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In Petaluma, climate change is an emergency

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Intense wildfires that ravage Sonoma County. Sea level rise that could soon inundate low-lying parts of Petaluma. Toxic air that makes breathing difficult without a mask.

All of this — symptoms of human-caused climate change — amounts to an emergency, according to the Petaluma City Council.

The council last week declared a climate emergency, a move that raises the issue to the highest Petaluma priority, marshaling resources of the local government to analyze the city’s contribution to climate change with a goal of zero carbon emissions within 25 years.

“I have no problem with adopting a climate emergency resolution. Obviously I think there is a climate emergency,” Mayor Teresa Barret said. “I do have a problem with thinking that that is enough, that by adopting a resolution we can give people the idea that we can check that box and move on.”

In a unanimous vote, Petaluma joins other regional cities including Oakland, Berkeley and Richmond in declaring climate change is an emergency that must be tackled at all levels of government.

In the same vote, Petaluma formed an ad hoc committee of council members D’Lynda Fischer, Mike Healy and Kathy Miller and other community members who will be appointed later. The committee is expected to review city decisions with an eye on their impacts on climate change, and recommend solutions to reducing the city’s carbon footprint.

Councilman Kevin McDonnell said Petaluma could inspire other local cities to take similar action.

“I think, if we can get rocking and rolling, countywide others will ask why don’t we have this data,” he said. “I think it’s motivational.”

The climate emergency resolution was brought to the council by Climate Action Petaluma, a group of local activists and organizations that meet frequently to craft solutions to climate change. It sets a goal of becoming a carbon-neutral city by 2045.

“In 2005, we committed to a greenhouse gas reduction of 25% below 1990 levels by 2015,” said Pete Gang, a leader in the Petaluma Climate Action Campaign. “We failed in that effort so we moved the goal post to 2020. We’re way off the mark. Part of what we need to do is honor commitments already made.”

The city will work with the Regional Climate Protection Authority to assess and track current citywide greenhouse gas emissions and publicly report on its progress toward the goal of zero net emissions.

Petaluma’s emergency resolution comes as other Sonoma County cities, including Windsor and Sebastopol, are considering similar action. It also comes as young people are speaking out more, shaming adults for leaving them a less hospitable planet. Petaluma students last month held climate marches in solidarity with students around the country.

“We are fortunate to live at this critical moment in human history when our actions have immense power to shape the future of the world,” said Natasha Juliana, a Climate Action Campaign member. “Let us seize this opportunity and make our children proud.”

Councilman Gabe Kearney said he supports forming a climate change committee to look at potential solutions, but cautioned that certain steps could be out of the city’s price range.

“It would be great to go to all electric buses tomorrow, but it’s going to come at a cost,” he said. “We need to be realistic about what we as a community see as a priority. We are not going to meet the goals unless we have money.”

Gang said the next step is for the city to appoint members to serve on the newly formed committee, which he called the Climate Cabinet. He said he would serve if asked, and called for others to serve with technical expertise in fields including transportation, energy, construction and agriculture.

“We’re not asking the city to fix this for us,” he said in an interview. “We are engaging with the city to offer ourselves in perpetuity to solve this intractable crisis that we find ourselves all wrapped up in.”

(Contact Matt Brown at matt.brown@arguscourier.com.)

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