Tech companies keeping quiet
The Army Corps of Engineers in its draft made some estimates, but its study covered only neighborhoods closest to the bay in the southern portion of Silicon Valley.
In that region, a severe storm decades in the future could flood buildings and contents worth $3 billion, said Mark Bierman, economics section chief in the Army Corps' San Francisco office. If the flood hits water treatment plants in Palo Alto, Sunnyvale and San Jose-Santa Clara, the total value at risk "more than doubles," he said.
Water could cover Interstate Highway 101 and state Route 237, he said. About 700,000 trips are made daily on the two freeways.
"A large enough storm will put a foot or more of water on the highway," Bierman said.
Tech companies wouldn't discuss those potential perils. Facebook, Google, Yahoo and LinkedIn declined to comment or didn't respond to requests for information. At Intuit, spokeswoman Holly Perez said, "We are thinking about this and are in the process of better understanding the science and implications behind it."
Companies also haven't shared their thinking on climate with a local business trade association, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group.
"They've been shy with us so far," said Mike Mielke, vice president for environmental programs and policy at the group. "In general, my feeling is that folks do get it in Silicon Valley," he added. "They don't have their heads in the sand. ... It's just a question of priorities and finding the right place and the right time to focus on it."
Sen. Feinstein wants action
Some are pushing businesses to get involved more rapidly.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) in April urged companies to partner in raising money for better levees in the region. Those could cost $1 billion to $1.5 billion, said Steven McCormick, president of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based group focused in part on environmental conservation.
At Feinstein's request, McCormick said, the foundation is leading an effort to bring businesses, local governments, residents and others together "and make sure people understand what's at risk." To win federal and state help in the future, he said, there likely needs to be a "commitment of significant funding locally."
But among residents and businesses, McCormick said, there is "very, very, very little" grasp of what climate change could bring to the area. "What would happen if there was even modest sea level rise is just not in people's mindset or understanding," McCormick said.
Likewise, it's challenging to persuade businesses to act when extreme sea level rise is decades off, McCormick and Mielke said.
"When you talk about a 50-year time horizon in terms of sea level rise, people's eyes sort of glaze over because that's too long for planning," Mielke said, adding that most businesses don't strategize more than five years out.
Superstorm Sandy, however, sounded alarms for some.
"There are a lot more people suddenly aware of places that might be at risk" for an unusual event, said David Lewis, executive director of Save the Bay, a local environmental group. While the West Coast doesn't have hurricanes, he said, there are wind-driven storms. And an earthquake could buckle levees.
"If sea level is higher, then more areas are at risk of flooding, including at risk of flooding from a levee that breaks as a result of an earthquake," Lewis said.
The Moore Foundation is commissioning studies to quantify climate threats and potential solutions. By the end of 2013, it hopes to present local businesses with options. McClintock said he plans to make a cost-benefit argument about why action is needed.