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Editorial: Putting the ‘action’ in climate action


Sonoma, meet the golden toad, a bright orange salientian – a wide-eyed rascal, slippery to the touch, and cute as a bug’s ear.

First discovered in 1964, the species has only ever been found in a remote, high-altitude region of Costa Rica, where as many as 1,500 have lived in the lower-altitude climes of an elfin cloud forest, an area less than two miles in radius. The glowing little hoppers would spend most of their 10-year lifespans in moist underground burrows, emerging for about a week in the spring to mate in pools of rainwater amid the twisted tree root. Ecologist Martha Crump, who studied them for decades, described them in her book, “In Search of the Golden Frog,” as “dazzling jewels on the forest floor.” The dazzle, however, wouldn’t last.

In 1987, during a particularly parched El Nino season, Crump observed a bitter drying of the rain pools, leaving behind “desiccated eggs… covered in mold.” Of the 43,500 eggs she counted, 29 hatched surviving tadpoles.

In 1988, fewer than a dozen toads emerged; the year after, only one. The golden toad has not been seen since – and bears the ill-fated distinction of being named in 2004 as the first species made extinct by human-caused global climate change.

The untimely demise of the golden toad would seem to have little to do with Sonoma. And yet it has everything to do with Sonoma – and all Sonomas, everywhere.

On Aug. 15, the Sonoma City Council tabled a discussion, and possible action, on the county’s Climate Action 2020, a regional plan to meet state-mandated greenhouse-gas emission reduction goals tied to eligibility for state funding.

The council on that Monday was set to consider the plan, plus eight additional Sonoma-specific GHG-lowering measures council members had previously suggested, as part of the County’s and its nine cities’ effort to achieve a 25 percent percent reduction in GHGs below 1990 levels by 2020. That’s even more ambitious than the state’s requirement to simply meet 1990 levels, as required by AB32. (Another bill in the works, SB32 would require counties to be 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.)

Climate Action 2020 is the result of a global-warming-countering effort Sonoma County embarked upon in 2005, when local officials made a very public vow to mitigate GHGs at a time when AB32 was working its way through the legislature and the concept of climate change was shifting in much of the public’s eye from “theory” to “scientifically accepted reality.”

But to borrow from Robert Burns, the best laid plans of mice, men – and city councils – often go awry. That’s what happened when Sebastopol-based environmental watchdogs California River Watch filed a lawsuit earlier that week challenging the County’s Climate Action Plan environmental impact report findings.

River Watch’s challenge comes down to its contention that Climate Action 2020 is willfully ignoring the greenhouse gas emissions created by the county’s fast-growing tourist-industry – including vehicle miles traveled outside the county as a result of tourism (air miles and long-distance trucking, for instance). River Watch alleges the county’s true GHG emissions are far greater than acknowledged in the report, rendering the GHG mitigating measures wholly insufficient to reach the county’s goals.

With the status of Climate Action 2020 up in the air, the Sonoma City Council pulled discussion of its climate priorities from the meeting agenda.

Given the somewhat coincidental timing of the council’s 2020 discussion coming on the heels of the quick-in-succession release of the plan’s EIR and River Watch’s subsequent legal challenge, the council made the right decision in pressing pause on its GHG emissions proposals. No one at the meeting knew exactly what the ramifications of the lawsuit, if any, held toward moving forward with CA2020, and the council took city staff’s advice in tabling the item.

But, now everyone’s had a chance to take a deep breath. And, if the council is truly serious about taking a leadership role in mitigating the effects of global climate change, here’s what it should re-agendize the eight Sonoma-specific measures it was set to consider adding to CA2020. If those GHG-mitigating steps are indeed environmentally beneficial, then their value to Sonoma exists beyond inclusion in a plan created to satisfy requirements for state funding. Grandfather them into CA2020 when the legal knots untangle, but in the meantime put these measures before the public for an honest vetting.

And then have a truly honest vetting of the eight, and quite frankly any, greenhouse gas mitigating measures and their genuine effectiveness in addressing climate change.

River Watch has its critics. They say the group’s attorneys are simply out for a payday by collecting legal fees after suing and settling environmental cases. River Watch says otherwise.

But here’s a more important question: Is River Watch right? Is Climate Action 2020 about reversing the catastrophic effects of global warming in the distant or not-so-distant future, or is it a feel-good plan that’s really all about meeting a state requirement?

The eight measures the council was set to consider bear scrutiny. They’re largely incentive-driven, filled with encouragement, hope and maybe even dreams. Streamlining permitting, requiring new developments be “solar ready,” enacting greywater standards – even the contested leaf blower ordinance is counted in the plan. To be sure, the measures pave the way for residents to lower their GHG’s, but they stop short of pushing them on the path.

The only firm step is a restriction on idling cars longer than three-minutes, a move even the staff report admits would go virtually unenforced.

The success of incentive-driven and honor system GHG-lowering measures is largely guesswork, and its inclusion in estimated results four years down the line is dubious at best.

River Watch says the real GHG bogeyman in these parts is wine tourism. And, the group says, if the County and its cities are serious about confronting what scientists roundly agree is an impending catastrophe, county leaders need to scale back our permitting free-for-all for vineyards, wineries, resorts and tasting-room/restaurants.

Are they right? Quite frankly, we all hope they’re wrong – dead wrong. But the more pressing concern is whether GHG accounting in plans like Climate Action 2020 are wrong. Dead wrong.

In 2014, a team of biologists embarked on a mission to rediscover the golden toad – searching the Costa Rica cloud forest ever hopeful that the species emerges, few in numbers, but not extinct.

To date, not one has been found. But the hope remains.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.