Second thoughts from a sunny environmentalist

The other day I got a call from a national magazine wanting to fact-check a writer's claim that progress on confronting climate change is "irresistible and irreversible" in the wake of the Paris climate summit. I wish I could have said, "Indeed!"

Alas, the last couple of months have brought plenty of signs that progress is, unfortunately, all too reversible and resistible--locally, statewide, nationally, and globally.

Even before the Paris summit, VW's cheating on tailpipe emission tests showed that there are all kinds of ways to resist the changes we need to stem global warming. China's recent admission that it dramatically low-balled its reporting of carbon emissions showed that apparent progress can easily and instantly be reversed on a global scale.

tristrambiggs325.jpgHere in Los Angeles, the Aliso Canyon gas leak, in addition to forcing thousands of people out of their homes in Porter Ranch, effectively erased more than a year's worth of reductions in greenhouse gas emissions across the entire state of California. Talk about reversible!

And resistible: Last fall, the Port of Los Angeles was found to be fudging on commitments it made in a legal settlement more than a decade ago to reduce pollution. Even while proclaiming that it was becoming the first "green" port in the world, port officials allowed a major terminal to ignore requirements to cut emissions from ships and other equipment.

Then, while Governor Jerry Brown and Mayor Eric Garcetti were in Paris touting California's achievements and commitments, the South Coast Air Quality Management District decided to backslide on emission reductions targets, allowing polluters to continue to foul our air and endanger public health.

On a national scale, earlier this month, the Supreme Court stayed President Barack Obama's ambitious Clean Power Plan to cut carbon emissions from power plants nationwide by 32 percent within 15 years. The Paris agreement--the only currently viable pathway to controlling climate change globally--depends on just such national commitments.

All of us--or many of us anyway--are doing our share to resist and reverse progress, too.

The Transportation Department estimates that the total number of miles driven in the United States has gone up 3.5 percent over the last year. Gas prices have fallen to their lowest level in more than a decade. Sales of gas guzzling SUVs are up, driving average fuel economy down. And traffic fatalities have increased 8 percent, the largest year-over-year increase in 50 years, leaving around 38,300 people dead--3,249 of them in California.

Meanwhile, ridership on LA's Metro mass transit system is down 10 percent over the past decade, despite $9 billion invested in new light rail and subway lines. In Orange County, mass transit ridership is down 30 percent in recent years.

I tend to be a glass-more-than-half-full kind of guy. Frances Anderton, producer of KCRW's weekly program on design and architecture, "DNA," once introduced me as the "sunny environmentalist." It's a label I am happy to embrace.

At the same time, I often think about journalist Emily Green's wise warning to me when I first moved here to beware of looking at Los Angeles through rose-colored glasses.

"I'm a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will," Antonio Gramsci famously wrote. I understand that point of view, but I like to think that intelligence provides good reasons to be an optimist as well.

Last fall, I was the senior editor of a report on "Bending the Curve: Ten Scalable Solutions for Carbon Neutrality and Climate Stability," authored by 50 researchers from across the University of California system. Working on the report convinced me that there are viable, pragmatic paths to bringing global warming under control by mid-century, locally, statewide, nationally, and globally. You can read more about it here.

It's not going to be easy. It's not going to get done all at once.

It can be done. But it's not irreversible. And it's not irresistible.


Is California's 100 percent renewable strategy globally viable?

We're hosting a debate at UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability on Tuesday, February 23, at 7:30pm. Join the conversation at http://www.environment.ucla.edu/oppenheim/.

Photo by Tristram Biggs.


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