Leave it to a late-night comedian to set Sarah Palin straight on climate science:
The best line? “There’s no debate about the greenhouse effect, just like there’s no debate about gravity. If someone throws a piano off the roof, I don’t care what Sarah Palin tells you — get out of the way, it’s coming down on your head.”
And then he has a great takedown on the inevitable social media attacks he received after the original segment aired:
Nice to see pop culture taking on the naysayers. At this point, there’s probably not much more we can offer other than ridicule.
Last night we had a spirited discussion on KALW’s “City Visions” on the prospects of turning the mountains of trash we’d otherwise send to landfills into energy. You can listen to the audio here.
My takeaway is that despite all our efforts to reduce, reuse and recycle, there will always be some (hopefully small) percentage of garbage that we simply cannot avoid sending to landfills. Some of that waste may be too complicated or expensive to reuse, from pizza boxes with glue to “urine-stained carpets,” as Rob White from Sierra Energy pointed out.
San Francisco is one of the national leaders in waste reduction policies, as Jack Macy described, and is able to address about 80-90% of its waste. But there’s a remaining 10 percent that may dwindle further but will still be shipped to landfills somewhere. At this point, hundreds of tons of garbage a day exit San Francisco for landfills.
But as we argue in “Wasting Opportunities,” technologies have improved, and the state has an overriding interest in trying to figure out how to reduce landfilling and meet renewable energy goals. It would benefit all stakeholders to engage in a process to determine under what standards it might make sense to deploy some of these higher-performing technologies.
Not all waste-to-energy technologies will make the cut, but with proper, evidence-based analysis, some may shake out and provide environmental benefits. At that point, we can address the siting concerns to ensure low-income communities of color are not overburdened by deployment.
But if we don’t take action soon, the status quo on trash is simply not sustainable.
Every year, Californians send about 30 million tons of trash to landfills. While the state’s residents do their part to reduce, reuse and recycle, that’s still a whole lot of garbage. It’s not only a land use issue, it’s a climate change issue: as landfill waste decays, it emits methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.
Many other countries and states are using energy recovery technologies to turn that trash into power. Mostly it’s done by heating and gasifying the material, now using more advanced and cleaner technologies to recover energy from this solid waste. California has three such facilities in operation. But since the 1980s we’ve essentially not allowed any new ones to be built, out of concern for local pollution impacts, particularly on low-income communities of color.
But as the energy recovery technology improves and the state grapples with its needs both to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and find non-fossil fuel-based sources of energy, waste-to-energy has emerged as an important issue in the Capitol recently.
To that end, Berkeley Law’s Center for Law, Energy and the Environment (CLEE) convened a group of environmental advocates, waste-to-energy technology developers, and state and local officials to discuss prospects for moving forward on this issue.
The concerns are significant: will the technologies adversely impact nearby communities, many of which may be disproportionately low-income and of color? Will energy recovery incentives discourage recycling? How reliable are these new technologies in reducing local emissions?
Based on that discussion, CLEE is today releasing the report Wasted Opportunities: How to Secure Environmental & Clean Energy Benefits From Municipal Solid Waste Energy Recovery, which I co-authored with Daniel Gergely Szabo. It recommends solutions for the state to address this challenge, including:
- The development of technology-neutral, performance-based standards for energy recovery of waste materials that will not discourage recycling;
- A revised waste disposal hierarchy that includes energy conversion that reduces overall pollution and contemplates “dispersion” as the lowest rung beyond disposal; and
- A revised landfill tipping fee that accounts for the full range of environmental costs.
Ultimately, should decision-makers identify appropriate technologies to deploy, the state will need a discussion on land-use siting to ensure that environmental justice concerns are addressed. While that process is not the subject of this report, it would be a worthwhile second step in contemplating these technologies.
