Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Warming Wednesdays: Climate change, cities and politics

Those of seeking to make the point that we humans are inexorably altering the planet's climate sure got some help from Hurricane Sandy. There's nothing like having a megastorm make a direct hit on the nation's largest city where the media is clustered to make an impression.

Edward Glaeser, an economics professor at Harvard University, who studies urban centers teased out some of the implications of city vulnerability to rising seas in a Bloomberg View column.

The world’s urban agglomerations are often particularly vulnerable to natural and man-made disaster, yet they are also especially well-suited to defend their space. … For most of human history, water-borne transport has been vastly cheaper than movement over land. To reduce transport costs, we built our cities on waterways.

… It is also far easier to imagine building sea walls to protect the geographically limited area around cities than to cover a sprawling coastline. I am no civil engineer and have no opinion on whether New York City should protect itself with massive walls or with less- expensive, less-imposing defenses, but the city needs to shield itself, and sea walls provide that barrier. The Dutch Delta Program has spent billions to protect the Netherlands, largely successfully.

… [Dutch water-risk expert Jeroen Aerts] suggests a $17 billion solution with three great walls, and says that an extra $15 billion might be required in added coastline protection. Aerts’s total of $32 billion would be roughly half the city’s annual budget. But the costs of Hurricane Sandy also ran in the tens of billions. If the alternative is giving up on lower Manhattan, which has hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of property and infrastructure, the price looks downright cheap.

… Who should pay for these defenses? The protected property owners, of course. There is no reason why New York should look to the federal government in Washington for this spending. The city has the money to pay the bill, and it should champion the principle that we only build sea walls or other barriers when the people who are protected pay for them. This helps ensure that the benefits justify the costs. We don’t want to go further down a path where every hamlet on the Eastern seaboard feels it has a right to federally financed storm protection.

I do not have the expertise to judge whether Glaeser's and Aerts' specific prescription is the right one, but that last bit points to a set of issues raised by climate disasters that all of us in this democracy need to get some grip on. Glaeser is right: "every hamlet on the Eastern seaboard" will try to demand protection and the costs will force choices to be made. And we make our choices through a complex political system that privileges wealth and inertia over scientific expertise and efficient use of scarce resources.

Because our system is organized around money influence and choke points, one of the patterns revealed by the recent election will greatly impact how we respond to climate change. Cities are Democratic Party turf, demographically and especially ideologically. The Republican's Veep candidate may have thought he was pointing out the otherness of the people who so viscerally rejected him, but he spoke a truth: Ryan Sees Urban Vote as Reason G.O.P. Lost.

New York Times graphic

Cities are ideologically Democratic; we urban folks know from experience that we need one another.

… where people live densely together, [cities] require policies and an ideology that Republicans lately have not offered.

Some of the anger from cities this election season rightly pointed out that Republican Party leaders go out of their way to mock them. They denigrate urban ideas and populations because this has repeatedly proven an effective way to gin up enthusiasm among their base…

As the Republican Party has moved further to the right, it has increasingly become the party of fierce individualism, of "I built that" and you take care of yourself. Cities, on the other hand, are fundamentally about the shared commons. If you live in a city and you think government – and other people – should stay out of your life, how will you get to work in the morning? Who will police your neighborhood? Where will you find a public park when your building has no back yard? …

… The real urban challenge for conservatives going forward will be to pull back from an ideology that leaves little room for the concept of "public good," and that treats all public spending as if it were equally wasteful. Cities do demand, by definition, a greater role for government than a small rural town on the prairie. But the return on investment can also be much higher…

The Atlantic Cities, November 15, 2012

Insofar as there's been a tendency to conflate concern over climate change with historic conservation societies and back-to-the-land movements, we are looking in the wrong direction. Dealing with the threats of global warming is going to depend ideologically on urban experience and urban values. At present those are strongly clustered in the Democratic Party. We've got a huge distance to go before we actualize the force implicit in that observation, but it sure shows where we need to work. Educating urban populations about the dangers and opportunities involved in averting the worst and mitigating the rest of human-caused climate change makes good strategic sense. Are we doing it?

Despite every other legitimate concern, we cannot ignore that our economic and social system is rapidly making the planet less habitable. So I will be posting "Warming Wednesdays" -- unpleasant reminders of an inconvenient truth.

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