Mapping Climate Change Opinions In The U.S.

Want to know which counties in the U.S. accept climate science at the highest rates and which don’t?  Which ones believe climate change is happening or that we should regulate carbon as a pollutant?

If that’s the case, then Yale has the interactive map for you.  The school’s Program on Climate Change Communication just released its “Yale Climate Opinion Maps – U.S. 2016,” which breaks public opinion surveys down to the county level across the U.S.

It’s an easy-to-use map. While it doesn’t contain a huge amount of surprises (New England and the West Coast, particularly California, are pro-science accepters), it does reveal that climate science acceptance is actually fairly prevalent in red states. Standouts include southern and northern Arizona and much of South Texas. Montana, Idaho and South Dakota also have pretty striking pockets of science acceptance, as well as parts of Mississippi along the river to the northwest.

But there’s otherwise hard-core climate denial going on from the heart of Texas north through Nebraska, and throughout coal-country Appalachia (Kentucky and West Virginia).

The website is definitely an interesting way to spend a few minutes clicking around. Congratulations to Yale for putting it together.

Could The Feds Go Nuclear On California’s Car Emissions Standards?

chargingCould California’s entire set of vehicle emission standards, including its zero-emission vehicle program that has helped launch the global electric vehicle market, come under federal assault?  It’s a worst-case scenario that would require congressional action, but it’s amazingly within the realm of possibility.

California has unique authority under the federal Clean Air Act to regulate vehicle emissions.  That authority requires the state to first seek a “waiver” from less-stringent federal standards from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  The EPA always granted those waiver requests until the George W. Bush administration came along.  His administration refused to grant a waiver for the state to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from tailpipes.

California sued, but the Obama Administration took office before the case was resolved and then granted the waiver.  But now new EPA administrator Scott Pruitt is looking not only to refuse to grant future waivers but possibly roll back previously granted ones (Buzzfeed covered the issue on Tuesday with some quotes from yours truly).  It would be an unprecedented step that would be sure to be challenged in court.

But the even deeper concern is that the litigation might prompt Congress to revoke California’s waiver authority altogether.  The Atlantic has a great piece on the situation, including this passage quoting Debbie Sivas at Stanford:

She feared that this fight in the courts would accompany a political fight in Congress, as the administration would seek to amend the Clean Air Act to remove California’s waiver power before they lost the lawsuit.

And—almost in preparation for that battle—she asked Americans to take a step back and examine why regulating greenhouse gases from cars is important.

“It feels like this very technical thing about, ‘blah blah, waivers, blah blah blah,’ but it’s a very important part of the climate policy,” Sivas told me. “People aren’t going to stop driving, really. And transportation’s 40 percent of carbon emissions. The only way to get [those emissions] down is to get [fuel] mileage up. If the feds are going to take their foot off the gas—and to fight the states who are doing it—it could be a huge setback,” said Sivas.

There’s a lot at stake in this fight. Federal fuel economy standards are prompted by California’s authority on the issue, and future standards could definitely be at risk. I have a lot of confidence in California’s legal team to fight this assault, but it would be a major setback for the time being.

But if Congress were to revoke the waiver status, and even retroactively apply it, the future of both cleaner gas-powered cars and the nascent electric vehicle market would be at tremendous risk.

Los Angeles Voters Defeat Anti-Growth “Measure S”

It was a big victory last night for the Los Angeles economy and environment.  Voters decisively rejected Measure S, a city measure that would have essentially frozen development for at least two years, with incredibly detrimental effects on local rents, housing prices, construction jobs, and sprawl.

The measure garnered just 31.5 percent of the vote, as LA Curbed reported.  A broad coalition of environmental groups, labor unions, and homeless advocates, coupled with almost all major political leaders (including the governor), mobilized against it.  Homeowners groups largely comprised the pro side.

Despite the broad opposition, many smart growth advocates were nervous about the vote.  It’s a low-turnout election in March, and homeowner groups were really playing up the “overdevelopment” and “corrupt City Hall” angle to the measure.  And on the heels of Brexit and Trump, it seemed plausible that Los Angeles voters would succumb to the same anxiety over changes in their communities, coupled with distrust of elites.

