High Speed Rail and the Great Dithering
It’s Earth Day 2014, but few in the climate activism movement feel much like celebrating. After a hopeful few years in the late ’00s, progress on reducing CO2 emissions has ground nearly to a halt everywhere in North America outside of California. And even within California that progress has slowed. The climate crisis continues to get worse and the impacts, from rising sea levels to massive agricultural dislocation, seem now to be inevitable rather than avoidable.
SPUR’s Gabriel Metcalf has coined a term for this period of inaction, taken from the great California writer Kim Stanley Robinson: the Great Dithering. Here’s how Metcalf describes it:
As seen from Robinson’s science fiction–imagined future, this is the period of human history, following modernism and postmodernism, in which humanity failed to act rapidly or decisively enough to avert catastrophic climate change.
In the quarter-century since NASA scientist James Hansen alerted the public to the threat posed by human-caused global warming, emissions have only increased. It’s not that we have done nothing to address the problem; it’s that what we have done is so minimal that it is dwarfed by everything we’ve done to make the problem worse. I think it is fair to say that much of the general public, at least in the United States, has no idea just how far-reaching the changes are going to be if we continue down this path.
Metcalf argues that California, and the Bay Area in particular, are well-placed to lead the way forward:
We’re in an era when there’s real mistrust of government and of big interventions of all kinds. We’ve scaled back our ambitions to tactical, temporary, small-scale approaches to change. But climate adaptation requires us to act at the level of the big systems.
We in the Bay Area have the opportunity to lead the way. We are highly educated. We have a culture that is open to change. We have a natural setting that inspires environmental values. We are not debating whether climate change is real. We have one of the strongest economies in the world, meaning we can generate the resources to take action. The Bay Area is probably one of the best-positioned places in the world to create a working model of how an urbanized coastal region can cope with climate change.
We need to be ambitious enough to try to retrofit our region to live within a carbon budget that is sustainable for the planet. In other words, we should be striving to make the Bay Area carbon neutral. It is possible to generate the vast majority of the region’s energy and transportation needs with renewable energy: wind, water and solar. It will take time, policy change and significant resources, but it is a goal worth aiming for.
Even those efforts will, and in some cases already have, be opposed by those who are invested in maintaining the status quo. So it is worth taking a moment to understand the causes of this Great Dithering and what it means for our future, including but not limited to high speed rail.
The Great Dithering is the product of 4 related factors: austerity, financialization, allegiance to a 20th century urban ideology, and a general desire to protect existing privilege. Solve all of these four problems and we can get to a place where meaningful action to address climate change, including building high speed rail, is possible.
Austerity: Since 2009 governments around the world have been pursuing an extremely damaging policy of balancing budgets and cutting public expenditures, rather than allowing for unbalanced budgets and increases in public spending that will be required to address a major crisis like global warming. Austerity has led to several canceled HSR projects, including one connecting Portugal to Spain. It has delayed others, and in places like Britain, led transit advocates to fight each other over the perception that there’s not enough money to build everything. When governments prioritize spending less over solving problems, those problems tend to get worse. Until we abandon an austerity mentality, we have virtually no chance to address global warming.
Another challenge of austerity is that it makes it more challenging to build those projects that do make it through the anti-spending filter. California HSR is a classic example. Many of the challenges it faces with NIMBYs could be solved with more money. Build a trench or a tunnel through parts of the Peninsula, or spend more money to buy out Kings County farmers – stuff their mouths of full of gold, as Britain did with doctors when starting the National Health Service.
Financialization: This is related to austerity. It’s the idea that everything in government has to pay for itself, following a financial model. Rather than seeing public services as things government funds no matter what their efficiency or cost or revenues, this approach insists that public spending be seen as an “investment” that generates a return, or at least doesn’t cost extra dollars. This mindset includes a demand that big projects have a favorable cost-benefit analysis, almost always narrowly defined to ignore the big picture. Pretty much anything that takes significant amounts of CO2 out of the atmosphere, or reduces CO2 emissions, has benefits exceeding their costs. But in a financialized era, those benefits are ignored for a simple question of whether a project covers its construction and its operating costs. Which is a stupid thing to insist upon when facing a serious threat to our society.
20th century mindset: This is the mentality that the urban form of the 1950s is the pinnacle of human civilization. The ability to drive everywhere, live in low-density neighborhoods, buy everything at the supermarket, jet off to exotic locales, is all seen as one of the greatest innovations in history and an American birthright – at least by those old enough to grow up when this model worked. It doesn’t work any more and hasn’t for nearly ten years. But many people, especially members of the Baby Boom generation, are vehemently opposed to any change to this model. They will fight and scream and rage at any proposal for new density, for improving transit, for making it safer to walk or bike, if doing so impedes the 20th century urban model – and those changes almost always do so.
Because transportation is such a major source of CO2 emissions, the refusal to move away from the 20th century urban model makes it extremely difficult to achieve the kind of CO2 reductions that are needed. Any effort to reduce CO2 emissions from urban transportation gets attacked as a “war on cars” – as if it’s somehow bad to wage a war on something (climate change) that will have a greater impact on our civilization than did the Second World War. Global warming is a product of that 20th century urban model, and until we move beyond that model, we are locking ourselves in to significant increases in global temperatures.
Protect existing privilege: Many of the NIMBYs who oppose projects that reduce CO2 come from a place of privilege. They own homes, hold good jobs, are often white and usually, though not always, are male. Peninsula NIMBYs are typically wealthy, especially those living in Atherton. They are some of the best examples of people fighting to protect existing privilege at the expense of the future of our society. Their names will go down in the history books as the handmaidens of catastrophe.
But they aren’t alone. To their number must be added those with spectacular wealth who oppose reducing CO2 emissions because doing so will cost money. A lot of money. Chris Hayes just published a fantastic new article comparing the fight to stop climate change to abolitionism:
The last time in American history that some powerful set of interests relinquished its claim on $10 trillion of wealth was in 1865—and then only after four years and more than 600,000 lives lost in the bloodiest, most horrific war we’ve ever fought.
It is almost always foolish to compare a modern political issue to slavery, because there’s nothing in American history that is slavery’s proper analogue. So before anyone misunderstands my point, let me be clear and state the obvious: there is absolutely no conceivable moral comparison between the enslavement of Africans and African-Americans and the burning of carbon to power our devices. Humans are humans; molecules are molecules. The comparison I’m making is a comparison between the political economy of slavery and the political economy of fossil fuel.
The political economy of fossil fuel has led the Republican Party, backed by oil money, to become extremely hostile to any effort to reduce CO2 emissions. It’s one major reason why they refuse to spend money on passenger rail. The Koch brothers are also waging war on solar power. Australia has seen fossil fuel magnates become political activists and, in some cases, founders of new political parties designed to maximize the burning of as much CO2 as possible. Canada’s government has been in the hands of the Alberta oil industry since 2006. The Western States Petroleum Association is one of the most influential lobbying groups in Sacramento and has successfully watered down efforts to slow or stop fracking in the Golden State.
Some activists blame right-wing funding of conservative climate deniers for the Great Dithering. But I don’t see a lack of belief in climate change as the problem. That is just a rationalization for one of the four deeper factors described above.
Until we jettison the idea that government should spend less money, stop insisting that public projects be cost effective or at least generate sufficient revenues to cover costs, abandon the failed 20th century urban model, and refuse to protect existing privilege, we will continue to dither as the the globe gets hotter and the effects grow more dire.