Thursday, January 29, 2009

The urgency of regionalism

Climate change, the politics of stimulus, and the 50-year view

Susan Solomon
Susan Solomon won the National Science Award 10 years ago for figuring out that our use of aerosol cans had dug a hole in the ozone layer. Earlier this week, Solomon reported that all of humanity must face the fact that Earth is on a path toward massive climate change. She predicts that the American Southwest will become a permanent Dust Bowl, that world rainfall will drop by 15 percent, that killer drought will prevail through most of Africa and Asia, that there will be coastal flooding like we’ve never seen, and, worse, that all of these problems will last for 1,000 years.

Solomon says that these are the consequences we’ll all face as a result of our having allowed atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions to rise to 385 parts per million. If, as everybody expects, CO2 rises to 450 and 600 parts per million in the next 30 years, things will get much worse.

Solomon also said that even if humans reduce carbon dioxide emissions right now, we won’t stop that parade of horrible from occurring. “You have to think of this stuff [greenhouse gases] as being more like nuclear waste than acid rain,” she told the New York Times.

Acid rain is easy; it can actually be abated by pollution control. Atmospheric CO2 is not so easy.

So imagine you’re Barack Obama. Our brand-new president had been in office only six days when Solomon published her report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Facing economic collapse and a need to exert global leadership on terrorism and now on climate change, Obama has the very practical political challenge of keeping his political coalition together.

That means that he’s got to get a stimulus package through Congress.

What will make it tough is that even the hundreds of experts who are advising him on domestic policy choices find it difficult to come to agreement about where, and how, to do economic stimulus that is consistent—by any stretch of the imagination—with the crisis of which Solomon writes.

How do you prevent CO2 emissions from going even higher, while still getting the economy back on track?

Answer: You make sure that the very next federal dollars that get spent don’t make our climate problems worse.

Cities: the solution, not the problem

Even before the Solomon report, many thoughtful Obama advisors felt that there’s no time like right now for a commitment to re-urbanization—especially here in the Great Lakes basin, which will survive both drought and rising sea levels—because folks who live in cities use less energy per capita than folks who live in low-density suburbs and exurbs.

City-dwellers use less energy per capita because they take public transportation and because many of them live in apartment buildings, which are much more efficient than single-family houses.

But Americans are not the only folks whose actions have contributed to the atmospheric carbon-dioxide overload. The Europeans are energy-eaters almost as voracious as we are. India and China have large and growing carbon footprints. Of six billion humans, almost one-third live where coal is the chief energy source. And I doubt that there is anybody who is wise, clever, or powerful enough to keep Chinese or Indian officials from erecting new coal-fired power plants.

Back in the USA, the likelihood of an abrupt change in energy policy is slim. The possibility of a smart change in urban and in transportation policy, however, has never been better.

A big (100-member) group of academics, consultants, activists, NGO leaders, and public officials has been advising Obama that America’s cities are the solution, not the problem, to most of our economic, environmental, and social challenges, and that Washington needs to refocus on the opportunity that strong cities could provide our nation as a whole.

In this week of Solomon’s report, however, there is some disharmony in the group. Some members are regionalists who worry that all the proposed reforms and policy changes will be trumped, overwhelmed, set aside, and generally ignored in the rush to get large-scale federal spending underway to stimulate the economy. Others are staunch pro-city folks who say that the stimulus plan should just be what the US Conference of Mayors put forward—a 400-page list of every imaginable local project, which in Buffalo includes fixes for Middlesex Road, for the Historical Society, for the Canal Side project at Erie Canal Harbor, and for lots of other stuff that has nothing to do with environmental cleanup, green energy, or avoiding global climate catastrophe.

Solomon’s paper was published on a day when there was a 62-part email debate about how best to convince Obama not to throw “stimulus” money into thousands of anti-green, pro-sprawl road projects—even as macro-economists thump the tub for more spending, any spending, just so long as there is a whole lot of it. And soon.

It’s a real crossroads, folks.

A time for decisive new urbanism

“Cities are not the problem,” Obama said in a major campaign speech last spring. “Cities are the solution.”

The important news is that Obama convened this big group of pro-city folks early on, and he has also named a leader of his White House office of urban policy.

Now is the time, many of the folks in the broad Obama orbit believe, for regionalism.

Every regionalist is an advocate for densely settled cities with a small carbon footprint. I would be delighted if the 40.5 square miles of Buffalo contained the 550,000 people who called the city home in 1950, when Buffalo’s ancient city lines held five out of every seven residents of Erie County. In 2000, Buffalo had shrunk to three out of 10 residents of Erie County, but the population of Erie County hasn’t grown in more than 30 years. (This is what sprawl is, folks: same number of people over a much larger area.) The sprawl in this region was accompanied by a massive expansion of roads, the destruction of the central-city trolley lines, and the massive expansion of low-density housing, all of which requires carbon-dioxide-emitting personal vehicles to get to.

Regionalism is that clumsy word that means refocusing development in central cities but also accepting that the city is the capital of a metropolitan region that should be governed in the same structure as the city. Practically, regionalism is a refreshed advocacy for urbanism. Politically, it is a radical movement against 50 years of the destructive power of fractured suburban governance. In terms of the environment, regionalism is a recipe for a climate future that is less of a nightmare than the one Solomon predicts if we stay on the course we’re on.

But we don’t have a consensus among pundits about some critical points. Some don’t want to think about global climate change. Very few indeed want to jump in and tussle with the local politicians who will never endorse regionalism—which means metropolitan governance that is centered in cities. The most respected folks who have Washington power these days are the ones who use the sweet, non-controversial language of America being a “metro nation,” and who eschew all talk about governance.

But here’s the problem. Greenhouse gas emissions from personal gasoline-powered transport is now a global threat. Any language that masks the problem of continued sprawl may hurt the effort to get the electorate to understand the challenge, and the need for an end to sprawl.

Stimulus, projects and the future

Meanwhile, there is the politics of the stimulus package. The US Conference of Mayors is not a group of climate scientists or even of pro-city policy wonks. It’s a group of politicians that has put forth a list of projects that it wants funded in Obama’s stimulus plan.

The mayors’ list is not crazy. Yes, it’s full of pork, but it includes many billions of dollars for water and wastewater infrastructure that could make the Great Lakes region cleaner and more liveable over the next several decades. (George W. Bush ignored global climate change for eight years, and also critical water-quality issues, too.)

Should the Southwestern United States become uninhabitable because of the coming Dustbowl conditions that Solomon and her colleagues predict, having clean Great Lakes water just may come in handy for, say, maintaining human life.

But will the stimulus thwart global warming? Will infrastructure projects that get us greener transportation, cleaner water, and smoother streets change our planetary destiny?

Probably not—unless those infrastructure projects are radically focused on knitting urban regions together, and focused not just on the problem of what to do about the next quarter, but about the next 50 years.

Bruce Fisher is visiting professor of economics and finance at Buffalo State College, where he directs the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.