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The best investment in reducing human impact on the climate

By
May 29, 2007

Whether you agree with the vast majority of scientists who say human activity is having a profound and possibly disastrous effect on global climate change or not, it is beyond reasonable dispute that our behaviors have some impact. Some hesitate to take action fearing it would harm our economy. There is one investment that would have a beneficial impact on both our climate and the economy – a massive investment in public transportation.

The greatest need for this kind of public investment is found in the newer cities of the South and West, but even cities in the East with built up public transportation systems need an infusion of investment money to update their transit networks to lure more people from their cars. Automobiles represent the largest single source of environmental pollutants that impact both our health and climate. While increases in mileage of automobiles would be welcomed, the impact will take years of huge investments to come about.

Estimates place the cost of increasing auto mileage averages by only five miles per gallon at over $20 billion; possibly reach in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Eventually, that investment will be paid for by the public either in subsidies or when a new car is purchased. This effort should continue and is essential to the overall effectiveness of any plan to reduce human impact on climate.

But another investment of a similar magnitude in dramatically increasing rail and bus systems in the new cities would have a greater impact on the climate and at the same time would greatly reduce the increasing tensions in cities with clogged highways and lengthy commutes.

What we need is an investment in infrastructure similar to that made by President Eisenhower in the 1950’s when the nation invested heavily in the interstate highway system. This massive investment actually was a subsidy for both commercial and individual vehicle drivers that beneficially impacted the economy. Since then our investment in highways has dwarfed the initial investment to become the largest public sector expenditure in our time.

The contribution of transportation to greenhouse gasses amounts to approximately one third of the total, followed by the process of generating electricity. The latter category of course presents a problem for any call to increase public transportation which would in turn increase electricity usage by the transportation systems themselves. The good news is that this category is seeing a net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions while the transportation sector continues to grow. Furthermore, alternate methods of production of electricity are already available and others in development.

Several cities, including my home town of Los Angeles, have begun the process of revitalizing once abandoned rail transportation systems. These efforts are limited because of the huge capitalization costs involved. It is estimated, for example, that it will cost $9 billion to extend the initial subway line an additional 12 miles to the coast. Other, less expensive above ground rail lines are under construction or planned at an additional $2 billion.

Some have questioned the wisdom of either light or heavy rail construction in a day when most people prefer to travel by car. Using Los Angeles as an example of the conditions already existing in many of the newer cities, rail and especially systems that are either above or below surface streets is the only viable solution. Freeways, for which this city is famous, are even more expensive to build and most have been expanded to their limits. Every time a new lane is added it simply attracts more cars and there is no net relief.

Our transportation crisis is really one more facet of the over developed American demand to be catered to as an individual and rejection of community interests. When the cities of the South and West were developed after WW II, the freeway came into vogue as a way to make possible living in a detached home in a suburban environment. As a result, development spread horizontally and people became dependent upon the automobile to get around. That dependency became a matter of faith and people now expect the convenience of private transportation even as they decry the increasing gridlock of highways.

We can afford public transportation systems that offer the best of both independent and public approaches. Public systems may never match the convenience of driving to market alone, but they excel at delivering large numbers of people to work and play. No amount of investment in highways can match the efficiency of public transportation. What is needed is the planning and commitment to invest in public systems that are convenient, safe and affordable.

Such systems cannot rely upon either private investment or self-financing. They are not only a matter that benefit the users of such systems but are as much a benefit to the entire community. Congress needs to step up to the plate and provide a major boost in funding of public transportation systems.

The public needs to step up to the plate and modify its desire to drive alone when alternate means are available. In large part this is a matter of public attitudes and a willingness to recognize that community interests are a valid concern when determining how one acts in our private life.

13 Responses to The best investment in reducing human impact on the climate

  1. Carl Nemo

    May 29, 2007 at 9:05 pm

    Great input concerning a complex problem Phil…!

    Most people don’t realize we are witnessing the failure of world paradigm. The current world population is 6.3 billion and is projected to increase to 10.5 billion by 2050.

    Our reliance on fossil fuel is so insidious that breaking a heroin habit is a piece-of-cake by comparison.

