As the entrance of a new year typically signifies a fresh start, this January was perhaps cleansed too heavily with the floods that rocked the county in earliest days of 2016. Roads were inundated with rainwater, trees were uprooted, and concrete grounds collapsed in on themselves. A video of a UC San Diego professor persistently instructing with water surrounding his feet on the lecture floor went viral. Even a tornado warning was issued. The explanation to the deluge: El Niño. Indeed we were hit hard by this natural weather phenomenon, but what happened was so particularly severe, it could bear much graver indications.
On one evening in 2005, Dr. Bruce Bekkar ’78, then an OB-GYN, flipped through our very own Triton magazine and saw his life change within the span of one feature article. The story, grimly titled, “The End of the World as We Know It,” introduced Bekkar to the then lesser-known phenomenon known as climate change. As scientists at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography were discovering, our planet was indeed being altered for the worse.
“When I read that article I realized that everything I loved about living on the North County Coast was at risk,” Bekkar recalls. “It just was a huge eye-opener for me to learn about the threat that climate change posed especially from a source as reliable as UCSD.” Galvanized, Bekkar took action. He joined sustainability and environmental organizations, installed solar panels in his home and traded in his BMW for a Prius. Surely, the rest of the world would follow suit with such a precarious reality in balance.
A decade later, the evidence has only mounted: climate change is happening. But the response Bekkar had hoped for in 2005 has appeared lackluster at best. The reality has become widely accepted, but many view ramifications as conceptual, far-off in a distant, detached future. Bekkar, now devoting himself full-time to spreading awareness as a leader at the Climate Reality Project, stresses the often unidentified immediacy of the impacts of a warming world.
“The fact that the impacts are not as obvious to us yet doesn’t mean that they won’t soon become that way or that the risk isn’t real,” Bekkar says. “Unfortunately as we travel along this path, I don’t think our lack of concern should be any reassurance that the science is not correct.”
El Niño’s furious arrival may or may not have been fueled by hotter climates. Though Bekkar speculates a correlation, that much has not been definitively concluded. But much else has.
In a comprehensive lecture on campus, Bekkar walks through countless and very current circumstances that are directly birthed out of, or exacerbated by, our shifting climates—the stuff that headlines nightly news but cannot be traced scientifically in the same hour. Such as the anomalistic pattern of severe, historic droughts that are followed by intermittent, short spells of raging storm weather. Or the dramatic increase and longer lifespan of wildfires including the nine-week Rim Fire that was visible from space. Or the polluted air in Beijing where an apocalyptic haze obscures vision to frightening degrees. Or the Zika virus epidemic in Brazil that causes microcephaly (abnormally small brains) in newborns and whose mosquito carriers, rapidly and suddenly spreading through Latin America, have expanded habitats with warmer environments. The list is extensive, but is no sensationalist’s account. The science is there, and the results are beginning to manifest themselves in more urgent ways than ever.
The everyday impact on average human health is building as well. Modest increases in temperature provide for an uptick in ozone, particularly hurting those with pre-existing heart or lung disease. A 10-degree warmer day in Southern California leads to a 5% increase in hospital admissions, along with a similar increase in mortality rates, Bekkar explains. Heat wave deaths account for more deaths than all other weather events combined.
On a larger scale, biodiversity is suffering, and will continue to suffer in leaps and bounds, while sea level rise has begun to swallow coasts, including San Diego’s.
“Unfortunately our society has a great capacity for short-term thinking and denial,” Bekkar laments. “I would say pretty radical changes are needed to prevent the kinds of outcomes that not only threaten future generations but threaten the lives of many people that are here today as well.”
In mid-December, 195 nations adopted the first-ever universal climate agreement in Paris after a long stretch of bargaining amongst world leaders. Four days later, San Diego approved the Climate Action Plan, enacting a goal of 100% renewable energy citywide by 2035 to make us the largest city in America to do so. Moves are being made. It’s a start, but the push must be stronger, Bekkar believes.
“This needs to be addressed by each of us, not just in terms of awareness, and not even just to make incremental changes,” Bekkar says. “We need to demand leadership that’s willing to make very substantial and rapid changes in our society, and we also need to as individuals, actively participate in finding solutions.”