Santa Cruz Takes on Climate Change

Unprecedented lawsuits aim to protect vulnerable neighborhoods

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Whether by flooding, wildfires, or coastal erosion, long-term risks of climate change impacts affect various coastal neighborhoods in Santa Cruz County—some more disproportionally than others. Illustration by Ania Webb.

Emilio Martinez Castañeda, Beach Flats Community Garden gatekeeper, stepped into the garden and looked out at all of the rows of destroyed maize after what he considered the most devastating flood of his 48 years in Santa Cruz. It would take more than three months and an entire community for the garden to be restored.

For over 25 years, the Beach Flats Community Garden has provided a space for families to grow traditional Mexican crops, such as nopales, that are not as readily available and accessible elsewhere.

“We would have to ask the city and county for help in case the next storm happens,” Castañeda said in Spanish. “The gardeners would have to join forces together to protect the garden.”

The community garden and Beach Flats, a predominantly Latinx neighborhood, reside on a low-lying area known as a floodplain. Surrounded by the ocean and the San Lorenzo River, Beach Flats is one of the most vulnerable areas to extreme flooding — a symptom of climate change that researchers and experts, such as UCSC distinguished professor of earth sciences Gary Griggs, project will increase in frequency and intensity in coming years.

“We’re going to see more rapid runoff, more flooding, more landslides and mudflows triggered by intense rainfall,” Griggs said.

Santa Cruz is no stranger to severe storm and weather trends, having bore witness to various extreme weather events dating back to the Industrial Age. Due to extreme flooding, the county has been declared a disaster area three times in the past 20 years and hit a culmination in 2011 when Gov. Jerry Brown declared the county in a state of emergency.

Last year’s brutal winter storms left Santa Cruz County with $140 million in damages to roads and infrastructure. This was over 12 times the amount the county budgeted for fixing roads, making it the most expensive storm in the history of Santa Cruz County.

To confront the financial burden posed by these imminent threats, the city and county of Santa Cruz filed separate but identical lawsuits last year on Dec. 20 against 29 of the largest and most powerful fossil fuel corporations — including ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP and Royal Dutch Shell. The lawsuit outlines counts of negligence, trespassing, public and private nuisances and strict liability including corporations’ failure to warn the public about the effects of climate change.

“The costs are in the billions for Santa Cruz County to adapt to climate change,” said director of Central Coast Wetlands Group Ross Clark. “But even a greater problem if these lawsuits are not successful, is we’ve lost an opportunity to engage the fossil fuel industry.”

All 29 fossil fuel corporations are accused of pushing a multimillion-dollar agenda to internally prepare for climate change such as raising their offshore oil rigs to compensate for rising sea levels and aggressive lobbying campaigns to push climate change denial. The lawsuits claim they concealed the climate science that predicted the catastrophic damage of long-term emissions from the public for nearly half a century.

The Santa Cruz lawsuits are attempting to the fossil fuel corporations financially responsible for the cost of climate change impacts and damages. Though climate change affects all coastal communities, areas like Beach Flats are disproportionately impacted due to socioeconomic vulnerability, increasing the difficulty in recovering from flood damages.

Photo by Sarah Belle Lin The Beach Flats community garden

“Then we would have nowhere to plant anything,” said Beach Flats Community Garden gatekeeper Emilio Martinez Castañeda in Spanish. “We are used to planting and growing our own traditional vegetables and fruits, and the garden is a chance for us to do this.”

If the lawsuits are unsuccessful, taxpayers in these neighborhoods will be forced to pay for climate change damages out of pocket.

The lawsuits project losses of nearly $900 million in assets and damage to 920 buildings in Santa Cruz city and county due to four inches of sea level rise by 2030.

Coastal impacts in Santa Cruz County could total up to $2 billion in damages by 2100, not including other symptoms of climate change like droughts and wildfires, according to Ross Clark, a scientific and subject matter expert and adviser for the city’s most recent Climate Adaptation Plan (CAP) to evaluate and combat climate change.