    To make the necessary changes will depend on government with input from the best minds on the planet. There is a conflict of interest between the business community and their monetary needs juxtaposed to what’s best for the planetary inhabitants. Mega-businessmen look at the bottom line with little or no kinship with feelgood pap concerning greenhouse gases etc. unless forced to comply by governmental intervention. If the government becomes corrupted by the influence of these very same businessmen, then the proactive pressure for change is eliminated and nothing gets done. So the planets citizens are between a rock and a hard place!

    Also the governmental systems of the world no longer work and seem to be outdated for our times and the complex crises we face. Democracy allows for too many conflicting inputs creating a “Tower of Babel” situation” and by the time a consensus is reached it turns into another corporatist/governmental boondoggle. Communism has been demonstrated to be a failure because it encourages the few to exploit the many, with little to no benefit to the citizens. Interestingly the U.S. government has become a mirror image of Sovietski style communism. Our Congress has become nothing more than a “politburo”; i.e, via the “republicrat party” and are nothing but policy facilitators for the ruling elite, such as the Bushistas;i.e., the current regime. Russia has embraced capitalism but it’s become an unregulated form of “pirate capitalism” as is in “Red China” which is still a communist country, but their leaders have accepted the money-making side of “pirate capitalism”, but not the human rights side. China is building modern society but unfortunately mimicking the worst of the West with old-fashioned coal-fired plants etc. Their waters and soils are grossly polluted and the co-operation between the private sector and the government oligarchs is a sham. The governments of the world and their systems have become a hodgepodge mess of gross inefficiency that’s endangering “lifeboat earth”. My suggested model for modern govermental systems is that found in Scandinavia and other highly educated Nordic countries where there’s a benign synthesis between socialism and capitalism. The taxes might be high, but there’s benefit to the people; i.e., the taxpayers, with visible benefit to the common good. The people don’t mind paying high taxes as long as there’s something coming back to them in the form of a quality institutional product in the form of medical plans and functional social safety nets.

    Although I’m generally not a fatalist, my research indicates we are headed for a major breakdown, first through collapse of the worlds financial system followed by nuclear war, either global or theater based. Famine will follow along with pestilence etc. The history of the world seems to demonstrate flux; i.e. chaos being a catalyst for change. People seem to be content as stupid cattle until the proverbial “poop” hits the fan. This is an old, old world and “there’s nothing new under the sun. I’m not a religious person, nor a bible nut, but there are passages from the Judeo-Christian bible that are very succinct and my favorite is from the Book of Ecclesiastes:

    Eccl 1:3-18 NIV) What does man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun? {4} Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever. {5} The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. {6} The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course. {7} All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again. {8} All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing. {9} What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. {10} Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time. {11} There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow. {12} I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. {13} I devoted myself to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven. What a heavy burden God has laid on men! {14} I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind. {15} What is twisted cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted. {16} I thought to myself, “Look, I have grown and increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.” {17} Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind. {18} For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief…

    Carl Nemo **==

  2. Paolo

    May 30, 2007 at 12:34 am

    Those proclaiming that humans have created global warming continually say that “the majority of scientists” back them up. The technique being used here is to get a bunch of scientists, most of them on the public dole (either as state-supported university professors or government researchers) to agree to an alleged “scientific fact,” and then announce the finding as if the case has been proved.

    Of course there are hundreds of fine scientists (usually not on the public dole) who dispute that global warming is happening at all.

    But my point is not to ask you to blindly support one group or the other. Let’s just ask a few questions an intelligent layman would ask, and then apply our best judgment:

    1) Is climate not a phenomenally complex system? Do we know (or even have any idea) what caused climate fluctuations of the past? For example, geologists believe there were NO ice caps whatsoever during the age of the dinosaurs. Ice ages have come and gone several times over the past few million years. We can guess at what caused these dramatic changes. But we don’t KNOW for a fact the exact answer, because the problem is too complex and there are too many unknown factors. We also know that the middle ages were relatively warm, but we have only vague hypotheses to explain why this was so. In like manner, we know that a “mini ice age” occured in the seventeenth century for about 30 years; again, we don’t have any solid idea why this happened.

