Roundtable: Climate change in San Diego's desert
S1: This week on roundtable San Diego's changing climate. We'll hear about some of the consequences already happening in our desert. Balancing our climate goals with local jobs. How do we make sure those who make a living in the fossil fuel industry don't get left behind here ? And an update on some of the questionable spending uncovered at one of our biggest government agencies. I'm Matt Hoffman , and this is KPBS Roundtable. It's now or never , according to one of the scientists involved in the latest warning that climate change is already happening and that our window for slowing it down is closing. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change , known as the IPCC , has been sounding the alarm for years. Here to give us his take on the latest work is Joshua Emerson Smith. He's an environment reporter for the San Diego Union-Tribune and has joined us many times on this topic. Welcome back to Roundtable.
S2: Joshua Hey , great to be here as always.
S1: Great to have you here as always.
S2: Let's not forget , energy related CO2 emissions rose last year to their highest levels in history , largely due to coal burning , amid spikes in natural gas prices and emission levels from energy production in the United States. In the European Union dropped marginally by 4 to 2%. But China has continued economic growth as more than offset those gains , and we are not going in the right direction.
S1: So you say that we're in trouble. And when some San Diegans might think of climate change , they might think of things like sea level rise , which has been an issue for decades or will be an issue for decades. But there's other effects that are happening right now further from the coast. You went out to Anza-Borrego State Park. For those unfamiliar , can you tell us where that's located ? Sure.
S2: Yeah. The Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is located in eastern San Diego County. It's the largest state park in California , the second largest in the continental United States. It is stretches from the region's central mountain ranges to close to the Salton Sea.
S1: And that's out there by Borrego Springs.
S2: I mean , it really is gorgeous for me. There's nothing like walking among the moonlit troia cactus in our toes and listening to the coyotes howl in the distance. And I was worried. I've been reading about how climate change and drought has been impacting Joshua Tree National Park , and I wanted to know how our desert region was doing.
S1: There's a very cool visual element in your story that you did. How is that work important and who did that for that story ? Right.
S2: So I worked with a photographer named Ana Ramirez at the Union-Tribune. She's extremely talented , photographer and videographer. And we put together a really nice video that goes along with the with the piece. I think it's important that people can really see and feel what the desert looks like now because it's only going to continue to change. And we wanted to we wanted to document that to the fullest extent possible.
S1: People may think , because the desert has a harsh climate , that it must be resilient. But you actually found a very sensitive ecosystem there , right ? Yeah.
S2: The desert isn't impervious to climate change , as some researchers had previously hoped. Animals and plants are precariously balanced in this arid region. They're kind of just eking out an existence on limited sustenance and moisture.
S1: There's also a variety of vegetation out there , and there used to be much more of it.
S2: This area , the Colorado Desert , has lost nearly 40% of its vegetation cover since the mid 1980s , and that's due to drought and rising summer temperatures , particularly in the low lying desert areas. Park officials , as well as residents , are quick to point out that the eastern side of bonds of Borrego has been fast drying out for the last two decades and that everything from creosote to mesquite and ocotillo is suffering.
S1: Union-Tribune reporter Joshua Emerson Smith is our guest here on Roundtable. And Joshua , part of the ANZA-BORREGO has a system of rainwater collectors. They've helped animals get through some very dry years out there , but now those are empty. What's the debate over whether they should be refilled by helicopter ? Right.
S2: Well , I should say that they're not all empty , but some have been going dry. In 2020 , several sheep were found dead near an empty what they call these guzzlers , these rainwater capture systems that then feed everything from bighorn sheep to deer mountain lions , you name it. Last year , sheep advocates work with the U.S. Marines to helicopter in water to one of the collectors located on Whale Peak. Some folks at the park , they see these efforts as a lost cause , largely because of the like. We heard that climate change will continue to exacerbate drought conditions. But others feel that it's humanity's responsibility to help maintain the regional sheep population , and the guzzlers have worked since they were installed in the seventies and eighties. The population of bighorn sheep. It dropped to less than 300 adults in the mid-nineties , but has since rebounded to somewhere around 800 or 900 sheep based on the most recent counts.
S2: It's unclear exactly how much it would cost to do this on a regular basis. Could we get the Marines to do this annually ? It's that is unknown to me. But there's definitely a trade off here. Right. And we have to decide how we want to use our our resources. Do we think that this is a good use of the types of funding that we have that includes everything from , you know , maintaining other parts of the park , making sure that , like , we clean up trash or do ranger patrols to make sure people aren't off roading in other areas. So it is it is something of a zero sum game here.