You can read more on the report page here. In addition, I will be hosting a radio show discussion on this topic tonight at 7pm on San Francisco’s KALW radio 91.7 FM, a local NPR affiliate, for the show City Visions. My guests include:
- Jack Macy, Senior Commercial Zero Waste Coordinator for the City and County of San Francisco Department of the Environment;
- Rob White, Chief Strategist at Sierra Energy, a waste gasification and renewable energy company founded in Davis, California in 2004; and
- Heather Youngs, Senior Analysis Fellow at the Energy Biosciences Institute at the University of California, Berkeley and an adjunct professor of biochemistry at Michigan Technological University.
For those not in the area, you can tune in via the website, either live or afterwards when the audio is posted.
Climate science denial may finally be waning on the right, but there’s still a long way to go. The Guardian assesses the roots of this denial, dispelling the myth that anti-vaccination ideology is a mirror on the left of climate science rejection on the right:
A 2013 paper by Stephan Lewandowsky and colleagues investigated the links between ideology and science denial. The study similarly found no evidence of symmetrical science denial between liberals and conservatives on different issues. The authors concluded that conspiratorial thinking and free market support – both prevalent on the political right – were most strongly related to science denial:
Free-market worldviews are an important predictor of the rejection of scientific findings that have potential regulatory implications, such as climate science, but not necessarily of other scientific issues. Conspiracist ideation, by contrast, is associated with the rejection of all scientific propositions tested.
Notably, left-wing anti-vaccination beliefs are more motivated by distrust of the pharmaceutical industry rather than broad-based rejection of science (although I imagine there’s some overlap).
Meanwhile, the pervasive phenomenon of smart, stubborn science-deniers continues:
This rising distrust of science is particularly high among higher-educated conservatives, in what’s been coined the “smart idiot” effect. Essentially, on complicated scientific subjects like climate change, more highly-educated ideologically-biased individuals possess more tools to fool themselves into denying the science and rejecting the conclusions of experts.
The article does note that “smart idiot” demographic change will take its toll:
However, there is good news. For one, climate denial is largely limited to a small and dwindling group of old, white, male conservatives; hence, it’s not a tenable long-term position for the Republican Party. Like opposition to gay marriage, science denial is a position that will increasingly alienate young voters in particular, who will bear the brunt of the consequences of climate inaction.
It’s a shame it has to come to that, rather than having the overwhelming evidence and weight of scientific consensus change attitudes. But perhaps in that respect, attitudes about climate change science are no different than our country’s polarized attitudes about a host of political issues.
In the fight to save energy and reduce pollution, everyone always says that energy efficiency is the “low-hanging fruit.” That’s because upgrading appliances and building performance typically saves enough energy and therefore money to pay for itself in just a few years.
So why aren’t commercial building owners in particular taking more advantage of the opportunities? And why aren’t lenders promoting these options — particularly when some estimates indicate that there could be $72 billion in market potential that’s being left on the table?
It’s the subject of much insider discussion, and a new report from Institute for Market Transformation (IMT) attempts to analyze the challenge through interviews with building owners and bankers. As Clean Energy Finance Forum reports:
“The key finding of our study was that lenders perceive a low level of demand for energy-efficiency finance,” said Leonard Kolstad, senior program associate at IMT. “That’s something we expected.”
What factors are at the root of this apathy? Building owners are highly skeptical energy retrofits will deliver reliable returns on investment, according to an article Clean Energy Finance Forum published in January 2015.
What would help? For starters, more outreach to building owners about how they can profit (i.e. raise rents) from retrofits. More building energy data would help, too, to show owners the current inefficiencies and also to prove the savings stream from certain retrofits.
It would also help to give banks a more formal role in energy efficiency incentive programs, so that banks were involved in utility outreach programs. And banks could likewise include efficiency finance as part of their environmental, social and governance (ESG) programs.
A move to pay-for-performance energy finance, as Berkeley and UCLA Law documented in a new report, could jumpstart this collaboration. As we detail in the report, measuring a predictable savings stream from specific retrofit improvements could give financial institutions something to bank on and finance, akin to rooftop solar.
Otherwise, business-as-usual is ignoring an unusual amount of business.