    2) Basing global warming theory on COMPUTER MODELS (the basis for most GW theories) ignores the most basic law of computers: GIGO (garbage in, garbage out). You can have the greatest computer system in the world, but it can only spit out the data you put into it. Have all the complexities of climate been entered into these computer simulations? Obviously not: we don’t know all the factors.

    3) Carbon dioxide is only a small factor in the “greenhouse effect” which keeps our planet warm. Water vapor is far more important. Yet all the blame goes to CO2, which is estimated to account for only a tiny percentage of the greenhouse effect. Have human beings put more water vapor into the atmosphere?

    4) Factors that allegedly lead to global warming put into effect other factors that tend to reduce global warming. In other words, there are feedback loops, many of which we may not yet understand. For example, if global warming occurs, more water vapor is put into the atmosphere, resulting in more cloud cover. But clouds tend to reflect sunlight, limiting the amount of global warming. Another example: an increase in CO2 leads to greater growth of vegetation, which converts the CO2 into O2 as part of the carbon cycle, thus mitigating the effect of increased CO2. Also, increased vegetation tends to cool the earth’s surface in and of itself, by created more shade and absorbing, rather than reflecting, sunlight (the opposite occurs with large areas of concrete, which do reflect sunlight; hence the “heat island” effect of downtown areas and airport tarmacs).

    5) On a philosophic note, it is the nature of human beings to exaggerate their own power. If we invented a time machine and sent a crack crew of scientists back to the Middle Ages, with a mission to reduce that era’s climate warmth, they probably could not do it. The same team would also fail if we put them in a time machine and told them to reverse a previous ice age. The factors in climate are huge, far beyond our puny human capacity to change in any significant way. For example, the energy released by a typical hurricane is far more than that released by an exploding H-Bomb.

    6) Lastly: even if global warming is occurring, can we say without a doubt that the effect is entirely negative? With an increase in temperature, parts of the globe that are now barren wastelands might very well turn into rich farmlands. You might see abundant crops growing in northern Canada or Alaska.

  3. Rob of UnSpace

    May 30, 2007 at 1:00 pm

    Paolo,

    The vast majority of data, whether from satellites mapping the mass distribution of the Earth, core samples from the Antarctic, or worldwide temperature measurements indicate that global warming is occurring and is anthropogenic. Scientists that follow the data are thus saying global warming is real. Those who don’t understand the research or don’t like the results are the few who reject the concept of global warming.

    1. Yes, the climate is a very complex system. So’s your body. Would you avoid going to the doctor until we understand absolutely everything about the human body? That doesn’t strike me as wise. It’s those changes in the climate in the past that are why we can look at the data and understand how human changes to the environment are raising the Earth’s temperature. They are part of the very reason the scientists are so concerned about global warming.

    2. The computer models are probably wrong. The computer models are predicting the arctic ice would not melt nearly as fast as it actually is. The global warming appears to be far worse than the models predict, thus making any attempt at remediation far more important. But the computer models are all saying that the Earth is warming. We can close our eyes and pretend there’s not a problem, but that doesn’t help us much. The computer models merely help us to understand what’s going on, but to demonstrate that global warming is occurring right now, you don’t need any computer models. Just take a look at the world average temperature records. When are the 20 hottest years in the past 100? That’s a far greater concentration than random chance would ever permit. No computer models needed.

    3. Other gases, like water and methane, are also studied for their effect on the greenhouse effect. We’re measurably affecting the concentration of CO2, methane, and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere; water cycles and temperature tend to control the effects of water. If you say that the concern is only over CO2, then you haven’t looked at the actual science. Methane, which has far more “greenhouse effect” is far more of a concern. Scientists tend to speak in terms of the CO2-equivalent, simply to give them numbers to easily work with. But no one seriously doing research in the field would ever say it’s all and only CO2.

