Negotiating to avoid the kindergartners

The Paris Climate Change Agreement, reached after years of deliberation and political wheeling and dealing, attempts to neutralize Republican obstructionism, the GOP’s current raison d’être. Not that the Republicans won’t stop trying, as The Guardian reports:

Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, led the attack for Republicans.

“The president is making promises he can’t keep, writing checks he can’t cash, and stepping over the middle class to take credit for an ‘agreement’ that is subject to being shredded in 13 months,” McConnell said.

President Obama knew for some time that he needed to craft a deal that would not only lack Republican support but not need it. As The Guardian writes:

…the agreement reached in Paris was constructed with a view to making it safe from Republican attacks – which was one reason negotiations were so difficult.

The US needed a very particular kind of deal – and it required immense political capital to achieve it…

…Campaigners say the sheer fact of the deal – and its support by nearly 200 countries – will force Republicans to recalibrate their opposition to Obama’s climate policy.

“I think Republicans will have to continue to fight over fossil fuels and defend that industry in a more technical way,” said John Coequyt, international climate campaigner for the Sierra Club.

“They will be less able to fight over climate change than they were before and they will retreat in a process fight over defending the coal industry and the oil and gas industry.”

Only in America—literally.

Sprawling toward Gomorrah

Most of the American West was built after the advent of the automobile. And most of the building was unplanned. Aided and abetted by the nexus of real estate, oil, and vehicle interests, sprawl ensued, becoming the norm that blights vast stretches of once-rural landscapes.

Let’s say you’re concerned about climate change. You know that to limit its effects, carbon emissions must be contained. Ah, but what about all those vehicles now made necessary to transport people and goods between and among low-density cities and towns? Now there’s a challenge.

If legislatures make gasoline more expensive, already strapped households will be further burdened in pursuing ordinary lives. There will be political pushback from both citizens and the aforementioned nexus.

That is what happened in California, as the state’s Assembly balked at imposing more taxes on gasoline and diesel, even after the governor and the Senate had endorsed such measures.

California came close to passing really ambitious climate change legislation last week, only to step back at the last minute. The original version of the Clean Energy and Pollution Reduction Act, passed by the state Senate and backed by Gov. Jerry Brown (D), set three goals to be achieved by the year 2030: cut the state’s gasoline consumption by 50 percent, require electric utilities to generate 50 percent of their power from renewables, and make buildings 50 percent more energy efficient. Unfortunately, lawmakers had to drop the gasoline provision, the most aggressive of the trio, to get the bill through the state Assembly, even though the Assembly is heavily controlled by Democrats.

Once built, sprawl may very well be forever. Meanwhile, carbon emissions continue to increase, assuring a rise in global temperatures, perhaps to levels that destroy habitats for most species, including our own.


UPDATE Sept. 19, 2015:

Okay, there is a potential solution to the transportation-based emissions problem. Since sprawl cannot be undone, at least in the next few decades, and, therefore, we will continue to rely on the automobile to get us from one place to another, the obvious remedy is electric vehicles, a proven technology. Of course, there is still the problem of Big Oil, which has demonstrated time and again its ability to affect political outcomes. Here’s another excerpt from the linked Grist article:

A 2014 report by the ACCE Institute and Common Cause, entitled “Big Oil Floods the Capitol: How California’s Oil Companies Funnel Funds into the Legislature,” spelled out just how much:

Key members of Big Oil are some of the largest corporations in all of California, including Chevron, Exxon, Aera Energy and Occidental Petroleum. And these big corporations spend big time. Over the past 15 years, Big Oil spent a whopping $143.3 million on political candidates and campaigns. That’s nearly $10 million per year. …

Big Oil employs high profile, high powered lobbyists to ensure their interests are represented. In the past 15 years, the price tag for these lobbyists has totaled $123.6 million. In 2013-2014 alone, the top lobbyist employer, Western States Petroleum Association, spent $4.7 million.

Schauen Sie nach Deutschland

Here is an interesting, informative, and sober piece in Vox. The author, in describing Germany’s high-speed rail, suggests that we Americans could learn a thing or two about how best to transport people by train.

Riding the high-speed train between Berlin and Hamburg, Germany’s two largest cities, is a radically different experience from riding its American counterpart, Amtrak’s Acela, which connects major East Coast cities. Germany’s InterCity Express (ICE) ride is as smooth as a Mercedes on the Autobahn. The conductor comes around politely offering to bring you coffee. The bathroom doors open electronically with the push of a button for disability access. There’s no perennial stopping and starting of the train, no grumpy barking conductor, no herky-jerky rolling of the bathroom doors, none of Amtrak’s chronically late arrivals. And on German trains, the wifi actually works.

However, there is a problem, and it’s a big one, in trying to follow Germany’s lead. We Americans love sprawl, and sprawl frustrates the task of moving citizens from one burg to another.

One difference between German and American train travel is what you see out the window. On Amtrak’s Northeast corridor route, you can spend seven hours traveling from Boston to Washington, DC, without ever passing a farm. Each city’s suburbs bleed into the next. When leaving Berlin, on the other hand, in less than half an hour you’re whisked from the capital’s center to cornfields and cow pastures. This reflects not just the train’s speed but the absence of sprawl in Germany. The suburbs — a handful of detached houses with pitched roofs, many featuring solar panels — whiz by in a few minutes. Despite, or perhaps ironically because of, Europe’s greater density, you are far closer to the countryside when in a major city. There is no equivalent to the US’s unending hellscape of highways, strip malls, fast food drive-thrus, and auto body shops. Europeans’ cities were more built up before the car, and they didn’t then tear their cities apart to accommodate cars and facilitate sprawl, as we did. The US is so vast that we could pave everything within 200 miles of New York City and still have more than enough land for our corn and cows. But if Europeans wanted to preserve rural areas, they would have to use urban space more efficiently, and so they have. A much greater share of the typical European metro area’s population is concentrated in its inner city. So you get dense, transit-rich cities with countryside in between.