But the positive outcome won’t solve the development challenges in Los Angeles, as even the anti-Measure S groups conceded.  The city suffers from a lack of comprehensive planning to ensure growth happens in the right places (near transit, largely) and to avoid the project-by-project approval processes that open the system up to abuse and inefficiency.

My hope is that the coalition that assembled against the measure continues to stay engaged on this issue of long-term planning in the city.  They may even find common cause with some of the pro-S forces.

But for now, smart growth advocates and environmentalists can breathe a huge sigh of relief that ballot box planning didn’t rule the day.

Future Of High Speed Rail Without Caltrain Electrification — KPCC Radio Discussion

Statewide_System_2016California’s high speed rail system was supposed to rely on electrified service between San Jose (Silicon Valley) and San Francisco.  But with the Trump Administration putting the brakes on the grant for Caltrain (peninsula commuter rail) to be converted from diesel to electric motors, people are wondering how it will now affect high speed rail.

To discuss the matter, I spoke on KPCC Radio’s “AirTalk” program in Los Angeles yesterday.  I was joined by:

  • Ralph Vartabedian, L.A. Times national correspondent; he has been following the story
  • Meghan McCarty, KPCC reporter covering commuting and mobility issues

You can listen to the audio on the Airtalk page.

The bottom line: high speed rail can still continue without Caltrain electrification, but it will stop at San Jose.  Of course, it’s not slated to arrive there until 2025, which gives the Bay Area and the California High Speed Rail Authority a fair amount of time to find alternative sources of funding if the Trump Administration officially torpedoes the project.

And in the meantime, the system will be relying on funding from cap-and-trade auctions, which recently haven’t gone so well.  All in all, trying days ahead for high speed rail proponents.

How Will Trump’s Immigration Crackdown Affect The Bay Area? Join City Visions, Tonight At 7pm, On KALW 91.7 FM

With the Trump Administration escalating deportations and expanding enforcement  beyond serious criminals, how will these policies affect the San Francisco Bay Area — and beyond?  What does it mean to be a sanctuary city?  And what options are available for protecting residents?

To discuss these questions, I’ll be moderating a panel tonight at 7pm on City Visions, on local public radio KALW 91.7 FM San Francisco.

My guests will include:

  • Sheryl Davis, Executive Director of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission
  • Grisel Ruiz, staff attorney in San Francisco with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center
  • Sandy Valenciano, statewide coordinator for the California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance

Tune in or stream live and call or email with your questions!

Los Angeles On The Verge Of Formaldehyde? Vote No On Measure S

Los Angeles voters face a major decision on Tuesday: will the city retreat from future growth in existing urbanized areas, worsening its current path of income inequality, economic decline for most of the population, severe traffic and air pollution? Because that’s what Measure S would largely achieve.

The measure would effectively halt new development for the next two years that involves any planning changes, putting development pressure on areas currently zoned for more development, usually in disadvantaged communities. The result will be a broken status quo that will only get worse, keeping Los Angeles only affordable to the very wealthy and displacing or pushing everyone else out into sprawl and far from good-paying jobs.

I think most sides of this land use battle would agree on one thing: Los Angeles needs better planning to ensure more development in the right places (near transit and jobs). This measure would not help achieve that goal though.  It will instead mostly benefit existing homeowners who were fortunate enough to buy their homes at the right time or have the incomes to afford decent housing near jobs.

These individuals fear “overdevelopment” and density in their neighborhoods, and they want government to intervene to prevent it from happening.  It’s the Anti-Sanctuary City.

Madaleine Brand hosted a lively one-hour discussion of Measure S yesterday on KCRW radio, featuring many of the leading voices on the issue from all sides:

Fingers crossed that Angelenos make the right call on Tuesday, or the region will have just taken a giant step backward in terms of economic, environmental and quality-of-life outcomes.

And in the long run, my hope is that a defeated Measure S will still spark a long-overdue discussion in Los Angeles about better planning.

Leapfrogging Traditional Electricity Grids With Renewables: Tanzania’s Example
Elizabeth Mukwimba is a 62-year-old Tanzanian woman who now has solar lighting and electricity in her home at the flick of a switch, thanks to an off-grid project.  Photo from Off-Grid Electric.