Five other California cities and counties — San Francisco, Oakland, Marin, San Mateo and Imperial Beach — filed similar lawsuits seeking reimbursement for costs associated with rising sea levels last year. What is unique about Santa Cruz’s lawsuits is in addition to sea level rise, the lawsuits include other severe climate change impacts such as extreme drought and deluge cycles, wildfires and more intense storms.

Lower Ocean resident JD Sotelo has seen many storms come and go since he moved to the neighborhood in 1981. He witnessed the infamous 1981-83 winter storms in Santa Cruz that resulted in 22 deaths. Sotelo observed how 20-22 inches of rain fell in 24 hours, describing it like holding a garden hose over people’s heads.

He believes fossil fuel corporations need to shoulder the financial costs of climate changes.

“It does take two to dance, but [fossil fuel corporations] have the power, the law, the means, the lawyers,” Sotelo said. “But at the same time, I think there’s a responsibility as humans. They should be held responsible.”

 

The Lawsuits & The Exxon Playbook

Last fall, Santa Cruz County Counsel reached out to Sher Edling, the San Francisco-based environmental law firm representing the other five California cities and counties that filed litigation against fossil fuel corporations.

Sher Edling took the cases on a contingency basis, meaning it will not seek payment if the lawsuit is unsuccessful.

Despite the challenges of pursuing the fossil fuel industry, Third District Supervisor Ryan Coonerty, the primary policy and budget decision-making incumbent for UC Santa Cruz and most of Santa Cruz, said the county does not plan on backing down.

“The real risk is that we continue to not respond to climate change,” Coonerty said. “Then future generations are stuck with increasingly severe weather and really big impacts that communities can’t afford. And sticking people with the bill while these big corporations take every last dollar of profit is wrong.”

Past climate litigations attempted to hold those in power accountable but generally fell flat. Distinguished UCSC professor of earth sciences Gary Griggs draws comparisons between the Santa Cruz lawsuits and Kivalina v. Exxon, which he was a consultant for.

The small native Alaskan town of Kivalina filed a lawsuit against 22 oil companies seeking both policy change in the Clean Air Act, a federal law regulating emissions, and monetary restitution for sea level rise and coastal erosion caused by melting permafrost. The lawsuit was dismissed by the U.S. District Court and the U.S. Supreme Court because the lawsuit was pursuing federal policy change, which is within the realm of the legislative branch and not the judiciary.

A key difference is the Santa Cruz lawsuits push solely for monetary reparations instead of policy and industry change. If successful, this could set a precedent for future climate litigations, according to Climate Liability News.

In response to the California climate change lawsuits, ExxonMobil petitioned for a pre-lawsuit deposition on Jan. 8 to investigate the claims made by public officials in the six California cities and counties, arguing that the lawsuits are unconstitutional and unrealistic.

“It’s not unexpected,” said Santa Cruz City Attorney Tony Condotti. “I think it’s a misguided effort on their part and obvious attempt to call attention away from their own activities.”

City and county officials claim ExxonMobil has no legal basis to pursue a deposition. The hearing to assess the validity of the deposition was held on March 8, for which the hearing judge ruled in favor of ExxonMobil, according to County Counsel member Dana McRae.

In the petition, ExxonMobil’s attorneys claimed the lawsuits “stifle ExxonMobil’s exercise […] of its First Amendment right to participate in the national dialogue about climate change and climate policy.”

Condotti and County Board members Jordan Sheinbaum and McRae are calling ExxonMobil’s strategy to intimidate city and county officials the “Exxon Playbook.”

ExxonMobil, the attorneys and firms representing ExxonMobil and the American Petroleum Institute, the nation’s largest oil and gas lobbying organization, all declined to comment.

“Litigation is more like a marathon than a sprint,” Sheinbaum said. “We just have to persevere, we know we’re going to get a strong mounted opposition. We’ll go the distance.”

 

City Response to Climate Change

Santa Cruz’s attempts to address climate change goes beyond the courts with potential impacts being mitigated by city and county infrastructure and planning.

To combat worsening weather and climate episodes, the county spent $8 million to build a 1,500 foot sea wall on East Cliff Drive in 2007, and another $10.7 million on repairs in 2014. Currently, the county is funding $4 million on coastal infrastructure including another sea wall in the Harbor area. Santa Cruz Climate Action Network organizer Pauline Seales expressed concerns with the longevity of these solutions.

