Friday, October 9, 2009

Why Climate Change Won't Matter

It seems that we can't turn a corner without climate change being attributed to some problem or something that we are doing having an impact on climate change. Wait, wait. Before you click away and think that this is some skeptic panning the latest report, fear not. If anything this report is one of climate agnosticism. In some regards, I don't know if I care or not about climate change. The reason is because climate change has usurped nearly every other issue.

While scientists and environmentalists fight over how soon the sea level will rise 4 inches, millions of children and adults will face increasing obesity-related illnesses; our seniors will become more isolated and institutionalized; thousands more will die in auto-related accidents, and our cost of living will spiral because of our insatiable demand for cheap oil will be surpassed by the growing third world.

These are the really pressing issues of the next decade. Saving energy with compact florescent lightbulbs and driving a Prius (of which I do both) will have little effect on greenhouse gas emissions and carbon-based energy usage if we continue to build our communities in ways that only further necessitate travel by automobile. As so many others are starting to loudly point out, we can't greenwash our way out of our excess using more consumable gizmos.

“…if sprawling development continues … the projected 48% increase in (VMT) between 2005 and 2030 will overwhelm expected gains from vehicle efficiency and low-carbon fuels.

Even if the most stringent fuel-efficiency proposals under consideration are enacted, vehicle emissions still would be 34% above 1990 levels in 2030 – entirely off-track from reductions of 60-80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 required for climate protection.”
Growing Cooler: The Evidence on Urban Development and Climate Change" by Reid Ewing, Arthur C. Nelson, and Keith Bartholomew

The truth is that none of the popular solutions being discussed have anything to do with the actual urban form of our communities. Perhaps that is the inconvenient truth. Perhaps the truth is that the anthropogenic impact on our climate is in fact irreversible and changes are inevitable. Which areas are better suited to manage change - the cities or the suburbs? I will continue to argue that the cities must be nurtured and supported because they will not only be havens for resilience in the new economy but they are uniquely positioned to accommodate the human condition regardless of the climatic condition. Lest we not forget that cities have long been the centers of civilization in varying geographies and climates, and during a wide range of economic times. Suburbs, conversely, are generally a monoculture (which as my friend Tony Sease recently pointed was in itself an oxymoron). As such they are predicated on highly leveraged, isolated developments tied together by predominately auto-oriented transportation networks. And like monocultures in nature, they are less resilient to change. One small jump in the price of gas in the summer of 2008 began to unravel the sweater.

Until we start to really address the fundamental issues of community growth and development, our gizmos will remain on the fringe of making any difference. This means that we must begin to radically rethink how we do business. Far too often, we have been forced into a one-sided solution created by a specialist with little regard to the larger picture. Sure, greenways are great, but are they built at the expense of a basic sidewalk network that can be used to walk to a store? Do our stormwater management practices actually encourage more sprawling development patterns at the behest of water quality. Do we build large schools in far flung locations because of land cost and generalized standards? Are we funding road widening and highway expansion because they are shovel-ready? And do we fund transportation improvements along a single corridor rather than seeking out more comprehensive solutions across the network because of short-sighted funding and policy directives.

I firmly believe that sea level rise, variable rainfall, and variable extreme temperatures can all be adapted to by our cities. Cap and trade will not ensure a walkable neighborhood in which our graying population can remain active in through their retirement years. Nor will it prevent obesity and its various illnesses including heart disease and diabetes. According to the March 10, 2004 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association (Vol 291, No. 10), the number two cause of death in the United States was poor diet and physical inactivity (just slightly behind tobacco) but it represented a larger percentage change from the previous decade - a nearly 33% increase. Interestingly, the second most rapidly growing cause of death is death by automobile which has recorded a nearly 72% increase from 1990 to 2000 growing from 25,000 to 43,000 deaths each year.

We are on track to kill more people with our poorly built communities than with sea level rise and I suspect that driving hybrid cars will have little impact on either of these trends in the next two decades. It's time that we start to have a frank discussion about the realities of today rather than the scientific speculation of tomorrow and let our policies flow from more mutually beneficial solutions. Walkable urbanism is capable of resilience in any climate. And it is better suited to improving the human habitat as well. But, if climate change is due to truly impact us, I firmly believe a city will be the preferred development pattern.

1 comment:

  1. Right on as usual. I think,under the current housing/credit/demographic crisis, folks are going to see eco gagetry as an answer rather than face the consequences of retro-fitting where we live.
    Scott Dadson