National Climate Assessment: trouble ahead

duluth flood - mpr

A draft of the US National Climate Assessment was released about a week ago, and the outlook for changes headed to the Midwest and country as a whole is not good.  Minnpost has a good look at the Midwest section (emphasis mine):

Climate change will tend to amplify existing risks from climate to people, ecosystems, and infrastructure in the Midwest. Direct effects of increased heat stress, flooding,

drought, and late spring freezes on natural and managed ecosystems may be altered by changes in pests and disease prevalence, increased competition from non-native or opportunistic native species, ecosystem disturbances, land-use change, landscape fragmentation, atmospheric pollutants, and  economic shocks such as crop failures or reduced yields due to extreme weather events.

These added stresses, when taken collectively, are 

projected to alter the ecosystem and socioeconomic patterns and processes in ways that most people in the region would consider detrimental.

Much of the region’s fisheries, recreation, tourism, and commerce depend on the Great Lakes and expansive northern forests, which already face pollution and invasive species pressure – pressures exacerbated by climate change. Most of the region’s population lives in urban environments, with aging infrastructure, that are particularly vulnerable to climate-related flooding and life-threatening heat waves.

CC Midwest temp rise

Over at MPR, Paul Huttner also has a good overview, highlighting the coming “climate shock” of project 5-degree warming headed to Minnesota.


Bottom line?

This magnitude of warming will likely cause some dramatic… and potentiallyalarming changes in our Minnesota Landscape.

Our forests will shift north. Pine forests may dissapear, and transition to hardwood forests in significant sections of northern Minnesota.

Prairies will also overtake areas that are now forested…possibly even the parts of Twin Cities metro.

Increases in the frequncy of extreme rainfall events will create more events like the multiple “500 to 1,000 year” flood events seen in Duluth and southern Minnesota in the past 9 years.

The changes we’re already observing in Minnesota will continue…and the pace of change is likely to quicken in the next 30 years. Our children will live in a very different Minnesota than our parents did.

How are we doing to address this challenge?  Haven’t US greenhouse gas emissions gone down recently?  Yes, but unfortunately not enough, and we can’t just worry about US emissions.  From the report’s mitigation section (emphasis mine):

Even absent a comprehensive national greenhouse gas policy, both voluntary activities and a variety of policies and means at federal, state, and local levels are currently in place that lower emissions. While these efforts represent significant steps towards reducing greenhouse gases, and often result in additional co-benefits, they are not close to sufficient to reduce total U.S. emissions to a level consistent with the B1 scenario analyzed in this assessment. 

And remember, hitting that B1 scenario is critical if we want to avoid the most dangerous impacts and potentially runaway climate change.  For more on what the world might look like if we stay on the emissions path we’re on, take a look at the World Bank’s most recent report on 4-degree warming.

A challenge to the market-oriented urbanists


Josh Barro, over at City Journal, makes some good points about the real contribution of subsidies to the auto/transit war.  However, I’m disappointed that this is yet another example of “market-oriented urbanists” (MOUs) admiring the problem without proposing a solution.  Barro, like others before, posits that local political decisions about planning and zoning laws are standing in the way of market operations which would achieve beneficial results for us all.  If only we would just change the dang zoning, dense housing would rise, rents would fall and transit would become a more attractive travel mode (in this world there are few, if any, externalities of dense development, a position we’ll take as given for the rest of this post).

Understanding the impacts of restrictive zoning on rents is important. But every time I read one of these change-the-zoning posts, I can’t help feeling that I’m watching the discovery of a concept (densifying urban areas) that smart growth advocates and planning students have known and been advocating for a very long time.  Clarence Perry dreamed up the “Neighborhood Unit” in 1929 in an attempt to address the nation’s rising automobility and associated externalities (the Neighborhood Unit called for at least ten units per acre). There may be more market demand now for dense, transit- (or stuff)-oriented development, but the issues are the same.