Sprawl, as we know, condemns us to the automobile, upon which we rely for the most ordinary daily activities. We drive from our suburban houses to fetch a loaf of bread, deliver children to playgrounds, and transport us to jobs scattered near and far. Those cars compete for limited space on our nation’s streets, roads, and highways, creating diurnal goos, which we curse and bemoan. Yet, we have no choice but to endure and suffer.

Oh, and what about all those carbons spewing forth from millions of tailpipes? We seem to be stuck with those, ultimately to our self-ruination.

Turning all this around would require a collective response, necessarily involving government. The Germans evidently understand the political dynamics, eschewing Americans’ feral faith in the individual and the heretofore unrealized magic of “the invisible hand.”

A view from without

I didn’t see this coming, as a decade-long inhabitant of Old Mill Town:

To the north is the much underappreciated Everett. Barely mentioned in the family of Puget Sound cities, it’s a virtual secret hiding in plain sight. The neighborhoods around downtown have a pleasant patina, acquired from decades of being a working class city. Its downtown is filled with lots of interesting spots – some new some old. It’s kind of like turning the clock back to the more peaceful, small town days when Seattle was a remote, backwater town. Want a less costly place to live? To paraphrase the Village People, “Go North, to begin anew!”

— Mark Hinshaw, Crosscut

Are we in danger of having to form a Lesser Everett movement? Well, not quite, I’d say. But perhaps I should be more appreciative of where I live.

Public investing

The American Society of Civil Engineers issues a periodic report on the nation’s infrastructure, assigning letter grades to each sector. In its most recent report (2013), the society gives an overall score of D+. The authors estimate that it would take about $3.6 trillion by 2020 to meet the country’s infrastructure needs.

This sounds like a lot of money, and it is. But the figure helps quantify just how much we’ve neglected our schools and roads, to name just two components. We have a $17 trillion economy. As always, how we choose to spend those dollars has everything to do with political focus and will.

According to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the U.S.’s total tax revenues represent about 25.4 percent of GDP. The OECD average is 33.7, with the highest, about 49 percent, being Denmark. At our current rate, cities, counties, states, and federal governments collect roughly $4.4 trillion per year. If the U.S. were to collect the OECD average, the country would realize $5.9 trillion/year. At Denmark’s rate, all governments here would collect about $8.5 trillion per annum.

So, we need only tax at the OECD average, or 33.7 percent, to add another $1.5 trillion a year. By 2020, we would have collected at least $7.5 trillion, or about twice the level recommended by the engineers.

I know. Not going to happen.

We had the future, then came the car

Writing for Crosscut, Leonard Garfield:

By 1890, Seattle’s streetcar system was electrified, linking and creating neighborhoods throughout the city.

Among the first successful routes: the Seattle Electric Railway line from industrial South Lake Union to downtown, built under the guidance of 28-year-old Luther Griffith and completed in just five days. In the following decade, streetcar lines to Ballard, Greenwood, Rainier Valley, West Seattle and other “streetcar suburbs” criss-crossed the city.

By the early 20th century, the streetcar system had scaled, consolidated first by the precursor to Puget Sound Energy and then acquired by the City of Seattle in 1918. By 1936, the city’s Municipal Street Railway system operated 26 electric routes, powered by the nation’s first municipally-owned hydroelectric system.

The parallel growth of a network of street railways – connecting Seattle to Tacoma, Renton, Everett and other population centers – put a seamless transit system within easy and affordable reach of nearly every Puget Sound resident.

At the same time, Seattle built two major rail hubs: King Street Station in 1906 and Union Station in 1911. They served thousands of passengers and handled enough freight to catapult Seattle to the largest economy in the Northwest.

But it wasn’t just about rail. Other civic innovations targeted different ways to increase mobility and economic growth through transportation.

The dramatic leveling of the city’s hills allowed the city to easily expand the transit system – while city engineers lay a complementary network of boulevards and bike paths (built with the upcoming century of growth in mind). And on the water front, civic engineers began building the Lake Washington shipping canal in 1911, which aimed to connect the region’s growing industrial economy with Pacific trade.

In each instance, Seattle leaders bet on the efficacy of engineering and the value of transportation innovations.

An electrified transit system facilitating rich and poor alike. What happened?

The rise of the automobile, federal investment in a national interstate highway system, and the growth of suburbia combined to render Seattle’s pre-War transit system less cost-effective and, for many politicians of the time, less attractive.

The emphasis on highways made short term economic sense: the extraordinary financial burden of maintaining the existing interurban rail system had vexed both the city and private operators almost from the beginning. By the early 1940s, the last streetcars had been pulled from service, scrapped and often replaced by trackless trolleys and buses.

The damn car!

I recently saw Elon Musk introduce battery storage (Powerwall and Powerpack) to an enthusiastic audience. He mentioned, somewhat in passing, that 100 million cars and trucks are produced each year across the globe, which is now home to two billion automobiles.

Since the mid-1930s, Seattle destroyed its urban, rail-based transit system in favor of individual cars and paved roads, inducing populations to scatter far and away from downtown. The result for us now is an antiquated, polluting, clogging car culture that drives a fossil-fuel-based economy, without which there would be no Mariners telecasts.

In response, Seattle is desperately seeking a solution it already had 75 years ago. And you think humans are smart.