In wake of storms and floods, local leaders discuss effects of climate change with community

Black Surf Santa Cruz director Bella Bonner addresses a climate change forum at Cabrillo College
Black Surf Santa Cruz director Bella Bonner addresses a packed house Thursday.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Thursday’s Climate Change and Our Community event, hosted by the Democratic Women’s Club of Santa Cruz County, featured a number of speakers from a range of professions. They touched on things being done behind the scenes to combat climate change and how people can get involved in the wake of the series of severe weather events that have plagued the region since January.

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Days after the latest in a series of atmospheric rivers hit the Central Coast, causing the Pajaro River levee to fail, around 100 community members, climate activists and local leaders gathered Thursday night for a climate change discussion at Cabrillo College’s horticulture center.

Climate Change and Our Community, an event hosted by the Democratic Women’s Club of Santa Cruz County, featured speakers from academia, agriculture and urban planning, as well as elected officials, who talked about climate change’s effects on the community at large.

State Sen. John Laird led off the evening by reiterating comments he has made in wake of the storms that the Pajaro levee project is completely funded, but that the work could not start in time to prevent the breach that happened last weekend. As a result, he said, he is working with the state to trim regulations for the project so work can get started.

“People are hurting in our region in Big Sur, around the Salinas River, and especially in Pajaro and the Santa Cruz Mountains,” he said, adding that recovery will be a full community effort.

Local activist and Black Surf Santa Cruz Executive Director Bella Bonner said this winter’s storms have highlighted inequalities in climate disaster response. She said that all of the county’s people should feel hopeful, not only the most privileged.

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“We see the swift and rapid presidential response for Capitola, but where’s the money and immediate action for saving Beach Flats or Pajaro Valley?” she asked. “These are just some of the ways that we are gatekeeping hope and making it inaccessible to our entire community.”

Sarah Newkirk, executive director of the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County, said the levee breach shows that the community needs to continue adapting to climate change — and quickly.

“What happened in Pajaro was not inevitable; it took too long for us to get started. We knew the levees were going to fail,” she said. “This is not a nature problem — it’s a people problem and we’ve got to deal with it.”

The breach of the Pajaro River levee that flooded the town of Pajaro.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Gary Griggs, UC Santa Cruz professor of earth and environmental sciences, said he is optimistic that Californians will continue advocating for strong climate protection, as he has done in his 55 years of teaching. Griggs has spoken out against a number of projects including a nuclear power plant proposed for Davenport, an industrial corridor from Moss Landing to Salinas, and a convention center for Lighthouse Field in Santa Cruz. They all ended up getting turned down. “At least in California, from my perspective, we’re going in the right direction,” he said.

Three experts speak during a panel on climate change at Cabrillo College
From left, Sacha Lozano, program manager, Resource Conservation District of Santa Cruz County; Sarah Newkirk, executive director of the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County; and UC Santa Cruz professor Gary Griggs speak during a community forum at Cabrillo College.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Laird echoed that sentiment, pointing to the Kyoto Protocol — the first legally binding international climate treaty — and how California has shouldered much of the United States’ commitments. “And we’re moving towards being the fourth-largest economy in the world,” Laird said, “so nobody can argue that economic growth is hurt by taking strong climate steps.”

Newkirk said the best way to invest in the environment is to invest in people by connecting them with the area’s nature and bringing forth the next generation of climate activists.

City of Watsonville Environmental Project Manager Alex Yasbek agreed. “I’m looking at high school students, and saying it’s kind of on you guys because we’ve unfortunately done the wrong thing,” he said. “At this point, I don’t know what to do, but you have to start somewhere and it starts with connecting people to nature.”

Tatiana Brennan, senior administrative analyst for Santa Cruz County’s Office of Response, Recovery and Resilience, said her office has a fellowship program where interns can learn the inner workings of government, particularly its environmental policies. The office also promotes vegetarianism in its facility, she said, and native planting in the area to promote a healthy ecosystem. Brennan said though that might seem like small steps, they go a long way.

State Sen. John Laird speaks during a panel on climate change at Cabrillo College
State Sen. John Laird speaks at Thursday’s event.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“We are the largest operating entity, so the changes we make have a major impact,” she said.

Bonner closed the event by raising an aspect of the climate discussion that cannot be conveyed through legislation or sustainability policy: hope. “Hope is something that we can collectively create and maintain within our community,” she said. “And I hope that you leave tonight feeling inspired and called to take personal action.”

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