But new rules could change that. Per Streetsblog USA, the U.S. Department of Transportation unveiled a controversial proposal last week requiring state DOTs to track their performance:
Reformers hoped the rules would get states to reconsider highway expansion as a method of dealing with congestion and emissions, since widening roads induces more traffic and pollution. By introducing better metrics and reporting requirements, the thinking goes, U.S. DOT could compel states to document the failure of highway expansion, which would lead to pressure for a new approach.
Streetsblog is already critical of the rules, calling them “hugely disappointing.” They’d like them to go farther. Of course, road builders argue that the proposed rules are outside of the scope of statutory authority and are therefore invalid.
At this point, I think even weak rules are a major step forward, to establish the principle that these highway projects need some objective justification based on common-sense measures. In addition to carbon emissions, they should account for vehicle miles traveled, including induced travel, sprawl impacts (including induced sprawl), public health effects, and basic cost effectiveness.
In theory, the National Environmental Policy Act already requires this disclosures and analysis. But having these impacts tracked as conditions for funding under department guidelines really changes the ballgame. And weak initial rules can be tightened over time.
All in all, it’s a step in the right direction and hopefully the beginning of a sprint to clamp down on bad highway projects funded by our tax dollars.
With the news that San Francisco is now mandating solar panels on new construction of certain sizable buildings, Brad Plumer over at Vox makes the point that the city could save more carbon emissions by allowing greater housing density:
According to a 2015 report from UCLA, the average person in the city of San Francisco emits just 6.7 metric tons of CO2 per year. By contrast, the average person who lives in the Bay Area emits 14.6 metric tons of CO2 per year. (The national average is about 17 metric tons.) So if San Francisco relaxed its restrictions and enabled, say, an additional 10,000 people to move from elsewhere in the Bay Area to the city, we could expect that to cut 79,000 metric tons of CO2 per year (to a first, crude approximation). This is three times as much CO2 as the solar panel law would save.
On a related subject, Shane Phillips rails against supposedly pro-environment, liberal coastal enclaves like San Francisco revolting against this kind of housing density:
According to a 2015 NYU Furman Center report, rents and housing prices have climbed much more rapidly than incomes in places like NY, SF, and LA, while the reverse is true in places like Dallas, Houston, and Atlanta. Even without referring to the data, we’re all painfully aware of how quickly places like D.C. and San Francisco have become out of reach for lower-income, working class, and even many middle class households. This has had a disparate impact on people of color, the elderly, and other disadvantaged or vulnerable populations—and it’s happening in exactly the places that claim to care most about supporting these individuals.
I couldn’t agree more, but with one caveat: we can’t expect a relatively small city like San Francisco to assume all the responsibility for housing new residents in the Bay Area. Given its abundance of transit, it does make sense for the city to assume something like the majority of new growth, but Silicon Valley, Oakland, Berkeley, and anyplace with a BART station needs to step up, too.
Finally, I’ll just note that for those who complain that California makes it unduly difficult to build housing with laws like CEQA, it’s interesting to see how this housing shortage in urban areas is a national phenomenon. Not that reform of state laws isn’t needed, but it puts the problem in perspective.
You can’t go too far in L.A. transit circles without hearing about the Great Streetcar Conspiracy Theory. The gist is this: L.A. had an awesome rail system a century ago (the Yellow and Red Cars), but auto interests bought it up and dismantled it.
So the terrible traffic and car-dependency in L.A. is solely the result of nefarious corporate action.
Colin Marshall over at The Guardian discusses this myth, lending some credence to it by citing a problematic grand jury proceeding that supported the conspiracy. Still, he notes the complex array of factors that led to the dismantling of the streetcars:
This [streetcar] conversion process had begun well before General Motors and the others involved in National City Lines started buying up streetcar systems. By the end of the 1920s, about 20% of the country’s cities used buses only, and even in 1923 the Pacific Electric had put their order in for buses to run instead of trains on some routes. NCL did indeed replace more trains with buses after purchasing the financially troubled Los Angeles Railway in 1945, but that just continued a process that had begun much earlier, and which took place similarly across the country and indeed the world. Streetcars vanished in almost every metropolitan area in the United States, and only in 10% of those cases did NCL have anything to do with it.
