We Need a Comprehensive Plan for Climate Change

And we need to stop fighting over the best ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The international panel of scientists that won the Nobel Prize in 2007 for its work on climate change is now predicting that — if the current rate of greenhouse gas emissions continues — sea levels worldwide may rise as much as three feet by the end of the century, according to a draft report obtained over the weekend by Reuters and The New York Times. A three-foot rise in sea levels would endanger numerous large cities around the globe, including New York, London, Shanghai, Venice, Sydney, Miami, and New Orleans. It also would spell serious trouble for dozens of cities in the Bay Area, including Alameda, Berkeley, Oakland, and Richmond.

Global temperatures may also rise as much as five degrees Fahrenheit by 2100, and ten degrees at the north and south poles, causing “widespread melting of land ice, extreme heat waves, difficulty growing food, and massive changes in plant and animal life, probably including a wave of extinctions,” The Times added in its story about the report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a highly respect body that includes several hundred scientists from around the world.

In short, if we don’t make sweeping changes in the next few years, we are headed for a series of calamities, including widespread famine, major floods, monster storms, and uncontrollable wildfires.

California has already taken some positive steps toward addressing climate change, including instituting restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions and creating a cap-and-trade system that’s designed to reduce the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere. But there is still much more that we should be doing. Instead, some of us are squabbling over competing proposals on how best to fight climate change, while others are clinging to outmoded ways of living that make matters worse.

Case in point: Over the past week, three different lawsuits were filed to block Plan Bay Area, a region-wide plan that’s designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by concentrating future growth in cities, thereby helping curb suburban sprawl and long car commutes. One of the lawsuits was filed by the construction industry, which contends that Plan Bay Area limits suburban growth too much. A second suit was filed by suburbanites who don’t want affordable housing in their communities. And the third suit was filed by environmental and social justice groups who contend that Plan Bay Area spends too much money on building highways and not enough on mass transit and affordable housing near job centers.

This third group, led by Communities for a Better Environment, the Sierra Club, and Earthjustice, makes good points. Plan Bay Area doesn’t go far enough to spur urban growth. We should be building denser housing projects in cities, with more affordable and workforce housing near jobs; spending more money on mass transit, especially local bus service; and creating more bike lanes and walkable communities — not expanding highways and extending rail lines to distant suburbs. And to accommodate this urban growth, we should enact much stricter pollution-emission laws in order to protect the health of city dwellers.

In other words, we need statewide leadership. Unfortunately, the Brown administration, Democratic legislative leaders, environmental organizations, and business groups have been locked in a battle over how to reform the state’s main environmental law — the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Earlier this week, several environmental groups sent a letter to Governor Jerry Brown, objecting to proposed changes his administration wants to make to legislation authored by state Senator leader Darrell Steinberg. SB 731 would streamline the process for approving housing near urban transit hubs, and Brown’s staffers want to expand the bill to include commercial and mixed-use projects, among other things.

Bruce Reznik, executive director of the Planning and Conservation League, one of the environmental groups that signed onto the letter, told me that a key concern with Brown’s proposed changes is that, because CEQA is the primary law used to protect low-income residents in cities from pollution-causing projects, weakening it could further endanger the lives of urban dwellers. If CEQA is going to be altered, he argued, it must be part of a comprehensive process that helps fight global warming and does so in a safe manner.

He’s right. But how do we get there? And how do we do it as quickly and effectively as possible? Unfortunately, some business groups have been using the excuse of climate change to push for a complete overhaul of CEQA, which could result in more suburban sprawl — not less. At the same time, some suburbanites are now — also unfortunately — using CEQA to try to block more urban growth and affordable housing proposed near job centers in their communities. And all this fighting is preventing us from doing what’s needed to slow down the coming catastrophes.

In seems increasingly clear, at this point, that we need a comprehensive statewide climate-change plan. And it should be science-based and as apolitical as possible to help minimize attempts to block it. In fact, Brown would be smart to assemble a blue-ribbon panel of climate scientists to create a set of recommendations on the best ways for California to reduce greenhouse gases, while minimizing harm to city residents. And then Brown and environmental groups should unite and use their political muscle to enact the plan.

Unfortunately, the federal government, because of Republican intransigence in Congress, seems incapable of dealing with the issue right now. But California, with Democrats firmly in control in Sacramento, has no such excuses.


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