The Livable Region
September 21, 2006

Finally!

Back in 1989, in my second term on City Council, I vividly remember the week when James Hansen spoke before the U.S. Senate on climate change. Hansen, now Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, could speak with authority, and he did: global warming was real, it was happening, and for the sake of the planet and civilization, it was time to respond. Here was Science speaking to Power.

Even as a novice politician, I realized that regardless of the urgency, change would come slowly: our economy was based on fossil fuels, and we measured our prosperity by increasing the rate of consumption. But given, as the saying goes, that the economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment, the public would accept the need for change if properly prepared.

City Council accepted my argument that we as a municipality should start that preparation, and established what became known as the Clouds of Change Task Force. I expected that within a decade, real change in attitude and behaviour would be evident.

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California has done it again.

The Governor and Legislature, though from opposing political parties, have agreed to a plan that aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2020. Not quite Kyoto, but nonetheless precedent-setting for the largest emitter in the U.S. and the world’s eighth-largest economy.

Even business leaders agree that the plan may actually aid the California economy. Venture-capitalist John Doerr on National Public Radio: “Entrepreneurs see significant opportunities to both do good and do well by innovating, by competing for new green technologies. All they want is for someone to set the rules, and they’ll go out and compete like crazy.”

The state will set up a cap-and-trade system. Companies that reduce emissions faster can sell their rights to others. And the caps will get tighter over time.

So once again, California leads the way – as it did when it first tackled air pollution back in 1947. (You can find that history here on the Cailfornia Air Resources Board website, along with a video that shows how bad the smog was in the ‘gas attack’ of 1943.)

In an article in the current Atlantic magazine, “Some Convenient Truths,” Gregg Easterbrook makes a critical point: “Action to prevent runaway global warming may prove cheap, practical, effective, and totally consistent with economic growth.” In fact, there’s hardly been an air-quality problem – smog, acid rain, ozone depletion – that hasn’t been solved faster and cheaper than anyone expected … once we decided to tackle it. The problem with climate change is, we haven’t decided to seriously deal with it.

Premier Campbell has as one of his Five Great Goals a commitment to “Lead the world in sustainable environmental management, with the best air and water quality, and the best fisheries management, bar none.”

But where’s the commitment to deal with greenhouse gases? The evidence accumulates that climate change will dramatically affect the province (arguably it already has, as manifested by the outbreak of mountain pine beetle). Yet the province commits itself to capital projects that will only take us in the opposite direction, whether through coal gasification or the Gateway Project. The latter, in particular, assumes our transportation system in the eastern part of the region will be wholy dominated by cars and trucks, and the land use will reflect that dependence. It is, as BEST’s Richard Campbell observed, “yesterday’s solutions at tomorrow’s prices.”

While California acts, we as a province and nation delay. The failure to set realistic goals to reduce greenhouse gases, to establish the rules, to set up the trading mechanisms, means we will be less competitive and more vulnerable.

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In a comment to “Car-less in Vancouver,” Seattle reader Patrick McGrath asks:

Are societal ills like those mentioned in the Sun articles (here and here) part of your calculus when you teach about increased density, nonmotorized transport, etc? If so, how do you address the intersection of your work with those issues?

A tough question, and one I’ve struggled with over the years, both as a writer and politician. Given the recent headlines and letters in the local papers, the subject of street disorder is one a lot of Vancouverites are struggling with today. In Alan Durning’s comments referenced in the previous post, he notes that the city’s mayor Sam Sullivan “sees the scourge of petty crime, drug dealing, and aggressive panhandling as a first-order threat to Vancouver’s urban renaissance.”
So let me add some perspective.

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Today’s New York Times:

From 2002 until this year, NASA’s mission statement, prominently featured in its budget and planning documents, read: “To understand and protect our home planet; to explore the universe and search for life; to inspire the next generation of explorers … as only NASA can.”

In early February, the statement was quietly altered, with the phrase “to understand and protect our home planet” deleted.

Pathetic, and tragic.

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Vancouver Sun columnist Pete McMartin is in full curmungeon today: Little Mother just wants you to know who’s the boss.” (Registration required.)

Little Mother is nice. She has the best of intentions. Of this, she is absolutely convinced. She believes she knows what is good for you, because, after all, she is a mother, and mothers know best…

McMartin’s latest scourge:

The City of Vancouver passed an anti-idling bylaw Tuesday that calls for drivers who leave a car running for more than three minutes to be levied a $50 fine…

You see how benign that is? How good for you that is? Little Mother has your best interests at heart. An idling car wastes gasoline. Gasoline, when combusted, causes greenhouses gases. Greenhouse gases cause global warming. Global warming is bad. Therefore, idling is bad. Therefore, we need a bylaw against it.

The usual formula: treat the issue with contempt while acknowledging its logic. And then, the coup-de-grace:

… every study of the Greater Vancouver region has shown that the air quality here has grown better every year since the late 1980s. Not worse, better….

The question could be asked then:

Why is there a need for this bylaw when the effect of its enforcement would have, at best, minimal impact on air quality?

But why, Pete, has air quality improved?

Could it be that all those Little-Mother laws, those interventions in our lives by government since the 1970s, have made the difference, have actually achieved the improvements which you can now use as justification to oppose anything similar?

In Jack Doyle’s Taken For A Ride: Detroit’s Big Three and the Politics of Air Pollution, you can find a detailed account of the automotive industry’s fight against environmental regulation and health legislation – every step of the way. From seat belts to catalytic converters, there wasn’t an improvement they didn’t oppose. And the techniques are all familiar: pretty much the same tools being used today to oppose action to deal with climate change.

Including ridicule and contempt.

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Today on Andrew Sullivan‘s blog:

The real danger is a newly emboldened Islamist region with a chokehold on the world’s oil….  We can pretend we can affect that outcome, but I fear we cannot. We can only watch and redouble our efforts to get energy from sources other than from a region on the verge of full-scale conflict. (Emphasis mine.)

B.C.’s strategy: redouble our efforts to build more roads, bridges and an urban form dependent on an oil-based transportation system.  And then price the system as though it were free. 

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