He also rightly points out that the public grew disillusioned with the streetcars and refused to bail them out, while the federal government helped subsidize suburban sprawl through infrastructure investment and tax policies.
He spoke to me for the article, concluding with this thought:
So why does the Great American Streetcar Scandal live on in the hearts and minds of Los Angeles? “Angelenos are rightfully frustrated by being forced to buy cars and sit in traffic to get around, and many feel like this situation was foisted on them without the consent of residents,” says Elkind. “It’s easy to blame car companies because they’re the logical economic beneficiary of this car-oriented system. But the reality is more complex, and if there’s any conspiracy here, it’s on the part of local officials who kept approving sprawling subdivisions that have led to the present inefficient land use patterns.”
And that land use “conspiracy” continues to this day, with far-flung subdivisions approved through California that require automobiles for mobility. And it’s metastasizing to the north of L.A. County, with Supervisor Antonovich’s pet project to connect a super-highway across the Mojave Desert.
It would make Judge Doom proud.
Metro (and filming and editing technology) has come a long way since the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle days of video promos for rail. Here is a new, fast-paced video showing the Expo Line from downtown to the new extension to the beach:
May 20th will be a big day for the Westside of Los Angeles.
I’ve been a bit harsh on California’s high speed rail planners. It’s hard not to be: the route is gerrymandered to satisfy political interests, which has undermined its fiscal attractiveness and created a deep financial hole to build anything of use. The twisted route has also reduced its utility for residents in California’s major population centers, while adding to the construction costs.
Meanwhile, the current financial projections simply don’t anticipate enough funding to build anything but possibly a San Jose to Bakersfield connection. Last I checked, few people in California thought those cities were priorities for the state to connect, especially given that Bakersfield already has a pretty successful Amtrak connection to the Bay Area.
But in some ways, high speed rail has been unfairly victimized so far by our polarized political environment. Most rail systems, at least of the intra-city type, usually start with a local political consensus and then funding stream, which gets matched by federal support.
During the height of federal support for rail transit in the 1960s and 1970s, local and/or state governments only had to provide 20 percent of the funds, with the federal government paying an astounding 80 percent of the costs (astounding for transit — the feds routinely pay 90 or even 100 percent of the costs of many highway projects).
That deal became less sweet by the 1980s, when the Reagan administration got the federal match down to 50 percent, as Los Angeles experienced when that region got its Metro Rail going (as I chronicled in the book Railtown). But still, 50 percent is pretty good, even if it’s stiffing urban taxpayers who disproportionately contribute transportation taxes to the U.S. government but see less return.
With high speed rail, it could have been a similar story: a statewide consensus on route and funding stream came together in 2008 with a successful $10 billion bond issue passed by the voters. Since then, the governor and legislature have committed a substantial amount of cap-and-trade funds, which could add another $5 and possibly $10 billion or more by 2020.
But with these possible $20 billion in state funds, the federal government has only committed $3.5 billion in matching dollars to date. That’s hardly the 50% match that the federal government typically spends.
At that percentage, the federal government would have to kick in $20 billion total (a fraction of the $2 trillion spent on recent wars in the Middle East, for example). Then the system would have enough dollars to get solidly to San Francisco or perhaps to Los Angeles.
But the U.S. Congress is polarized against high speed rail and unwilling to spend much money on non-automobile modes of transportation, due to Republican resistance. And that dynamic has been in place since the Tea Party election of 2010.
All of this may explain why the high speed rail business plan has been criticized by state oversight agencies for not “showing us the money” on these initial construction phases. The reality is that high speed rail doesn’t have the money. And it won’t until Congress changes.
But given that high speed rail is a long-term, multi-decade process, the system’s backers may have a shot at waiting things out until another wave election or change in the political environment occurs. In short: the plan is to pray for a better congress.
But you can’t exactly write that in a business plan.