S1: War in Ukraine is dominating the news cycle here. Aside from refugees arriving at the border , we're also seeing higher gas prices locally. And that's led us to a broader discussion on reducing our need or our dependence for oil. At the same time , President Biden is trying to flood the market with enough supply to lower costs.
S2: Geopolitical and domestic instability can easily undermine our long term efforts to curb warming. I mean , the irony is that climate change will almost certainly increase the types of immediate disasters that distract from the long term fixes. Of course , it's it's hard to worry about protecting future generations when current generations are just struggling to survive.
S1: And is there anything that you're working on at the U.
S2: The issue of how and if humans should intervene is not exclusive to the desert.
S1: I've been speaking with Joshua Emerson Smith. He's an environment reporter for the San Diego Union-Tribune. And Joshua , thanks so much for being here today.
S2: Great to be here. Meeting.
S1: Meeting. The challenge of climate change will require a lot of political will and money. And even if we're able to get those two elements in place , there's still the enormous task of actually doing the work. Everywhere you go on every street , the buildings that we live and work in are opportunities to reduce emissions by going electric. But how would a massive retrofit affect construction jobs that are rooted in the fossil fuel industry ? Mackenzie Elmore wrote about it this week for Voice of San Diego. She's back on roundtable this week. Hey , McKenzie.
S3: Hey there.
S1: Good to have you here.
S3: Well , Mayor Todd Gloria released kind of a update to the city's first climate action plan recently. And as part of that plan , they proposed some really bold policies in terms of electrifying buildings , which is what we're going to talk about here. But before that plan actually makes it to council and some actual decisions are made about what the city might do to try to combat climate change. The city wanted to study how different decisions might affect the local workforce.
S1: So in terms of electrifying buildings , then you write that some of those warning about moving too fast are actually union leaders. Which unions are we talking about here and what's their primary concern for.
S3: This particular study ? We're talking about unions that represent workers in industries , natural gas industries like pipe fitting and steam fitting , those that work as natural gas plant operators , those who also like dig trenches to lay the natural gas pipe. And one of the largest sectors of those workers are those who actually fix and maintain the pipeline infrastructure for natural gas that we already have in place. And they're concerned that if cities like San Diego start to pass policies that favor electricity and buildings over natural gas , then policies like that are going to force less jobs in those natural gas industries versus the jobs in electricity , for instance.
S1: So we're seeing some pushback here from some of the unions. I'm curious if you think that this magnifies the tradeoffs and some of the tough decisions that we'll have to collectively make between , you know , worrying about our current livelihoods and ways of life versus investing in future generations. Do you think that that's some of the rub here ? Yeah.
S3: I mean , transitioning to a cleaner economy inherently means transitioning people out of jobs that support the fossil fuel industry. It's called a just transition in some labor unions spaces. And it's a topic that's also on sort of the global stage in terms of climate change. And , you know , union labor has a lot of power in California , politically and elsewhere. And so that's why I wanted to focus on natural gas work as a political force , as elected leaders are on the cusp of making these decisions to decarbonize San Diego. And so and climate change is all about making hard decisions now that future generations will benefit from long after we're dead. But it's proven to be difficult for politicians that operate on an election cycle of only a few years to act that way.
S1: Some people might be listening here and thinking , Well , let's just train the gas workers on this new technology.
S3: I've been told that working with natural gas pipeline is similar to working with water pipeline. So in San Francisco County , for instance , when electric building electrification was on the table , union labor got politicians to agree to require new water reuse systems in big , large buildings , and that , in effect , creates more water pipe work as sort of a replacement for the loss of natural gas pipework in buildings. But union labor groups and government officials alike are really hoping for newer technologies to come on line. And everybody is talking about hydrogen , which is in theory , a carbon free fuel. But right now it's sort of sort of nascent , though there's a lot of efforts to kind of bring hydrogen into the energy space even more. For instance , Los Angeles is trying to convert one of its natural gas power plants into hydrogen right now. And President Biden has put some money in the infrastructure bill into hydrogen development. But some experts say that that technology is too expensive right now. Others say it's just an excuse to continue the use of natural gas because there's ideas about mixing hydrogen with natural gas to kind of green it. But definitely local labor union leaders are really pushing for hydrogen because the creation of hydrogen plants or retrofitting natural gas plants to run on hydrogen means a lot of work for those same types of workers who worked in natural gas only. And so that's a big source of new lucrative work for those at risk workers.
S1: Traditionally , unions are aligned with democratic and progressive politics , and those often overlap with strong climate action goals. Yet in this case , they want to pump the brakes on this a bit. I'm curious if you think that this is an example of how challenging this issue can be once , you know , paychecks are actually on the line at least.