Elizabeth Mukwimba is a 62-year-old Tanzanian woman who now has solar lighting and electricity in her home at the flick of a switch, thanks to an off-grid project. Photo from Off-Grid Electric.

Tanzania exemplifies so much of the future of energy infrastructure in developing world countries, as Greenbiz describes:

The East African country of Tanzania faces a serious electrification challenge. Only 2 percent (PDF) of rural households have access to electricity, and most of the rural population relies on expensive, hazardous and low-quality fuels such as kerosene for lighting and charcoal for cooking.

Access to electricity and other modern energy services is fundamental to human well-being and to a country’s social and economic development. In many countries, electrification through off-grid applications has become a cost-effective alternative to conventional grid expansion in remote areas — and this could become a model that propels Tanzania’s next phase of economic growth. Already in the country, energy systems based on wind, small hydropower, biomass and solar resources are being used successfully to meet energy demand in isolated villages. By integrating these renewable-powered off-grid systems, rural communities are increasing their access to affordable energy supplies while contributing meaningfully to climate change mitigation.

Much like the leap to cell phones over landlines, many countries like Tanzania are better served going directly to decentralized, renewable technologies rather than building expensive and dirty traditional power grids with central-station power plants and far-flung transmission lines.

The upside is a cleaner, more resilient energy system with potentially few impacts on the land.  It also means more immediate electrification for rural residents, rather than making them wait for government and utilities to build a centralized grid to reach them.

I note that in this article, batteries do not seem to be on the table for Tanzania’s rural areas, while biomass may make up a crucial portion of the electricity mix.  I have nothing against biomass in concept, but depending on the technologies and incentives involved, it can sometimes lead to increases in emissions.

These opportunities in many ways come from the developed world’s investment in renewable technologies, which has brought prices down to the point where they are now viable options for poorer countries like Tanzania.

Keep Those Smart Phones Away From Your Body?

The smart phone revolution has almost completely taken over the human race, rendering most people into neck-bent zombies hungry for their next dosing of information or messages from friends, family or colleagues.

But maybe there’s a downside to the technology, too: harmful radiation.

A few years ago, California’s Environmental Health Investigations branch assessed the risks of cellphone radiation and offered recommendations for public use.  But the branch kept the supposedly “draft” document under wraps, until my UC Berkeley Law colleague Claudia Polsky and the school’s environmental law clinic students sued to have it released, on behalf of the UC Berkeley School of Public Health.

Claudia and her clinic students just won the case in superior court, and she appeared on CBS Local News to discuss it:

Advice for those worried about cell phone radiation?  Keep the phone out of your front pocket or bra and keep it as far from you as possible while you sleep — especially for children.  Better safe than sorry!

Cold Water On Reframing Climate Change For Science-Deniers

I’ve spent some time thinking about how reframing arguments around climate change might make inroads with science-denying conservatives.  If facts don’t matter, maybe forcing deniers to think through the impacts of their ideas might work?  Or maybe try labeling all extreme weather as “climate change”?  Or talk about climate past and what we’ve lost?

But David Roberts over at Vox disparages the idea that better language can make a difference, citing recent research:

To sum up, the frames that reach people and actually make a difference are a) resonant with their existing dispositions and affiliations, b) delivered by a trusted source, and c) repeated often enough to penetrate the pervasive information buzz.

Ultimately, Roberts reasons, traditional arguments may still be the best ones, given the current political climate and way the human mind works:

This isn’t to say that other frames can’t work for particular audiences at particular times. Entrepreneurs could be (and have been) taken by the notion that climate is an enormous business innovation opportunity. Conservatives could be (and have been) taken by the notion that renewable energy offers energy independence. Disadvantaged or polluted communities could be (and have been) taken by the notion that climate mitigation also mitigates asthma-causing pollutants.

And so on. “Know your audience and speak to them in a way that resonates” is a fairly old bit of counsel, around long before cognitive linguistics, and it’s as true as ever.

I agree it’s not worth a huge effort to try to convince deniers on the science.  But if simple fixes to language and rhetoric might disarm a critic and get them to think differently, there’s also no harm in trying.

