1221 SW 4th Ave. Suite 210, Portland, OR 97204
As the Council considers the Climate Action Plan this afternoon, I offer some observations about climate and the city.
Climate change, or, as I prefer to call it, climate disruption, is the defining issue of this century. I wish it were not true that burning fossil fuels changes the climate. But unfortunately, science tells us that this is fact. If we do not drastically reduce our fossil fuel use, we will see more and more severe weather events, leading to floods and forest fires, which will impose huge increased costs on families, businesses and governments. We will see disruption of our food supply, because, due to drought or other factors, places where we now do grow food will become places where we can’t grow food. We will see massive population displacement, as places where lots of people now live become uninhabitable – in fact Portland has already seen some migration of “climate refugees." Furthermore, we will see the extinction of many, many species– perhaps 20%, perhaps 50%, of all the species in the world.
We in Portland have both a moral obligation and an economic imperative to take steps to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. I think people understand the moral obligation: we need to do our part to save the world. Even though what we do in Portland will not in and of itself change the course of global history, the worldwide effort will be a collection of local efforts, and we should do our part. But we also have an economic imperative. Eventually, either the world will suffer a climate catastrophe, or national governments will take drastic action to require the reduction of fossil fuel use. They might very well put a price on carbon– either directly, through taxation, or through regulation. When that happens, communities that consume lots of fossil fuels – communities where you have to drive everywhere, for example – will be very hard hit, economically. Communities that have deliberately reduced their fossil fuel use will be much better prepared to live with those new taxes or regulations.
People in Portland are aware of the threat of climate disruption, and they want to do something about it. According to the periodic “values and beliefs” surveys by the firm DHM, 79% of people in Multnomah County agree that there should be stronger government policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 88% of Portlanders agree that “climate change requires us to change our way of life.”
Every day, people in Portland deliberately choose to take steps to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. They recycle, and that helps; recycling old materials takes less energy than making entirely new stuff. They put in more efficient light bulbs. They put in more efficient furnaces. People who are aware that growing lentils takes a lot less energy than growing beef might decide to have lentil soup, instead of a hamburger, for dinner.
But I think a lot of people are not aware that one of the things they can do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is simply to tolerate things that other people are doing that might sometimes be annoying, or inconvenient, but which serve to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
I’m thinking in particular of two of the policies that we have in Portland to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that generate a large number of complaints from the public. We have policies that encourage and accommodate bicycling, and we allow new apartment buildings to be constructed, especially along transit corridors sometimes without parking attached. The Climate Action Plan addresses bicycle infrastructure on page 75, and the role of compact growth on page 76.
Many people are irritated by the fact that we build bicycle infrastructure – either because they believe they have been inconvenienced by the addition of bike lanes, or because they think we spend too much money on bicyclists. And many people feel that the addition of new apartment buildings in their neighborhoods is both an inconvenience and an affront.
I think that we – and in saying “we,” I include myself – have made two mistakes in talking about these issues. First, I think people sometimes feel that their concerns are minimized, which makes them feel like they aren’t being heard. Second, we have not made it clear that simply by putting up with bicyclists and new apartment buildings, people can make a major contribution to the fight against climate disruption.
When it comes to people’s complaints about bicycles, we tend to say things like: “We don’t really spend very much money on bicycle infrastructure, and putting in that bike lane either isn’t increasing anyone’s commute time at all or, if it does, it’s only a minute a day.” Those statements are generally true. But a minute stuck in traffic seems like a lot, and any public expenditure should have a strong justification.
I think we need to start saying: “We know many people find it annoying to have to deal with bicyclists, and yes we do spend some money on bicycle infrastructure. But when people are on their bikes, they aren’t using gasoline. And there really are modern cities, like Copenhagen, where a third of people travel by bike, and that’s a major way they have reduced carbon emissions. If we want to meet our carbon emission goals, we are going to need to make it easier for people to bike and walk, instead of drive. So, although we will do our best to crack down on rude bicyclists who break traffic laws, we are going to continue to build bicycle infrastructure. We know many people will never ride a bike. But just by agreeing to put up with the idea of more bicycles on the road, you can still make a significant contribution to fighting climate disruption.”
When it comes to people’s complaints about new apartment buildings, we tend to say: “But wait – because those new buildings are going in, there will be enough of a market in your neighborhood for groceries and ice cream that you might get a new grocery store within walking distance, and a new Salt and Straw, too. It’ll be a 20-minute neighborhood! And trust us, you’ll still be able to find a parking spot.” But some people’s response is: “I don’t mind driving to the grocery store. And I don’t want eggplant-flavored ice cream with kale sprinkles. And if I can’t find a parking spot in front of my house ten times a year, that’s ten times too many. And despite all the talk about our great transit system, there’s a lot of places I just have to drive to.”
I think we need to say to those Portlanders: “We realize that those new apartment buildings can bring inconvenience. But adding more apartment buildings in the city is critical to reducing carbon emissions. For one thing, people in apartments tend to use less energy for heating and cooling than people in stand-alone houses. Also, when you have a lot of people in one place, grocery stores and restaurants do spring up within walking distance, and driving less is one of the keys to reducing carbon emissions. And when you have a lot of people living close together, public transit becomes more viable – a light rail line is a lot more economical if it picks up 30 people a stop instead of 5 people a stop – so even for longer trips, transit will become a better option. New York City has far lower carbon emissions than we do, and that’s largely because they take the subway everywhere, but the subway only makes sense because there’s a lot of people per stop. We know that the promise of better transit in the future doesn’t help you right now, but we're asking you to be patient.
"And we know that you're especially concerned about apartment buildings without parking, and we're working on polices to mitigate the impact of those apartment buildings on parking availability. But we're not going to require a parking space with every new apartment, because if we build the city around the idea that everyone will always drive, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. So we’re asking you to put up with those apartment buildings, as annoying as they might be, as part of your contribution to fighting climate disruption.”
We know from history that Americans are willing to sacrifice for a cause. During World War II, people put up with rationing of food and gasoline; rich people put up with incredibly high taxes. They knew the stakes were high, and they were ready to do their part.
I think it’s time we saw the fight against climate disruption in similar terms. I want to get to the point where some people, when they see a bicyclist getting off their bike, say: “Thank you for your service.” I want to get to the point where people say at dinner parties: “So there’s a new apartment building going in next door, and the construction’s noisy and it’ll mess with my view and it might make it harder to find a parking space. But I’m not complaining. Anything for the cause.”
And yes, I realize that might sound crazy. But the only way we are going to avert climate catastrophe is if a lot of things that seem crazy now become true.