S3: Local unions representing natural gas workers seem to have accepted that building electrification is coming. The California Energy Commission has already started to build new rules requiring electrification for single family homes , for instance. So the writing is sort of on the wall. But the amount of time any one city or county can prolong natural gas use puts off the time when those jobs would be threatened. Right. So it'll just be interesting to see which electrification policy the big city of San Diego decides to pursue right off the bat.
S1: I'm talking with voice of San Diego's environment reporter McKenzie Elmer. And McKenzie , let's talk more about the science here.
S3: A city natural gas right now powers boilers or water heaters and buildings as well as the flames on your stovetop. And so the gas is actually mostly methane , but when it runs through the pipelines , but when it burns and is used as a fuel , it turns into carbon dioxide , which is the main culprit of global warming. Too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from humans burning fossil fuels traps too much of the sun's radiation close to the earth and therefore heats up the planet. Theoretically , if buildings stop using natural gas and just electricity , and then the city or the region greens the electric grid to run on 100% renewable energy , then we'll all be living clean , theoretically. So that's kind of the the hope and the hype.
S3: So that's like that new construction rule we just talked about. I've heard the City of San Diego plans to take mayor toggle areas , sort of retrofitted climate action plan , which includes these policy choices to its first council step , I think , early in the summer. So we'll just kind of have to wait and see. But again , the state , as I mentioned before , already sort of moving forward on some electrification policies , which then kind of helps encourage cities to do the same.
S1: I've been speaking with voice of San Diego's environment reporter McKenzie. Elmer and McKenzie , thanks so much for joining us today.
S3: Thank you.
S1: We have more climate coverage this week from the KPBS NEWSROOM. Midday Edition got reaction from leading climate scientists on the latest IPCC report detailing global emissions. You can stream that on the KPBS Midday Edition podcast. We also have Andrew Bowen's report on the push back to a new bike lane in Mira mesa. That's posted on our KPBS YouTube page. There are a lot of public agencies involved with setting our region's climate goals. One of the biggest is the San Diego Association of Governments , better known as SANDAG. But lately it's the groups work behind the scenes that's drawn scrutiny and internal audit uncovered by KPBS News partner I New Sauce points out what it calls questionable spending over a four year period. A few weeks ago , we had reporter Jennifer Bowman on Roundtable to tell us about that initial story. Now she's back with more details on where that money was spent. Welcome back to Roundtable , Jennifer.
S3: Thanks for having me.
S1: Good to have you back with some more details. So before we dive into it , can you remind us why this audit was carried out and sort of what the main headline was here ? Sure.
S3: So last month we reported on an internal audit. It was conducted by the agency's independent performance auditor. And this was a standard audit that the agency already planned to do , because , perhaps not surprisingly , credit cards are considered a high risk area for misuse for any organization. So what the auditors found at SANDAG was a series of questionable purchases and policy violations. Not only did they find that the policy was pretty weak and needed improvements , but they also found that employees spent nearly $70,000 at local restaurants in a four year period , so not work travel places within San Diego County and as well as $250,000 that was charged on non-working days. There were other items as well. But but in short , they really can't determine how much was improperly spent because so much documentation like receipts are missing.
S1: Well , you guys have been following the money. And right now at a news source dot org , you have documents showing some of the purchases that were made and some of those were at upscale dining restaurants , dollar amounts and locations you guys have up there.
S3: And one purchase that we highlight in our reporting is actually an out of town dinner. It's a dinner in Washington , D.C.. It was categorized as a business meeting at the Occidental Grill. And I think it's a restaurant that appears to have since closed. But it was a well-known restaurant not far from the White House. And this is where five SANDAG officials , again , some of them the highest paid employees , spent $700. It's a hefty receipt to get to that price. You know , there are multiple entrees. In addition to that , everyone got branzino , a fish plate at the table. Appetizers and entrees were were pricey as well. There was a $52 feature meat dish , as well as a nearly $50 filet mignon.
S1: Sounds like some good eating there. And you also report that some of these purchases , a lot of them happened outside normal business hours , like on the weekends. So we know , Jennifer , that , you know , most businesses in public agencies , they have expense accounts , obviously.
S3: Credit cards and expense accounts , they're not necessarily in an unusual or even a bad thing. There are times that employees will be using taxpayer funds to cover a meal. You know , during the course of legitimate business , many organizations have clear policies to tell you what's appropriate , what's right , what's wrong. You know , here's how you buy laptops. Here's when you can charge a meal. Here's what happens when you go over the credit card limit for a single purchase. Here's what happens when you do these unplowed split purchases , etc.. Despite having nearly 400 employees , SANDAG doesn't have these policies.