The Bad Economics Of Coal — Arizona’s Coal Plant Story

053-navajo_generating_station_01-21175170cfbfb3c4c65f406804616392Donald Trump and his Republican backers have long railed against environmental laws and regulations that disfavor coal.  Trump won in part by promising to bring back coal mining jobs.

But like so many of his claims, the truth is more complicated.  Coal mines and plants are shutting down around the country mostly due to cheap competition from natural gas, not from environmental protections.

The big case in point, and coming at a bad time for Trump, is the announced closure of the Navajo Generating Station, one of the country’s largest coal-fired power plants.

The plant is located in Page, Arizona, near the Utah border, and is such a big polluter that it is responsible for much of the haze in the Grand Canyon, as well as a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.  It provides 90 percent of the energy for the Central Arizona Project to pump water uphill from the Colorado River through a 336-mile canal to deliver water to Central Arizona farms, cities, and tribes.

For that reason, Central Arizona Project leaders were opposed to environmental regulations back in 2009 that would add costs to the station to make it run more cleanly.  But now those leaders are changing their tune.  In a blog post to his stakeholders, executive director Warren Tenney explained his change of heart about closing the plant:

Pure economics is driving the decision. The utilities that own [Navajo Generating Station] now are dealing with a power plant that is significantly more expensive than other energy options. Natural gas prices have dropped to record lows to become a viable long-term and economical alternative to coal power. This means pursuing the regulatory upgrades that were part of the compromise with EPA are even less cost-effective today. However, even if EPA loosened its coal regulations, the energy industry is headed towards having natural gas generation as the fuel of choice for many years to come.

In fact, the coal power is now so expensive compared to alternatives, Central Arizona Project leaders estimated they could have saved $38.5 million in 2016 had they bought power on the open market instead.

It’s a big test for the Trump Administration.  Do they intervene to prop up this economically inefficient plant in order to make good on campaign promises?  E&E [pay-walled] explored the options for them:

Washington is uniquely positioned to help. The government owns a 24.3 stake in NGS [the Navajo Generating Station] through the Bureau of Reclamation. When utilities announced the closure, Reclamation officials said the bureau would help identify options to keep it running.

But direct federal intervention to keep NGS running would amount to a stark reversal of previous policy, which largely focused on the idea of slowly transitioning the coal-reliant tribes toward renewables. Now, federal and tribal facilities face a ticking clock and an administration with a new set of priorities.

Complicating matters is that the plant is the economic lifeblood for the Navajo and Hopi Tribes, which receive significant income from the plant and coal mining operations on their lands.  The Arizona Republic ran an in-depth piece exploring the impact of the coal mine on these tribal nations:

Hopi Chairman Herman Honanie has worked for tribal government since 1977. He said tribal members are split nearly evenly between support for the mine and closing it because of environmental concerns.

Hopi Tribe Chairman Herman Honanie

He sides with keeping the mine open.“The practicality is we have a growing population and we have growing needs,” Honanie said. “We have one foot in our culture and the other foot on the other side of dominant society and we are trying to mesh that together.”

Approximately 350 people who work for the tribe rely on the royalties from the mine for a significant portion of their paychecks. Those workers provide services from tribal courts to hospice care for the elderly.

The tribe anticipates $18.4 million in revenue this year, and more than $12 million of that will come from mining activities and from SRP for payments based on how well the power plant performs. Less than $2 million trickles in from court fees, business taxes, and investments in the KoKopeli Inn in Sedona, Three Canyon Ranch near Winslow and Moenkopi Legacy Inn near Tuba City.

I’ve worked with members of the Hopi Tribe since 2005 and have seen first-hand the impact of the coal-mining operation on the tribe’s finances.  There are no easy answers once the operations cease, as renewables can only partially offset the employment and revenue losses.

But it will be incumbent on Arizona and tribal leaders, as well as the federal government, to blunt the impact of the closure on these communities.  Rather than intervening to save the plant at tremendous environmental and taxpayer cost, they should develop an honest employment strategy — not just for Arizona but for the whole country — about how to replace these imperiled coal jobs and incomes with something sustainable and competitive.

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