“It may not make sense to try to build walls,” Seales said, “when in another 15 years they’d be overtopped anyway.”

Part of the city’s strategy lies in the most recent Climate Adaptation Plan (CAP), a 205-page working document identifying and addressing Santa Cruz’s climate change progression and the city’s approach for adaptation. Some of the climate change threats listed include rising sea levels, severely impacted neighborhoods and current anti-flood infrastructure.

Anti-flood infrastructure such as the levee and pump stations, which regulate water levels and mitigate floods, are located along the San Lorenzo River to protect low-lying areas like Downtown, Lower Ocean and Beach Flats.

All three areas are predicted to experience extreme water levels from rising tides, with Downtown seeing as much as 703,750 cubic feet of water, which is 5,264,416 gallons of water within 12 years, according to the CAP.

The CAP assumes storm pumps located along the San Lorenzo River will be able to mitigate these rising tides, even in low-lying neighborhoods, such as Beach Flats. This is contingent on there being no power outages or significant rainfall happening alongside the flooding.

“It is my understanding that the pumps will pump out the Beach Flats area, regardless of the source of the water,” said CAP’s sustainability and climate action coordinator Tiffany Wise-West.

However, because Beach Flats is located between the Pacific Ocean and the levee, tidal waves will inevitably hit the neighborhood before reaching the storm pumps, posing a potential for significant damage to the neighborhood, which is already a hazard zone, according to the CAP.

The Beach Flats area is also expected to experience erosion, storm flooding and rising sea levels through 2030, even with the sea wall on Beach Street. Socioeconomic barriers in the Beach Flats community only compound the severity of these climate change impacts.

 

Climate Change Threatens Beach Flats

Beach Flats Community Garden gatekeeper Emilio Martinez Castañeda, like Lower Ocean resident JD Sotelo, remains concerned about future storms.

“Things are already happening in other places around the world. I don’t want something like that happening again […] It would be ugly if there was another storm,” Castañeda said in Spanish.

Photo by Sarah Belle Lin Emilio Martinez Castañeda in
the beach flats community garden

Currently Beach Flats is the most densely populated neighborhood in the city with 2,255 residents, according to Community Bridges administrative analyst Anna Vaage, a social service organization that provides resources for low-income families.

The predominantly Latinx community in Beach Flats faces heightened challenges when receiving and responding to emergency alerts because English is not the primary language for many residents. Sustainability and climate action manager for Santa Cruz city Tiffany Wise-West said the city is working on possible response strategies, such as a reverse 911 call system to residents in both English and Spanish.

Although Castañeda and Sotelo were unaware of responses to climate change such as the lawsuits and the CAP, both have experienced the impacts of climate change in Santa Cruz.

Santa Cruz Climate Action Network lead organizer Pauline Seales is concerned the city isn’t diverting adequate resources to educate coastal neighborhoods on climate change threats.

“Are there any measures to try to warn the people, move the people?” Seales said. “No, those are not things being addressed yet and they need to be.”

Vulnerable areas with low socioeconomic status such as Beach Flats, face additional financial challenges in terms of affording rebuilding or relocation as a response to climate change impacts, said Central Coast Wetlands Group director Ross Clark.

Castañeda said that in the past, the city only showed up to Beach Flats in times of emergencies, but visits more often now to assess general needs. He credits Santa Cruz Parks and Recreation with helping build the garden’s tool shed, fixing fences and providing occasional funds for soil and other gardening supplies. This helps provide necessary resources to support a space that is vital to the Beach Flats community.

“How couldn’t the garden be protected? We are planting whatever seeds we want. We are feeding our families […] That is why it is important,” Castañeda said in Spanish.

Believing that it is the government’s responsibility to side with their communities, Castañeda is supportive of the lawsuits to hold fossil fuel industries accountable.

“As long as the lawsuit helps people like me, then it is just for the city and county to be asking the corporations to pay,” Castañeda said in Spanish.