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Making a Change

By Sebastian Sarria

Image by Tyler Johnson


In December 2015, when world leaders signed the historic Paris Climate Agreement and committed to lowering greenhouse gas emissions, the city of San Diego was instead passing the most ambitious Climate Action Plan (CAP) at the time with a goal to reach 100 percent renewable energy by 2035. As reported by the New York Times that December, San Diegans were ready to step up and make a meaningful impact.


While all this was playing out, I found myself moving to San Diego two months later with my girlfriend, cat, and our car full of our belongings. Born in Colombia but raised in Florida from an early age, I experienced the destruction of hurricanes and how it affected communities, especially those of color and low income. Wanting to learn more about environmental policy and how to make an impact, I realized opportunities were scarce in Orlando but bountiful in San Diego.


After moving my way up in San Diego’s policy circles, the opportunity came to lead Climate Action Campaign’s community choice work as their Clean Energy Coordinator. Founded by Nicole Capretz, the lead author of the city’s Climate Action Plan and named by the New York Times as a Top 10 California of 2016, CAC’s purpose is to ensure that the goals of the city’s CAP are met, but also expanded throughout the region to stop the climate crisis.


At CAC, I led a coalition of non-profits from the environmental, social justice, faith, business, and student sectors to push for Community Choice Energy against the status quo. Under Community Choice, the city would take ownership of generating the electricity, while SDG&E, the local monopoly utility, would deliver it and bill customers. Moving in this route would then allow the city to meet its 100 percent renewable energy goal while providing a choice to San Diegans, a not-for-profit provider, and the opportunity for revenues to be reinvested back into the community.


Leaving CAC to get my Master’s degree at the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy was a very difficult decision, but one that has allowed me to learn new skills and meet new people. Since then, I’ve had the chance to work on another aspect of the CAP as an intern with the City of San Diego. In ensuring that the CAP is implemented equitably across San Diego, I’ve been part of the development of the city’s Equity Indexing Project, which will develop an equity score across the city’s census tracts. To my surprise, I’ve used the quantitative and GIS skills taught at GPS quite extensively for this project.


Since moving to Florida from Colombia, I had been known as the quiet person in the back of the room. However, after seeing the increasing number of hurricanes, heatwaves, floods, and the many natural disasters that were and continue to be exacerbated by climate change, I had to do something. While this motivated me to get out of my seat, the 2016 election got me moving. It was then that I learned the most. Everyone, no matter who, is worth listening to and is worth sharing their thoughts. Today’s problems are nearly impossible to tackle on your own, and must instead be approached and resolved together. It is only through combined action that we can resolve our most pressing issues and move our communities forward from pollution, oppression, and economic despair. Thankfully, the City of San Diego is moving in the correct direction, but only because of people like Nicole and many others that have pushed the needle further forward than previously thought possible.


Much work remains in America’s Finest City, but let’s keep on fighting.


Sebastian Sarria is a second-year Master of Public Policy candidate at the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy (GPS). Specializing in Energy and Environmental Policy at GPS, he is also the VP of External Affairs at Net Impact, a student-led organization. Prior to graduate school, he was the Clean Energy Coordinator for Climate Action Campaign and is currently a Climate Action Plan Intern at the City of San Diego’s Sustainability Department.


You may follow him on Twitter @SebasSarria1