S1: Some of these are really big tabs and we didn't have a lot of information the last time we talked to you. What more information do we have ? Like , do we know who was involved or if this was groups that were doing this spending ? Yeah.
S3: Often it's multiple people dining together and from what records we can see , this is it's mostly staff meeting together at these restaurants. But often we're also seeing officials meeting with other government figures. So employees or officials from local municipalities , even elected leaders , as well as consultants and lobbyists.
S3: You know what we see , again , for 400 employees , they had a relatively low number of credit cards , anywhere , as many as 20 employees at a time. And often these are administrative assistant who may have these and are charging for organizational purposes. But there's also , you know , executives and one of the highest spenders is actually the CEO's assigned across to he's one of the agency's most frequent spenders at restaurants. We had to piece together records because we only obtained. What was reviewed by auditors. But what from what we do have , we do see that he spent over $17,000 at restaurants in just two years. So that means it's likely even more. Actually , when you consider the four year period the auditors sent in the review.
S1: You also found that there was some spending.
S3: You know , we're still expecting to see records , but at the very least , we should expect to see from the agency what happens after it conducts a review of the purchases. So , you know , there were other transactions that were flagged by auditors , mostly in policy violations. For example , if you had an expensive laptop , you needed to buy and it was more than the minimum purchase. That was something that was common actually at the beginning of COVID 19 because of the need for remote work. And now what we're seeing from the agency is they're saying they're doing a review to determine if there's any action necessary. So we should be at least hearing from the agency on on there on its own findings.
S3: We have that I knew source where , you know , every story we write puts a clear description of why this matters. We make that pretty clear. But in this case , SANDAG is a powerful agency in our region. It has its hands in many , many issues , many , many projects. And it's governed by some of the most powerful people in our county. You know , it's $1,000,000,000 budget funded by taxpayers. That's that's no small piggybank. And as SANDAG plays a key role in so many decisions , that impacts our county , our own pockets to other pieces that determine our quality of life. It's important to know how they're spending our money.
S1: You spoke with an expert on government ethics about all this.
S3: That was Shawn McMorris , that the government watchdog group known as California Common Cause. He called it a clear abuse of public funds. And he again brings up an important point. Credit cards and expense accounts , they're not necessarily a bad thing , right ? There are times that there will be legitimate business. But again , you need guardrails. You need policies that tell you what's right and what's wrong. And as I said , SANDAG doesn't have that. And in turn , that's going to impact public trust. That's something you've seen SANDAG struggle with not only because of prior scandals , but because of its controversial transportation plans and projects. And when something like this happens , it's it's it's going to take a while , he says , to to get public trust back.
S1: We know that auditors , they have suggested some reforms. Can you tell us what those are ? And has SANDAG followed through on actually implementing any of them yet ? Yes.
S3: So the auditors have suggested basically an overhaul of the agency's credit card policy. They found it inadequate and really not much teeth. It says that if you violate this policy , there will be consequences , but it doesn't say what those consequences are. So the new policy they've recommended should include what purchases can be made on credit cards , what documentation is required , and most importantly , what happens when you don't comply with the policy. And SANDAG has taken no issue with the auditors recommendations , and they're already starting policy changes and additional employee training. One thing that we found this week is that they're actually working on policies that determine specifically rules for meals and hospitality. One thing , however , that auditors did recommend was immediately halting the use of credit cards for local restaurant purchases. It's unclear whether that's happened yet. That's a question we asked SANDAG this week and we did not get an answer on.
S1: Well , we appreciate you keeping us up to date on this story. And we know that you'll be keeping an eye out for more. Jennifer Bowman is an investigative reporter for a news source and independently funded news partner of KPBS. And Jennifer , thanks so much for being here today.
S3: Thank you.
S1: That's all for this week's edition of KPBS Roundtable. And I'd like to thank our guests , Joshua Emerson Smith from the San Diego Union-Tribune , Mackenzie Elmer from Voice of San Diego , and Jennifer Bowman from I New Sauce. If you missed any part of our show , you can listen anytime on the KPBS roundtable podcast. I'm Matt Hoffman. Have a great weekend. Will catch up next week on roundtable.
KPBS reporter Matt Hoffman hosts a discussion with local reporters including The San Diego Union-Tribune's Joshua Emerson Smith on the effects of climate change happening in San Diego county's desert. Voice of San Diego environment reporter MacKenzie Elmer tells us about plans by the city of San Diego to transition buildings away from natural gas as a power and heating source. We also get an update from inewsource investigative reporter Jennifer Bowman on some of the excessive spending at restaurants by the regional planning agency SANDAG.