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San Diego, bracing for climate change, studies its weaknesses

A collection of experts are assembling in San Diego to wrestle with the city's seesaw climate challenges that include heat-sparked wildfires on one side and increased floods from rising seas on the other.

The meeting will pull together insurers, real estate developers and officials from the area's largest infrastructure projects, like the airport and the city's sprawling seaport, to probe climate impacts on the city and identify ways to prepare for more. Climate scientists and city planners will also be at the two-day event beginning today.

A "resilience zone" will be designed to identify ways that a small section of the city can be hardened against rising temperatures and their related effects. The idea is to use the zone as an example and then expand it. Methods could include relocating critical equipment in commercial buildings from basements to higher floors, strengthening a structure against high winds, or pinpointing areas of the port that might be flooded by storm surge in the future.

Cynthia McHale, director of the insurance program at Ceres, a nonprofit that's pushing insurers to take more action on climate change, says that it's a good business decision to make buildings -- and cities -- better prepared for climate impacts. Landlords can charge higher rent if a property is ready for future risks, she said.

"There's this premium that goes along with greater resiliency in a given location," said McHale, who helped organize a similar meeting last year in Boston.

"It's tricky to do that in a city because a lot of the exposures outside of the building can shut you down as well," she added. "So if the roads aren't operable or if the transportation systems are down, as we saw in the case of Hurricane Sandy in New York, then people aren't getting to work anyway, so it doesn't really matter how strong your building is."

So a complete "ecosystem" of resiliency is needed, she said. Ceres and ClimateWise, which also helped organize today's meeting, are advocating for those changes by holding events in Boston, San Diego and, later this year, Toronto.

Frequency of big floods could double

San Diego faces a sandwich effect of climbing risks. It's built along a seashore that hosts a huge port used by cruise ships and cargo vessels. It also has beaches and shoreline cliffs. The city's economy is rooted in the ocean, which the state of California projects will rise 10 to 17 inches by 2050.

"I think people have this idea that you just sort of stand around the beach and the ocean very slowly climbs up," said David Pierce, a climate scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. "But what really happens is when you get a big storm, when you get a big episodic event, it's starting from a higher base. And that's when you get damage to coastal infrastructure or the natural landscape -- mudslides and cliff collapses and things like that."

Cody Hooven, a senior environmental specialist with the Port of San Diego, said the port also hosts industrial areas, like shipbuilders and Navy repair facilities, along with marinas, hotels, restaurants and wetlands.

"We have a lot of property to be concerned about," she said. "We're looking at predictions for the future, and definitely there could be some threats if we don't start incorporating adaptation strategies now. We definitely can be impacted by water washing over walls or affecting habitats."

Port officials are assuming that sea levels will climb by a half-meter by 2050 and by 1.5 meters by 2100, a level likely to erode beaches, flood low-lying streets more regularly and affect development decisions being made now by the port.

Swiss Re, a global reinsurance company, said in a report released yesterday that a smaller rise in seawater -- 10 inches by midcentury -- suggests that "the probability of extreme flood losses occurring will almost double."

"So even without considering how climate change may affect future hurricane frequency or severity, the impact of sea-level rise alone is likely to be significant for both those seeking and those providing insurance protection," the report says.

Exploding plants, unburnable roofs

On the inland side of San Diego is the dry Sierra, where people are experiencing more damage from wildfires as development pushes farther into the wilderness. Insurance officials say some of the easier solutions to reducing fire damage include changing local codes for landscaping. That would reduce the use of oily eucalyptus trees, which burn, and place plants farther away from homes.

Other policies are harder to get approved, like requiring new homes, or those undergoing improvements, to use fire-retardant roofing materials. Though local leaders may balk at increasing building costs on residents, those policies could protect the city's larger economy, said Lindene Patton, chief climate product officer for Zurich Financial Services.

"It's really important that individuals -- not just companies -- but individuals understand the exposure risk associated with wildfires for them," she said. "And they will likely have to take action themselves and convince their public policymakers so they understand that action will be required, whether that is investment in clearing fuel in places where homes meet with basically the wilderness ... or that there is a recognition that there is a need, for example, to change land use codes for fire management."

Stephen Bushnell, director of product development for Fireman's Fund Insurance Co., a subsidiary of Allianz SE, said expanded development into risk-prone areas is making places like San Diego more vulnerable to catastrophic losses.

"Part of the problem, and this is a problem I think with risk and climate change altogether, is that there's more building on the urban-wild land interface zones, more building on the coast, more building out in brush areas," he said. "So you have more risk exposed."

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