Tag Archives: climate change

Preparing For Climate Change

A week or so ago, I suggested that it was time–past time, actually–to rethink federalism. Not to dispense with it, but to reconsider which governance tasks should be left to state and local governments and which must be tackled at the federal (or even global) level.

The problem with nationalizing too many issues is that sending authority to Washington effectively demoralizes local activists working on those issues. If the only people who have authority to do X or Y are far removed, the result is likely to be those feelings of powerlessness I’ve been writing about.

The problems with keeping too much local control over issues more properly addressed at the federal level include lack of impact and incentives for all sorts of mischief–see vote suppression..

There are also an increasing number of issues where we need all hands on deck. When it comes to overwhelming problems like climate change, even enlightened national/global efforts will require equally enlightened local measures. And individuals really can affect local decision-making.

A recent report from Inverse highlighted the resilience efforts of five cities, providing an “instruction manual” of sorts–a delineation of local measures that can make a positive difference. As the article noted, despite the grim evidence of impending climate catastrophe,

 there are a few cities whose leaders have taken proactive measures to adapt their cities and protect their residents from the climate crisis. These cities serve as models for how we can modify and strengthen our built environments, reduce human suffering, and protect urban centers from the effects of a warming planet.

Fukuoka, Japan has been adding green spaces, including parks, community gardens and green roofs. It decides where to site those spaces based on surveys of windflow through the city and other measurements to determine the most effective places to plant trees and maintain parks. These green spaces reduce extreme heat and help absorb water runoff during periods of intense rainfall.

Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, is growing plants along railways to absorb flooding and reduce heat, and developing ‘water squares’ that can absorb rainfall and ease the stress on sewage systems.

Ahmedabad, India (a city of 7.2 million that I’d never heard of) was included for its “cool roofs” initiative.

This entails using eco-friendly building materials — such as coconut husk and paper waste — and cheap lime-white paint to deflect sunlight away from buildings. This keeps residents cool. According to Madan, cool roofs reduce indoor temperatures lower by 3.6 – 9° F.

Copenhagen, Denmark has pledged to become the first city to go fully carbon neutral by 2025. It has made substantial progress toward that goal: 49 percent of all trips in the city are by bike, and 98 percent of the city’s heating comes from waste heat from electricity production. Seawater cooling measures have removed an estimated 80,000 tons of carbon dioxide from the city’s atmosphere.

Here in the United States, Chicago, believe it or not, was one of the five cities cited in the report. Chicago made the list because is was an early adopter of green stormwater infrastructure, and a developer of urban vertical farms.

In 2014, under then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the city developed a $50-million, five-year green stormwater infrastructure plan with the aim of reducing basement flooding and water pollution and improving environmental quality and climate resilience.

Some of the key features of Chicago’s plan included capturing, storing, and filtering water through green techniques rather than channeling it into storm drains; investing in permeable, or more water-absorbent, pavement to reduce flooding; compiling rainfall frequency data to better predict flooding; and offering resources on green design to maintain water runoff and reduce flooding through rain gardens and natural landscaping.

The city also plays host to one of the world’s largest urban vertical farms, which grows vegetables in a 90,000-square-foot facility. Chicago made this urban vertical farm possible by changing its zoning laws.

The linked article not only highlights these cities, but includes suggestions for how other urban centers might emulate them.

We are finally, if belatedly, recognizing the threat posed by climate change, and large numbers of citizens–especially but not exclusively young ones–are coming together to combat it. Working at the local level on measures targeted to the specific threats faced by those localities can not only help ameliorate the effects of an over-heating world, it can give citizens an opportunity to work together to effect important changes.

Ultimately, the ability to actually do something–something that clearly matters– to work with our neighbors to ameliorate a threat we all face (and that, increasingly, we all recognize) can help us overcome the extreme polarization that has paralyzed our government.

After all, there’s nothing like a common enemy to bring people together.

 

Time To Rethink Federalism

I used to begin my classes in Law and Public Policy with what I call the “constitutional architecture,” the structures of U.S. government. As I would tell students, the Founders had divided authority both vertically and horizontally–through Separation of Powers and Federalism.

Most graduate students were familiar with those terms. Undergraduates generally knew that we had three branches of government, although the term “Separation of Powers” was less familiar to them, but very few could define federalism–the division of jurisdiction between the federal government and the states. Both mechanisms were intended to provide “checks and balances”–to limit the power of the central government.

The world we inhabit is very different from the world that confronted the nation’s founders. We still need federalism–but it is past time to review and adjust the current divisions of authority among local, state and federal levels of government.

A number of those divisions are still useful and should be retained. State and federal governments have no reason to assume responsibility for handing out zoning permits or policing domestic violence disputes, to choose a couple of examples, but other current assignments of responsibility no longer make much sense. State-level management of elections, for example, was necessary in the age of snail-mail registration and index cards identifying voters; in the computer age, it’s an invitation to misconduct–an invitation that  state-level lawmakers eagerly accept.

In a number of areas, there are awkward pretenses of state “sovereignty” where contemporary realities mean none really exists. (Think of federal highway dollars that are conditioned on state compliance with federally mandated speed limits. Or the similar “strings” attached to federal funding.) 

At the other end of the spectrum, there are an increasing number of issues, including but certainly not limited to the threats posed by climate change and the pandemic, that must be addressed globally.

Then there are the increasing tensions created by legislators in red states who want to be free of the constraints imposed by the Bill of Rights.

The GOP has never gotten over its original resentment over incorporation–the odd word for the doctrine that nationalized the Bill of Rights. That process was premised on the 14th Amendment principle that fundamental liberties protected by the Bill of Rights should be a “floor”–that a citizen in Alabama should enjoy the same basic rights as a citizen of New York. States are able to enlarge on those rights, but–at least until Donald Trump managed to pack the Supreme Court with rightwing ideologues–they have been forbidden to retract them.

There are multiple reasons to revisit the division of authority between the nation’s state and federal governments. I realize that any effort to do so would be met with alarm–much as we’ve seen with calls to eliminate the filibuster that currently prevents the Senate from actually governing. We humans are creatures of habit: we become accustomed to the world we have grown up with, and assume that the structures of whatever society we inhabit are just “the way it is.” (A great example: the people who argued against same-sex marriage by insisting that marriage “has always been between one man and one woman.” That’s demonstrably false. Even if you ignore biblical history, more than half of the world still recognizes plural marriage. But it was true within the confines of their limited experience.)

A recent guest essay in The New York Times pointed to the undeniably negative effect of our current federalism on public health.

Tennessee and North Carolina are both digging out from catastrophic flooding, while parts of Louisiana were flattened by Hurricane Ida, and most of New Orleans remains without electricity. Ida’s remnants also brought even more rain to areas of the South and beyond that were already dangerously waterlogged.

In the Utter Failure to Understand What “Pro-Life” Really Means tournament, normally a very close battle in the red states, Texas is currently uncontested: Its leaders just made it easier to carry a gun and harder to end an unwanted pregnancy in the same week.

Finally, in the Colossally Botched Medical Emergency competition, it’s neck and neck across the region as Republican governors double down on efforts to block mask and vaccine mandates, along with every other pandemic-mitigation attempt made by people who are not allergic to science.

The author points out that every single one of these disasters is a public health emergency that red state governors have worsened “in every way imaginable.” (A recent NBC poll confirmed that politics has played havoc with public health. It found 91 percent of Biden voters vaccinated opposed to 50 percent of Trump voters.)

 Citizens’ health and safety– and the extent of their civil rights–  should not depend upon their state of residence. 

A Perfect Storm

I woke up yesterday to the news that Trump’s Supreme Court–through its “Shadow Docket” and by a five to four margin–had effectively overturned what lawyers call “incorporation”–an odd term for the proposition that the Bill of Rights constrains state and local governments

In a scathing dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote: “The court’s order is stunning. Presented with an application to enjoin a flagrantly unconstitutional law engineered to prohibit women from exercising their constitutional rights and evade judicial scrutiny, a majority of Justices have opted to bury their heads in the sand.”

Actually, it’s worse than that. Much worse.

Not only does the Court’s increasing use of the Shadow Docket raise serious questions about the erosion of the judicial transparency fundamental to the rule of law, the decision to allow Texas’ empowerment of culture war vigilantes achieves a goal long held by “states rights” fundamentalists: a return to the days when state and local lawmakers could impose their preferred “morality” on their citizens–and not-so-incidentally decide which citizens were entitled to equal rights– without the pesky interference of the federal government.

As I noted yesterday, approval of Texas’ ploy opens a door to civil strife far removed from the abortion wars. State legislatures can now turn private citizens into “enforcers” of pretty much any goal–and not just conservative ones. The decision effectively approves a federalism on steroids, and the unraveling of the “United” States.

I used to explain to my students that one of the salutary effects of the incorporation of the Bill of Rights was that it ensured a “floor”–so that when someone moves from New York to Alabama or Texas, they don’t suddenly lose their right to religious liberty or free speech or their protection against unreasonable search and seizure..

This case strikes a terrifying blow against that principle.

I titled this post “a perfect storm” because the Supreme Court’s abandonment of fifty years of precedent is only one of the truly existential challenges we currently face.

It is no longer possible to pretend that climate change is some sort of elitist, liberal theory that can safely be ignored. Fires in California (now threatening Nevada), increasingly powerful hurricanes battering not just Louisiana but causing flooding and chaos all the way to New England, the continuation of “extinctions” threatening to disrupt the global ecology…the list goes on. There are some valiant efforts underway to combat climate change, but the likelihood is that even if those efforts manage to moderate its effects, there will be enormous disruptions of global life–including  famines and massive population movements.

Then, of course, there’s the pandemic. Two pandemics, actually–COVID and insanity. The insanity makes it highly likely that COVID won’t be the last disease to decimate populations around the world.

Speaking of insanity, Leonard Pitts reminds us of the rising tide of rightwing violence.

While it’s unlikely we’ll see regional armies clashing as they once did at Antietam and Shiloh, is it so hard to imagine the country descending into a maelstrom of conservative terrorism, the kind of hit-and-run asymmetric warfare — random bombings and shootings — that rocked Iraq and Afghanistan in the early 2000s? Certainly, the weapons and the sense of grievance are there.

On top of all of this, outdated elements of  America’s legal architecture are impeding our ability to confront these challenges. In a recent, very important paper by Will Wilkinson of the Niskanen Center (I will have much more to say about his paper in future posts), Wilkinson concluded his analysis of what he calls “The Density Divide” with a recitation of the mismatch between America’s population realities and that framework.

As Wilkinson notes, our Constitutional system has a strong small-state bias, “which effectively gives extra votes to topsoil in low-population states.” In a country where 50 percent of voters identify or lean Democratic and 42 percent identify or lean Republican–a Democratic advantage of some 18 million voters– the GOP has erected “an imposing fortification” through gerrymandering, voter ID laws, voter-roll purges…the list goes on.

Wilkinson underscores what many others have said: we desperately need structural reforms and especially strong new legislation protecting voting rights. What he doesn’t say–since his paper was written before the Court’s recent assault on the supremacy of the Constitution–is that such protection must be nationally enforceable.

This “perfect storm” has created a genuinely existential moment. It is no longer possible to ignore the fact that American governance by We the People is teetering on a dangerous edge. The question is: can a nation burdened with a substantial minority of QAnon-believing, MAGA-hat wearing, Ivermectin-ingesting, Confederacy-loving citizens–many if not most of whom are White racially-resentful rural residents empowered by outdated electoral structures– rise to the challenge?

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Policy Works…

When I was much younger and far less aware of the complex interactions of governance and political culture, I was very critical of America’s use of the tax system to influence behavior. If the government needs X dollars to pay for the services we want that government to provide, why not simply set a rate or rates sufficient to collect those dollars? Why include provisions–aka “loopholes”–intended to promote or discourage targeted behaviors?

I’m still aware of the considerable pitfalls of using tax policy to mold desired behaviors; after all, we humans remain blissfully ignorant of the ways in which human incentives/disincentives actually work, and far too often, a provision intended to produce outcome A turns out to produce an altogether unanticipated and negative outcome B.

That said, I’ve reluctantly come to admit that carefully crafted and thoughtful policies can advance important goals. My husband recently shared with me an article from Bloomberg, reporting on one such success.

Cities, states and the federal government are trying to reduce traffic congestion, air pollution and carbon emissions, but a Catch-22 in the federal tax code works against these goals. The income tax exemption for employer-paid parking subsidizes solo driving to work, which helps explain why 81% of American commuters drive to work alone.

The tax exemption for employer-paid parking creates three big problems. First, free parking at work increases the number of cars driven to work by about a third, mostly at peak hours. Second, higher-income commuters are more likely to get tax-exempt parking subsidies. The tax exemption is also worth nothing to the 44% of American households who pay no income tax because of their low incomes. Third, free parking doesn’t help transit riders, who are disproportionately communities of color. In Los Angeles, for example, 92% of Metro riders are people of color.

Repealing the tax exemption for a popular fringe benefit is unlikely, but the discussion doesn’t end there. In a bid to reduce driving and increase fairness, the District of Columbia enacted its Transportation Benefits Equity Amendment in 2020. If an employer with 20 or more employees subsidizes parking at work, the law requires the employer to offer an equal benefit to employees who do not drive.

Called “parking cash out,” this policy gives commuters flexibility to choose between free parking or another benefit of equal value. Commuters can continue to drive and park free, or they can take the cash value of the parking subsidy and use it for anything they want, such as putting it toward the rent of an apartment within walking or biking distance of work.

California enacted a similar cash-out law in 1992. The California Air Resources Board examined the law’s effects in a travel study of 1,694 commuters at eight firms in Southern California. The 1997 study found that after employers offered the cash option, solo driving to work fell 17%, carpooling increased 64%, transit ridership increased 50%, and walking or biking increased 39%. These changes reduced vehicle travel to work by 12% — equivalent to removing from the road one of every eight cars driven to work. Employers reported that parking cash out was cheap, easy to manage and fair. It also helped them to recruit and retain workers.

This appears to be an example of policy done right: it was simple and easily understandable, it corrected inequities in the existing tax structure, and perhaps most importantly, there was ongoing monitoring by California–research to confirm (or not) that the policy change was working as intended. (One of the frustrations of policymaking in the U.S. is the usual lack of such follow-up and the difficulty of changing or abandoning interventions that have proven to be counterproductive.)

It’s getting more and more difficult for the science deniers to ignore climate change. As California and Oregon burn, as Miami spends billions of dollars trying to elevate its airport above the encroachment of the ocean, as national and international weather patterns become more and more destructive, it becomes critically important to identify and enact policy interventions that retard or at least minimize our more ecologically destructive human behaviors.

That may mean that the tax code continues to be considerably less than straightforward, but I guess I can live with that…..

 

 

 

Stiglitz On The Environment

Today, I’m largely turning this blog over to Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel-prize winning economist who heads up economic research at the Roosevelt Foundation. Stiglitz recently testified before the Senate Budget Committee on what he–and President Biden–have both correctly termed an existential threat: climate change.

The following are excerpts from that testimony.The entire presentation is at the link.

Thank you for this opportunity to share with you some of my concerns about the large economic costs and huge risks of not taking strong actions now to deal with climate change, and the large benefits of doing so.

Some of the downside risks are already apparent. In one recent year, the magnitude of destruction associated with extreme weather events—which will inevitably occur more frequently, with ever more devastation as a result of climate change—was more than 1.5% of GDP, effectively wiping out more than 60% of the growth of that year.1 But this is only one dimension of what is occurring: Rising sea level will put much coastal property under water, destroying homes and property values. Forward-looking markets have already begun to price this in—but still far from adequately.2 3

Recent studies have documented the adverse effects of climate change on health.4 We pay for this in multiple ways, including higher health care costs and a less healthy population, which means a less productive workforce. But there is no way to accurately monetize the shorter life spans and the increased morbidity….

There are, of course, some sectors, some parts of our population, some locations that will be particularly hard hit. During the past year, we have seen the inequities associated with Covid-19. Those associated with climate change are equally severe, with people at the bottom of the income ladder often bearing the brunt of the costs, with fewer resources to respond. But there is an additional dimension of inequity that speaks to our future: While Covid-19 disproportionately affected older Americans, climate change is a risk that we impose on our children and grandchildren—on the future of our country….

Let me spend a few moments discussing the real risks our economy and society face if we do not take stronger actions than we have so far. We have been treating truly scarce resources, our environment, our water, our air, as if they were free. But economics teaches us that there is no such thing as a free lunch. We will have to pay the check someday. And delay is costly. Taking carbon out of the atmosphere is far more expensive than not putting it into the atmosphere. A smooth transition is far less costly than the one we will surely face if we do not take action urgently….

The longer we delay dealing with climate change, the larger the necessary adjustments will be, and the greater the potential for huge economic disruption—an economic disruption that could make the 2008 Great Recession look like child’s play by comparison.6 The danger of a crash is particularly acute for the U.S. economy, given that large U.S. banks are the largest financiers of fossil fuel….

Economics has, for good reason, been called the dismal science. The scenario of doom and gloom that I have painted is, unfortunately, all too real. But I want to end on a sunnier note. Doing something about climate change could be a real boon for the economy.

Too often, critics of taking action point to the job losses. Change is costly. But change provides opportunity. I am also firmly convinced that the opportunities afforded by addressing climate change are enormous. The number of jobs that will be lost in the old fossil fuel industries are dwarfed by those that will be created in the new industries. The value created in the new industries will also dwarf the value of the stranded assets in the fossil fuel and related sectors. As just two examples: the number of installers of solar panels already is a multiple of the number of coal miners; the auto company with the highest valuation today is Tesla…

The current focus on changing to a green economy is already stimulating enormous innovation, innovation that holds out the promise of significant increases in standards of living. The price of renewable energy has been plummeting, and in many areas outcompetes fossil fuels. The drive for a greener society is stimulating the design of new buildings and new ways of doing agriculture, which turn out actually to save resources, particularly if we value them appropriately….

Our country especially has much to gain, because innovation is a key comparative advantage. If we are ahead of the game—rather than a laggard—we will develop technology that will be in demand around the world. If we are behind the game, we will pay a high price. It is almost inevitable that other countries will demand cross-border adjustments that will put our companies at a disadvantage….

There is much more to be done to protect the economy from the risks I have described. For instance, we need immediately to end fossil fuel subsidies and require full disclosure of climate risks—both the risks of physical damage and the financial risks. Markets on their own don’t provide adequate disclosure, necessary both for the efficient allocation of scarce capital and for protecting investors. We need to change statutes governing fiduciary responsibility to mandate looking at these long-run risks, and especially where government is at risk, as in government insurance pension schemes…

There’s much more at the link, and it is definitely worth reading in its entirety.