More calls for density based on market forces, fine.  But what almost every single one of these articles seems to lack is any robust exploration of how zoning rules are adopted, enforced, and changed and what exactly the author proposes as an alternative.  Barro, after spending eight paragraphs detailing auto vs. transit subsidies, says “Cities should allow dense development…but locals tend to oppose greater housing density.”  Solution? None given.  Barro states, “A much smarter approach…allow looser urban zoning”.  Got your fairy wand ready for waving?  Me neither.  I haven’t yet read Matt Yglesias’s “The Rent is Too Damn High”, probably the pinnacle of pundit-driven, change-the-zoning rallying cries, but every reference to it I read talks about “regulatory framework” not public process or neighborhood preferences.  Do away with parking minimums, unrestrict maximum heights, reduce setbacks.  All fine. What’s the roadmap? How will Yglesias, Barro or Lee move these changes through the court of local landowner public opinion?  The public process piece is mostly overlooked.

Zoning laws are made by men and women and enforced by same, often times by existing landowners who are risk- and change-averse.  How often has this scene played out across America: 1) Developer buys property 2) Developer decides that in order to make profit, he/she must build something that is larger than zoning allows 3) He/she goes to neighborhood board/zoning board to ask for rezoning or variance 4) Neighbors howl that the building is too tall/will generate too much traffic 5) Zoning board caves or developer backs out 6) Project doesn’t get built or is downsized.  The other process to change local zoning happens like this: 1) City decides to update their comprehensive plan (and zoning to implement) 2) A public process occurs and 3) density is usually restricted in some or many places to less than the market might bear (especially in existing single-family neighborhoods). This is how zoning law gets made in America.  There is no single authority, no dusty bureaucrat simply refusing to pull the magic zoning lever that will unleash the benevolent market forces.  Its individual homeowners and developers showing up at public meetings, testifying, and sitting on advisory boards.  Its elected city councils voting based on the feelings of their (loudest) constituents.  Future residents don’t typically have much of a voice.  This is local democracy in action.

Do the MOUs suggest making land use authority more regional and less local as Yglesias hints at in his NYT interview?  They will encounter some strong resistance from some other “libertarians”.  Do they suggest some changes to the local public process used to adopt/change zoning rules?  If so, I haven’t read any detailed proposals yet.  Andres Duany, famous architect and urban planner (and not someone I would classify as a MOU), has proposed citizen juries, but I’m not aware of many other proposals.  Do they propose abolishing some or all local land use authority and process?  They will likely meet strong resistance from all sides, conservative and liberal alike.

So my challenge to the MOUs is this: stop writing about rent-spiraling zoning.  We get it, in some places developers can’t build as tall as they want/rents are too high.  This is the easy part.  Start writing about public process.  What changes do you propose to local government decision-making processes that would speed development and/or make the costs and benefits of planning and zoning decisions (especially the long-term ones) more plain?  This is the hard part.  Public sector planners have been working on it for quite some time, and haven’t really come up with a great solution yet.  We could use your help.

Update: Josh Barro has in fact proposed some solutions, to which he pointed me.  I don’t find any of these particularly realistic, except perhaps moving towards more rental (which is still a long shot).  None of these are process solutions either, more like total structural shifts.  He actually mentions abolishing local land use authority which I mention above, but ultimately talks himself out of it.

World on track for 11-degree temperature rise

The chief economist for the International Energy Agency, the group first formed to respond to the oil crisis in the 1970′s, talks climate change.

According to the IEA’s most recent analysis, heat-trapping emissions from the world’s energy infrastructure will lead to a 2-degree Celsius increase in the Earth’s temperature that, as more capacity is added to the system, will climb to 6 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100.

Unless there is a shift away from some of the fossil fuel energy now used for electricity generation and transportation, Birol said, “the world is perfectly on track for a six-degree Celsius increase in temperature.

“Everybody, even the schoolchildren, knows this is a catastrophe for all of us,” he said at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Happy Tuesday!

A generational shift in driving?

Sightline Daily looks at two data points from the National Household Transportation Survey:

Among older folks, driving didn’t change that much between the two studies. But among younger Americans, driving habits changed radically: folks between the ages of 20 and 40 drove far less in 2008 than their counterparts did in 2001.

This is perhaps the most compelling piece of evidence I’ve seen suggesting that there’s been a profound generational shift in America’s driving habits.

That doesn’t exhaust the analysis, of course. Some portion of this trend may be simple economics: the recession of 2008 may have hit younger folks a bit harder than the recession of 2001. (The fact that both surveys were taken in the midst of a recession was just pure dumb luck.) And there are still all sorts of questions about what’s at the root of this trend: is it young folks substituting life online for life behind the wheel?  Environmental concerns dampening their enthusiasm for cars? More young people choosing to live car-lite city lifestyles? I’m sure there are dozens of theories out there, and probably many that have a grain of truth.

