When it comes to climate change, it seems like there's no stop to the cascade of distressing news about a slow-approaching apocalypse.
An October report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change outlined the problem: The planet as we know it is headed toward an irreversible tipping point. Average global temperatures are expected to increase by 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, creating a multifaceted catastrophe of ecosystem changes, rising sea levels and resource scarcity.
And this is now believed to be the optimistic scenario. This less-than-rosy picture still requires the international community to commit to rapidly cutting all carbon emissions by almost half by 2030. Barring that swift action, the Earth's temperature will get even hotter, and the consequences will become more extreme.
This mounting problem has created a sense of desperation among environmentalists, including here in Mountain View. This was on display earlier this month as city leaders approved a long-term sustainability plan designed to drastically cut the city's own carbon footprint. But the city's sustainability road map through 2030 -- which is expected to cost more than $82.4 million -- was still criticized as insufficient by many members of the city's own advisory group.
At the Dec. 4 City Council meeting, multiple members of the city's Environmental Sustainability Task Force said that the city couldn't wait any longer to reduce its carbon emissions, and they urged city leaders to give the issue top priority. The current steps being taken by the city were blasted for being rudderless and inconsistent.
"Without a vision and a sense of direction and leadership, we'll never get closer to meeting our climate goals than we are today," said Bruce Karney, a task force member and co-founder of Carbon Free Mountain View. "At this point, any kind of further delay feels like a full rejection."
Despite Mountain View's prosperity, the city is still falling short of its stated goals to reduce its own carbon output. The city's previous long-term sustainability action plan established a target of reducing greenhouse gases 15 to 20 percent by 2020. But the city appears to be going in the wrong direction: As of 2015, the city's carbon emissions had actually increased by 9.1 percent compared to a decade earlier. The majority of these emissions come from vehicle transportation (60 percent) and the energy used for buildings (33 percent).
Realizing they were falling severely short, city leaders last year organized the Environmental Sustainability Task Force to come up with a revised list of steps to take. The 27-person group convened 17 meetings over the last year to produce a list of 36 recommendations.
Among these ideas are steps to reduce auto-related emissions by restricting parking and encouraging more use of bicycles, transit and car pools. The city is currently investigating a paid-parking system for the downtown Castro Street area, but it is unclear if the idea has enough support on the council.
The sustainability plan also calls for stronger green building codes that would switch indoor heating from natural gas to electricity and install electronic-vehicle chargers at new apartment complexes. A ban on disposable food utensils, a sustainable landscaping program and a citywide composting program were also proposed.
If implemented, city staff members say they would eventually be tracking Mountain View's carbon footprint as scrupulously as the city's budget. The city would create a new "sustainability office" that would include up to six additional employees to carry out the various carbon-reduction goals.
"The goal here is to address climate change, and that's a big lift," said Steve Attinger, Mountain View's environmental sustainability program coordinator. "We understand the urgency of the recommendations laid out here, and we're interested in addressing them as efficiently and effectively as possible."
But the city should be doing more, according to Karney and other members of the Environmental Sustainability Task Force. The volunteer group has been meeting for nearly a year on recommendations for the city work plan, and some members were dismayed to see some of their ideas nixed in the final staff list.
Four recommendations out of a list of 36 were not supported by city officials. City staffers eliminated a suggestion to subsidize ride-sharing services because they believed it could undermine their efforts to reduce reliance on cars. Another idea to impose a utility tax on natural gas usage was rejected because its effectiveness was called into question.
Karney said he was disappointed that the city's final sustainability report didn't include detailed metrics for the estimated greenhouse-gas reductions for each recommendation. The city seemed to prioritize ideas that were eligible for grant funding, not necessarily the ones that would be the most effective, he said. As laid out, the city's implementation plan would likely never reach its target goal, he said.
"You have about 12 years to solve this problem, not to start solving this problem," he said. "We know that the residents of Mountain View want action, and they want it now."
During a Dec. 4 discussion of the work plan, City Council members were stuck in an awkward position with differing advice coming from city staff and its citizen advisory panel. The council urged city staff to find ways to implement the package of recommendations more quickly without having to wait.
Mayor Lenny Siegel endorsed all the suggestions except for a study on paid parking downtown. The cost would fall the hardest on low-income residents, he said. But he suggested other ideas to investigate, such as coordinating a group purchase of electric vehicles at a reduced cost. A similar idea was successful about a decade ago when dozens of Mountain View residents banded together to purchase solar panels.
Siegel also highlighted the city's housing growth as an initiative that would someday dramatically reduce traffic and carbon emissions.
"The most important thing we can do to reduce greenhouse gases is make it so people are closer to where they work," he said.
In the short term, the City Council immediately allocated $500,000 to begin early steps to cut carbon emissions without having to wait for next year's goal-setting session. That funding would help identify locations for up to 15 new electric-vehicle chargers throughout the city and begin a new "building decarbonization" road map to reduce emissions from city infrastructure. Mountain View would also work on compiling a complete citywide greenhouse gas inventory.
Additionally, city staffers said they would provide $100,000 to help expand the city's community shuttle system, possibly to provide service for public school students and Caltrain commuters. Google currently funds the shuttle system, and city officials say that the company has offered to expand the service.
The sense of urgency on climate change was palpable among Mountain View residents and officials, but it stands in stark contrast to the position of national leaders. Last year, President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement, a nonbinding compact among nations to cut carbon emissions to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius by 2100. Last month, Trump disavowed a national assessment authored by his own government scientists, who warned that climate change would inflict hundreds of billions of dollars in damage each year unless ameliorated.
In the face of that resistance, Mountain View has a limited role to play but it could still inspire other cities to do more, said Councilman Chris Clark.
"This is a much bigger problem than the city of Mountain View," he said. "We can do some steps, but we can have a much greater impact if we get the ball rolling on a county or region-wide level."
The City Council approved the sustainability report and the short-term actions in a 7-0 vote.