Hot Enough for You?

While surviving the latest heat wave, now’s a good time to consider the big picture of our over-heated planet.

We humans live comfortably in a very narrow temperature range and the world’s population (and most plants) cannot evolve their high temperature tolerance fast enough to compensate for the stress of increasing global warming. When temperatures reach, for long periods of time, over 120-130 degrees, human societies grind to a halt. While air conditioning, working at night, living underground are possible, adaptive responses, certain activities (farming, construction, sports, tourism) require being outdoors, thus they become impossible at those temperatures and migration begins.

Essentially global warming is cooking people out of the center of the planet where the critical temperatures are starting to peak sooner and more often than in the mid latitudes. While any prediction of such changes must be hedged with many caveats, the big picture is already emerging. First in overheated locales, people migrate toward bodies of water where temperatures are lower and more stable. Santa Monica’s beach summer traffic is a manifestation of this effect. Some people may migrate up mountains seeking, often seasonally, cooler ambients but eventually, when the coastal zones are saturated (or restrained by sea level rise), large populations will start big permanent migrations.

So in the next century, China’s population will probably move to Siberia, Mexico’s to the US (wall or no wall), the US’ to Canada, Canada’s to Alaska, Europe’s to Greenland (remember it use to be green) etc. etc. These migrations will be northward because that’s where the land is, and because the southern hemisphere is mostly water. Such predictions may sound preposterous, but approximately 14,000 years ago humans migrated from the Aleutians to Tiera del Fuego. Now future generations will reverse that path using airplanes and vehicles instead of snow shoes and canoes. The migration of peoples (like animals and plants) is a natural phenomenon that won’t magically stop with the creation of national borders.

In other words Global Warming is not a crisis that will somehow end in the lifetime of everyone alive today: it’s the new normal for everyone in any foreseeable future.

The biggest unknown is the “rate” of displacement. Is this movement happening over 10 generations or two generations? In Santa Monica’s case, how many years will it be before Santa Monica’s climate feels like Ensenada and our neighbors in the San Fernando Valley feels like Phoenix? How many decades do we have till sea level rise caused by global warming erases our distinctive beaches? Given this uncertainty, Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow (SMa.r.t.), feel that it would be prudent to plan today for a rapid rate of displacement rather than a slower luckier outcome.

Here’s what can be done today to increase the probability of our city’s future stability and survival:

  1. Keep planting drought tolerant big canopy trees as street trees and private property trees. Trees, through shading and transpiration, can reduce ambient temperatures by 10 degrees in dry climates making a big impact on the livability of our city. It’s not unusual for a tree, properly cared for to live 100-plus years so they have long term benefits on the appropriate time scale under consideration.
  2. Maintain our role as Los Angeles’s playground and lungs. Our neighbors already flock to our city because it’s 20-plus degrees cooler than inland, and because we have the Expo line, which makes it easier to arrive than by freeway. What we need now is a low cost or free beach bus circulator that distributes this flood of beachgoers to all our beaches.
  3. Continue expanding our dedicated bike lanes. Cars with their exhausts and radiators are movable heaters frying our city everywhere they go. Even electric cars, while much more efficient, are heating up someone else’s neighborhood wherever their recharging generating plant and transmission lines are located. Our relatively flat city with good weather is a natural for bikes. The main disincentive is people do not feel safe riding bikes. This can be addressed primarily by more dedicated lanes just for bicycles.
  4. Require 2-story buildings to be energy neutral, and 4 story buildings to get 50 percent of their energy from renewable sources. The City has already committed to single family residences meeting this standard, but now is the time to extend it to all 2 story buildings. The critical component is a solar rights ordinance so your neighbor cannot shade your solar collectors.
  5. Prepare a beach survival plan identifying which items must be sequentially relocated, hardened, or removed, as the sea level rises and/or Tsunamis alter beach topography. PCH will need particular protection.
  6. Continue the drive for water neutrality. With one third of our water imported, and continued growth and development, in spite of heroic conservation efforts, sooner than later new sources will need to be found. There can be increased storm water retention and distribution, or dual piping new buildings, recycling purified storm and sewer water, and desalinization. The last two will require a plant whose land should be selected now and land banked for future use. Desalinized water has a host of ecological issues and currently costs twice what imported water costs, so it’s probably the least ready, but technology can change and we should be ready for its viability.

Clearly Santa Monica cannot solve the world’s global warming problems alone just as we can’t solve the region’s housing problems alone, but we can do our local share and can temper the effects of others’ profligacy. It just requires moving faster down a path that Santa Monica has already made good progress on.

By Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA for Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow