By Matthew Owens March 16, 2013
Winston Churchill famously said that Americans will do the right thing, once they've exhausted all other options - but that won't work - not here and not now. Not with climate change. We've missed the boat to do the "right thing," and bad things are headed our way. But, if we swallow our pride and act in spite of being late, we can prevent bad from becoming much, much worse.
At this point, every day - no, actually every hour that we wait – that we put off action, is an insult and an assault against future generations. We, as the current generation(s) will suffer too, if nothing else than in the form of righteous anger sent our way from those younger than us. So if we want to do the right thing - the smart thing - and be able to show our faces in public, we need to act now. And we need to act big.
Above: Strong incentives could eliminate most sprawl and lead to high density, walkable developments; each orange circle has a radius of about 1 mile - most points could be reached within a 15 minute walk. Immediately surrounding these areas would be parks, farms, and recreation areas. Such a radical change in development patterns would yield significant efficiencies and add up to major savings and other benefits for individuals. But convincing society to accept such a plan would be hard. Click for a (very) large image. This map was built using USGS maps.
A broad review of the scientific literature leads me (and several others) to conclude that there is high confidence losses from climate change are already inflicting significant and direct costs (financial and otherwise) on regional scales. Furthermore, climate costs will only expand as the years go by. We're locked into a lot of impacts; that's just the nature of the climate system. There are lags of years or decades between rising greenhouse gas levels, warming, and then ultimate impacts on human and ecological systems.
There was once hope to limit warming to 2.0 degrees C (3.6 F) by 2100, but that target has now shifted to 4.0 degrees C (7.2 F) in the eyes of many. And increasingly, scientists are questioning if we might even hit 6.0 degrees C (10.8 F).
Under such a warming situation, desert zones (which are already expanding) will rapidly expand - and vast areas of agriculture and civilization stand in the way. Unless we build massive aqueducts and somehow find enough water to feed those aqueducts, entire cities, like Dallas and Phoenix just won't be habitable. Surrounding farmland and ranchland would be lost. These impacts from a "6 C" warming would be devastating.
Below: two graphs comparing a projection of what a typical year in the future would look like for Dallas, Texas, population 1.2 million, if the 6 C mark is reached. Images originally from "Is Dallas done for? And what about the rest of the country?"
Additionally, current projections for sea level rise keep rising themselves, and now one meter (about three feet) of sea level rise by 2100 is considered within reason. In fact, even more is considered possible; a few climate scientists have pointed out that large, rapid losses of ice shelves, in a similar fashion as the Larsen B ice shelf, could cause multi-meter sea level rise this century. A rise of five meters would displace nearly 20 million Americans from the lower 48 states (Strauss et al., Environ. Res. Let. 2012). Their homes and property would be lost – not just devalued or sold off to the bank – no one would ever use that land again. At one meter of sea level rise (the three feet we expect by 2100, and which is mostly locked in because of the climate system's inertia), between three and four million Americans would lose their homes (Strauss et al., Environ. Res. Let. 2012). But these figures are based on current population, not future, meaning the true number could actually be higher.
So I think we, among reasonable people, can safely agree that at least a few tenths of a percentage point of global GDP will be shaved off each year by climate change, regardless of our actions moving forward. This isn't small when it happens year after year. And this loss comes from destruction and lost earnings opportunity, not relative or temporary devaluations in property. These are hard losses.
Even though we're locked into certain warming consequences and our actions now can only make the next decade or two marginally better, we still need to act, and our actions will be critical nonetheless. From how the next generation treats us, to the world we live in, the impacts of our actions will catch up to us.
Relevant external reading on this topic is introduced in an examination of the 4 deg C warming mark, here. And for a more recent perspective on this issue, which actually ups the ante to 6 deg. C, see here.
A radical plan
From my perspective, the logical thing to do is to rapidly implement strong incentives to quickly move us off fossil fuels. Efficiency, electric cars, and renewable energy are all great, but so far, on their own, they are far too little. We need to restructure the physical arrangement of our society. With incentives, disincentives, and well-executed policy, we can redirect the power of the free-market to do this work for us.
These incentives would essentially force a construction boom - to replace most single-family housing and associated sprawl with high-density areas that are walkable and thus eliminate the need for 80% or more of vehicle traffic. But this would just be one facet of the plan.
Other strong incentives for renewable energy and disincentives against fossil fuels would spur a rapid roll-out of wind, solar, and other non-fossil fuel energy, while also adding more pressure for high-density redevelopment.
And finally, a set of policies and incentives/disincentives to increase the consumer price of meat, as well as food that's farmed far away from its place of consumption. Meat consumption and food sent long distances accounts for an enormous percentage of our climate impact.
These measures would be a radical series of policies. For instance, in response, many Americans would probably relocate within 10 to 20 years. But many Americans already move in similar time periods now, just for different reasons - and similarly, based on incentives we've established through our tax, legal, and economic system. Society would also change and adapt to the new conditions. Financially, there would be winners and losers, but with proper policy, the losers could at least be kept from suffering total loss. Meanwhile the construction boom and other economic activity from the restructuring and incentives could easily start a large and broad economic rally, resulting in a return to positive real-wage growth and increasing quality of life.
What it would look like
In my own area, a suburb of D.C., I image that most of the single-family homes around here would be leveled, with only a a fraction left standing (or more likely rebuilt) and essentially turned into wealthy estate homes or farmhouses. The "city center" for my neck of the suburb is now a few four to five story buildings and a strip mall. It would become the new town center with residential and commercial buildings built together - a walkable, denser community, yet with more access to open space. And, if built to proper standards, it's actually feasible to have as much or more privacy in higher density living than the typical suburban home affords.
So where there is now a continuous suburb, there would emerge a network of theses dense, small developments, with most residents working there in their development. Residents would easily walk to work, stores, and other regular necessities. Goods would either be brought in by electric-powered truck, or possibly electric train if feasible. Travel between these new "suburb-cities" would mostly happen by some form of zero-carbon public transit, such as light rail, or bus. Videoconferencing would be an important tool for communicating between offices in different locations, as it is now; and it might allow some people to work for a headquarters that they rarely, if ever, physically went to.
These dense centers would need to be of sufficient size to maintain schools, hospitals, and other infrastructure. Perhaps 25,000 to 100,000 would be the right size. Portland, Maine has a population of under 23,780 (2010 Census) within its true city area, which is basically a peninsula that's two miles long and a mile wide, and it makes a useful example.
I lived in Portland for over two years, and did a fair amount of walking through the different neighborhoods. It's far from dense and could easily have the population doubled within that two square mile zone without changing the feel of the place by much. I lived in a two story, free-standing building with one other apartment above me and one efficiency at the back. Full-sized houses, like the type in most wealthy suburbs were just a few blocks away. So it could be made much denser. See this Google Map image to get an idea (and notice the many green spaces alongside buildings and tucked-away private gardens:
View Larger Map
The 2 x 1 mile city area was easily walkable too. I lived on the far end of that true city area, and could walk to most central parts of town in about 10 minutes. Walking clear from one end of the city to the other took just about half an hour. All in all, very reasonable. With some simple zero-carbon forms of public transit, the effective radius could be increased.
New York City provides what is perhaps the upper limit for population density, showing that just one square mile can house 70,000 to 140,000 people. I totaled the 2010 Census data for one area of Queens, and one area of the Upper East Side, respectively, to arrive at those figures. However, the NYC model has few natural or private areas within that population zone. Creative and informed architecture design can increase green space, on roofs, even along the sides of the buildings, and on the ground. Without fossil fuel burning cars in the city space, water features: streams, ponds, and waterfalls could even be incorporated. With natural areas close-by, especially if they produce edible produce, residents will become much more engaged in protecting their local - and by extension, global environment.
In the final vision, there would be dense developments; and surrounding them would be farms, country estates, recreational areas, and natural parkland. Access to natural open spaces would be fast and easy. There would also be large solar and wind farms at varying distances. Some places would have two-tiered hydro stations nearby, built to store excess wind and solar energy, for use when the wind is too quiet or the sun is too faint.
The big cities would still exist too, mostly the same, but cleaner and with more green areas. Most people would be inclined to move to within walking distance of their job. Small vehicles that still operated would be electric-powered. Bigger vehicles would have more options, including electric. Much of the revenue from the disincentives programs would go to compensate individuals for property losses.
Perhaps the first and most noticeable benefit would be the increased free time, as commuting would often mean a few minutes walk, instead of a 30, 60, or 90 minute commute. For the worker who spends one hour commuting each way now, that adds up to 500 hours spent commuting per year, or 20 full days worth of time. If you've battled your way through rush-hour traffic on the roads or in the subway stations/train stations/bus terminals, then you already know that it's rarely a good way to start your day. It's far from a productive use of your time. If you're lucky, you'll read for a few minutes between stations. In addition, walking is a much more predictable way to commute.
From a numbers perspective a shorter commute is a major benefit: An hour-long commute to work means 500 hours a year commuting; with a 40 hour work week, that translates to 12.5 weeks of work-time per year. Or, from another angle, the average American earnings (non-supervisory employees) per work hour is about $20 (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; February, 2013) – so that 500 hours per year could add up to $10,000 in extra income! Replacing your commuting headache with a five or ten minute walk (commonly known to stimulate ideas and make you healthier at the same time) is an all-around major win.
Not having to own a car would be another huge financial benefit. The average cost of owning an automobile, taking into account fuel, maintenance, repairs, loans, insurance, etc., comes to about $9,000 per year per car (AAA, 2012).
