Monday, April 13, 2015

California is why you should be pessmistic about addressing climate change

If there's one thing that leaves me truly pessimistic about the United States taking serious steps to address climate change, it is not the climate change denialists within the Republican Party -- it is the political dynamics in California.

Often the focus on the denialists leaves the impression that if you could simply get a majority of people and policy makers to agree that climate change is a real problem, we would see significant action. However, liberal California proves the task is much more difficult. While California has taken some positive steps to address the issue, like enacting their cap and trade program, they could easily do dramatically more at no cost.

Even with California's current water crisis, one of the best things we could do for the environment is to triple the population of the state over the next two decades. We should be building new walkable cities on the California coast and significantly increasing the density of existing ones. Given how little of California’s water that is currently used by cities, there would easily be enough water for the new residents. The state would just need to get serious about a water management policy that doesn’t allow the agricultural industry to waste so much water on farm products that could easily be grown elsewhere.

From a climate change perspective, the California coast is the ideal place to have most of the American population live. Its mild climate means very little energy is needed to heat or cool buildings in the area, a significant source of CO2. The great climate is why California has one of the lowest rates of per capita carbon dioxide emissions of any states.

The nice climate also means it would be easy to convince more people to switch from cars to bikes, walking, or public transit if some new, better-designed urban centers were built in California. Transportation is one of the biggest sources of CO2 production in the country. Walkable neighborhoods combined with public transportation is the best solution. This is why, despite the weather, per capita CO2 emissions in New York City are just 7.1 metric tons compared to a national average of 24.5 metric tons. That is even lower than the 11.1 metric tons of San Diego, which has ideal weather.

One of the best things we could do for the climate is to build cities with the low-transit CO2 emissions of New York City in places with the low heating/cooling emissions of San Diego.

Every American that moves from suburban sprawl in the midwest to one of these new places would see their carbon footprint slashed to a fraction of what it was before.

A focus on dramatically increasing urbanization on the California coast is about as close as you get to a true win-win plan to reduce climate change. People who move to these new urban locations would grow the economy and become healthier as a result of the extra exercise.

Yet despite the overwhelming evidence that a strong push for increased urbanism on the coast would be a great way to help address climate change, California has pushed for the exact opposite. According to the California Legislative Analyst’s Office, “Between 1980 and 2010, construction of new housing units in California’s coastal metros was low by national and historical standards. During this 30–year period, the number of housing units in the typical U.S. metro grew by 54 percent, compared with 32 percent for the state’s coastal metros. Home building was even slower in Los Angeles and San Francisco, where the housing stock grew by only around 20 percent.”

It is a combination of terrible political rules, NIMBYism, reflexive opposition to any change, greed, and pure selfishness that has prevented California from moving this direction. If one of the most liberal and supposedly “environmentally conscious” states in the country isn't willing to embrace a mostly win-win plan for significantly reducing greenhouse gases, what are the chances the rest of the country would embrace proposals that depend on making actual sacrifices?

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