional Transit Plan, which detractors have said fails to focus on transit as a solution to offset excess carbon emissions from population growth. Daniels repeated organization responses denying that the Plan was “back-loaded” to prioritize freeway expansion before transit improvements, and that increased growth was something to be welcomed, not feared.
“I’m a little bit of an optimist. I view population growth as a positive.”
Nicola Hedge, manager of the San Diego Foundation’s Climate Initiative, presented her organization’s projections on regional climate change through 2050, based on “input from over 40 technical experts and scientists,” and including SANDAG’s population growth and density numbers. The report was issued in 2007, and an update based on new numbers is in process.
What the county is expected to look like in 40 years absent a significant local and global change in emissions and energy generation methods, Hedge says, can be summed up simply: hotter and drier.
The San Diego Foundation expects average temperatures across the county to rise 1.5 to 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit, water shortages to develop and worsen as outside sources of water including snow pack in Northern California decline and the Colorado River loses between six and 45 percent of its flow rate (Daniels stressed at several points, however, that the local water authority has said water availability should not be a hindrance to expanded future development), and wildfires to continue to increase in both frequency and intensity. Heat waves in inland areas such as eastern Chula Vista are expected to triple in frequency, particularly placing children and the elderly at risk, and ocean levels are expected to rise between 12 and 18 inches. This alone would be sufficient to wipe out as much as a third of beachfront along the coast, put many beach area streets beneath the mean high tide line, and create a situation where flooding of entire communities such as Mission Beach could be considered “moderately common.”
When the study was prepared, however, the massive slowdown in development due to the worldwide economic downturn was not anticipated, so a new study may revise these numbers downward somewhat, meaning models for 2050 expectations could actually take several years longer to realize.
There were some positive developments locally, Hedge said. Nineteen local government agencies have performed greenhouse gas emission studies as of 2012, and 11 have climate action plans in some stage of development or implementation.
A recent study finds that eight in ten San Diegans believe climate change is real (though its cause is a source of much greater debate), seven in ten believe the region should be a leader in emission reduction programs, and eight in ten believe it’s possible to have both a healthy environment and a strong economy.
As many as one in ten jobs in the region’s future economy, Hedge believes, could be environment-related or tied to “clean tech” industries, a developing field in which local companies have been asserting a foothold.