But there are other benefits to not having a car. How many times do you have to get it repaired, serviced, or deal with a flat? How many hours of your life have you spent waiting at the repair shop? Or, if you park in a garage, that also probably costs a few hundred a month, coming to a few thousand a year. If you're not paying it, your employer is, and they're keeping that money out of your paycheck! Plus, there's just the general hassle. Then there's the fact that gasoline is a noxious volatile substance. So, in total, not owning a car would save the average American about a lot of money, time, and trouble.
If you're thinking public transit is a real solution, it actually takes over an hour (as calculated by the D.C. Metro's website) to commute from most suburban areas to D.C., or the very outskirts of D.C. From what I hear, this is typical of most cities. I've done exactly that commute before, so I know they aren't kidding. Then there are the unexpected delays and outages. And that time spent in transit doesn't include the 10 to 30 minutes spent walking to an initial bus stop, then waiting for the bus. To make it even less attractive, it costs about 4 to 5 dollars each way. $10 a day comes to $2,500 per year spent on metro and bus fare. What a pain when the alternative is a short walk and costs nothing, but maybe an extra visit to the shoe repair shop each year and a rain poncho?
If total savings on not having a car, plus increased time worth about $20,000, per year (per average worker) does not convince you, then consider what else you could do with 500 hours of time per year. You could get those eight hours of sleep each night you've always wanted. You could spend more time with your family, friends, neighbors, volunteering, in recreation, enjoying music, going to church, building model ships, exercising, inventing, studying, anything!
But there would be even more benefits from the drastically reduced air pollution. The European commission has concluded that air pollution lowers life expectancy for the average European by nine months. Various reports, research, and estimates all confirm that air pollution from cars kills large numbers of people prematurely. That's both in the U.S. and all around the world. In the early 2000's the WHO estimated that 70,000 Americans died prematurely per year from air pollution. Both cars and coal-fired power plants emit most air pollution.
In addition to all the above benefits of this plan, there would be a large increase in the availability, quality, and access to natural parkland and outdoor recreational areas for the average citizen. I guess this could lead to yet more health benefits from increased exercise, but I'm thinking about quality of life improvements - having open space and natural space for outdoor activities of all types. With our current sprawling neighborhoods and cities, it's often hard to find a park, and the good ones usually require a drive. How many people really enjoy time in the great outdoors of their front lawn (with the neighbors staring at you)? Of course, as it is now, most of us don't actually have the time to even go to the park!
There are other benefits, but this article is getting long, so let me just quickly go over accountability in the goods and services you buy and use. Our current system is set up so that people live far from where they work, and often far from where they shop. Going to the store, whatever type of store, is often a hassle. It takes time to get there and back, and you have to plan to avoid rush-hour. But, if for example, you lived in a two-square-mile city area, you could walk to most stores in 10 minutes. You could return products, or let the store-owner know if their products or services were faulty - instead of just sighing, shrugging your shoulders and tossing the product (and your money) away. Word would spread faster too. Merchants and service providers would have a much harder time selling junk. Government services would also be more accountable when the city hall, and the officials themselves are no more than a few minutes walk away.
So there it is. I have a hard time imagining how increased access to parks, increased overall health, an increased life-expectancy, an extra 500 hours of free-time per year, and a savings of $9,000 per year would be something to argue against. If I were a politician and I offered these things, and the people took me seriously, how could I not get elected? Add to this a construction boom and economic resurgence with real-wage growth.
Obviously, this plan would be opposed by many. But those who stand to benefit the most would likely not be as concerned. And considering how many people drive cars now, most people would actually stand to benefit. But even so, would they go along with a plan like this? The other aspects: less meat consumption, local food production, solar/wind roll-out would be good for the country, but also receive vocal oppositions from a minority of vested interests. The biggest hurdle would simply be convincing people to support it. People are reluctant to accept – let alone agree to – change of any type, even when it benefits them. The benefits here would be enormous, as outlined above, and of course the original purpose - to prevent catastrophic damage from climate change. But, this plan would likely be painted as "Big Government" and "Orwellian" and "Communist" and all kinds of other malarkey. Both Democrats and Republicans, or liberals and conservatives would likely shoot it down. That's just the way people are, they don't like change, especially when that change isn't part of their grand vision for how the world works - and here in America, that grand vision doesn't include government influencing development (even though government does, people don't think of it as doing that). Something as visible and radical as this idea would really get most segments of society up in arms.
So maybe the solution is to form a partnership between business and government somewhere in this country and make such a vision become reality on a local level – somewhere where the people have open minds and are willing to try it – and see what all these benefits and savings really do. If they are as good as they seem, the rest of the country would have a harder time resisting the adoption of similar policies. In fact, if this vision were brought to light in a transparent way with all stakeholders in agreement, it would be a seamless "new development," something to make the headlines. People around the country would take note, and the idea just might start spreading. We're at the point where radical ideas are needed to address climate change, or else we will be radically hurt by climate change. So why not try something that's an all-around win? Fundamentally, the ideas that support this vision are all well-established and validated - now they just need to be brought together.