And then there’s the anomaly of 50-54 year olds, who looked more like 30-somethings than 50 or 60 year olds. Is that just a data glitch, or a real trend?

Regardless, the evidence is pretty compelling for a broad generational shift:  on average, folks under 40 are driving less than their counterparts from previous years. And if that trend keeps up, it will mean less and less driving per capita, as today’s low-mileage 20- and 30-somethings hit their peak driving years.

I’d say the 2008 recession did hit young people harder, as youth employment is at an all-time low.  Minnesota may have hit “peak travel” in 2004.

How the bicycle economy can help us beat the energy crisis

Elly Blue at Grist has a very interesting series on “bikenomics”, exploring the impact of bicycling on economics, both micro and macro.  Her post on the economic case for on-street bike parking is great, and should be made into a flyer and sent to all small businesses in Minneapolis.  Her latest post deals with “the energy crisis”, meaning generally addiction to oil, high gas prices, and environmental externalities of fossil fuel use.

There’s no easy way out at this point. But if we approach energy as a transportation issue rather than a geopolitical one, we can at least start to see a way through it.

Instead of pushing gas prices back to even more artificial lows, we need to invest that money that is normally all tied up in oil into bikes … and places to ride them.

Bicycling makes a lot of sense in a landscape built for cars. Bikes are fast and flexible enough to fill the gap between transforming spread-out driving destinations to walkable, accessible communities. With 40 percent of our driving trips spanning less than two miles, the distances are feasible — so long as the roads aren’t designed to be terrifying.

It takes minimal investments, mostly in mitigating the effects of sharing space with motor vehicles, for bicycling to almost overnight become a convenient and attractive choice for many, many people.

She does conclude by saying that nothing can save us from our energy crisis (although the bike will help us get through it with “grace”).  But how much impact could it really have?  The statistic she cites – 40 percent of our driving trips span less than two miles – seems amazing.  What if we could convert some of those trips of that to a bike or walking?

According to the Metropolitan Council’s latest Transportation Behavior Inventory survey, the average household makes 10.3 motorized trips per day. Perhaps 9 of these trips include an automobile.  3.6 trips per day (40 percent of 9) at 2 miles is 7.2 miles per day.  Using average mileage, that is 116 gallons or $465 per year per household (at today’s gas prices).  Not a huge amount, but enough for perhaps a nice weekend vacation with the family.  As a region though, that’s about $500 million per year.  Not too shabby.  Plus, that $500 million isn’t going to countries we don’t like, much of it will likely circulate in the local economy.  That’s also 130 million fewer gallons of gasoline burned and 1 million fewer metric tons of CO2 released into the atmosphere, which is about 5 percent of the emissions from gasoline in Minnesota every year.

So if we can take the shortest of our short trips by bike instead of car, will we have an impact?  Not huge, but definitely measurable.  Of course, the above are numbers for just a few of the benefits, Blue offers many more.  I feel out of my depth trying to answer questions about if and how we could do it, but the most recent numbers for the Twin Cities show only cycling and telecommuting growing in mode share, so I’d venture an “it’s possible”.

America is stimulated! Minnesota could get $9.1 billion? *updated*

The Strib reports that Minnesota could get $91 $9.1 billion of the $787 billion stimulus bill signed by President Obama today.  The Business Journal says we’ll get the 19th most jobs among the 50 states, with 66,000 new ones coming our way.  Wisconsin keeps Paul Bunyan’s axe with 70,000 jobs.

I know some people that could use a job, or get back 20% of their current job right now.  Let’s get this thing going.

David Brooks calls for major infrastructure initiative (may be a socialist sympathizer)

Seriously though, it seems a lot of smart people out there are calling for the next stimulus to be about reinvestment in public goods. Others disagree.  Perhaps we need reinvestment in infrastructure just to remain competitive globally.

A major infrastructure initiative would create jobs for the less-educated workers who have been hit hardest by the transition to an information economy. It would allow the U.S. to return to the fundamentals. There is a real danger that the U.S. is going to leap from one over-consuming era to another, from one finance-led bubble to another. Focusing on infrastructure would at least get us thinking about the real economy, asking hard questions about what will increase real productivity, helping people who are expanding companies rather than hedge funds.

David Brooks: A National Mobility Project