    4. You complain about the computer models, and then you bring up the complex feedback loops that are involved. The computer models are necessary because of those feedback loops. Those feedback loops have been studied, and nothing found so far will provide a sufficient negative feedback to stop global warming at levels that are not harmful to humanity. You’re asking us to sit around and hope something saves our butts, even though we know of nothing that will do that. Does that sound reasonable to you? Maybe leprechauns will suddenly appear and repair all the damage, but I’m personally uncomfortable depending upon that scenario.

    5. It’s more typical of human beings to ignore problems until they are extreme. You can measure the increase in the atmospheric concentrations of CO2, methane, etc. We caused that. Do you remember sulfur rain? The claim was made that humans could not be causing the added sulfur in the atmosphere because we’re just not that significant. Eventually, even the Reagan administration had to admit that humans were causing the acidification and that controls had to be put into place. Honestly, the track record of those who claim “humans couldn’t cause that problem” is 100% — 100% wrong. Why should we believe you now?

    6. The damage to Alaska’s infrastructure will be over $10 billion dollars. The changes in climate will either require mass migrations of people or result in starvation and dehydration deaths for large populations — probably both. The climate changes will destroy ecosystems and render extinct many plants and animals. Not only is that biodiversity necessary for the environment, but notice the number of medicines based on plants and animals. Wiping out so many species simply isn’t good for us on a number of fronts. Again, you ask us to hope that something unforeseen might happen to make everything better. You’re asking us to bet our future on vague hopes with no foundation in fact.

    Maybe it’s because I’m older, but I’ve learned that squeezing my eyes real tight and hoping the bad thing will go away doesn’t work. You have to be adult enough to confront your problems and do something about them while you still have the chance.

  4. Carl Nemo

    May 30, 2007 at 12:01 pm

    Great post Paolo…

    Carl Nemo

  5. Phil Hoskins

    May 30, 2007 at 2:00 am

    Phil Hoskins

    What is the state of public transit where you live? What are the needs? What projects are either in process or under consideration?

    What are the estimates of the cost of providing effective public transit where you live?

  6. Carl Nemo

    May 31, 2007 at 2:59 am

    The Portland, Oregon area and SW Washington are quite progressive. Portland and the surrounding area have a state of the art lightrail system that is constantly in a state of expansion. The system also has superb, punctual bus service. Our county has bus service to even fairly remote outlying rural cities that link up with the main services to the inner city. They use downsized buses for these routes due to the limited number of passengers.

    In addition they have bus service for disabled folks. They simply call, make an appointment, then this smaller bus will come to the house to take people to their appointments. When done they’l come back to the place of appointment and take them home. This service runs quite late too so disabled folks can enjoy some nightlife activities if they so choose.

    The buses are clean, state of art etc. They also have bike racks on the front so bicyclists can mix their mode of transportion with the bus service. Hopefully they will be converting to hydrogen fuel cell technology.I believe Chicago is bringing hydrogen fuel cell buses on line or have completed the conversion.

    As far as dollar amounts spent, it’s my understanding that the C-Tran system is in the black as far as operating revenues are concerned unlike many other cities in the U.S. I would say I’m living in a fairly progressive area with planners that are savvy about creating and maintaining a viable public transportation system.

    Another feature is the system has “Park and Ride” lots to concentrate folks onto the bus lines. So folks can drive to one of these lots, then an express bus;i.e., no stops transports them to the the inner city. There are bus lanes on the freeway that are expressly for the purpose of bus transportation between certain hours, also for those that are car-pooling. These lanes are strictly enforced during the designated public transportation hours with officers ticketing those that are foolish enough to try using these special lanes. Urban sprawl is still an issue in many areas and both county and state planners are making an effort to discourage such through state/county mandated zoning restrictions.

    Carl Nemo

  7. Sandra Price

    May 30, 2007 at 6:11 am

    Here in the Phoenix area the whole of Maricopa County exploded into many poorly planned communities where new freeways were planned but still involved the use of individual autos. Our speed limits are higher than yours but our signage on the freeways is poor and at 70 MPH being in the correct lane to exit a freeway is often the reasons for so many accidents.

    I remember the old electric trains on Santa Monica Boulevard when I lived in Santa Monica and we could go into Westwood and Los Angeles for a dime. Transfering to a bus was simple and safe.

    I’m always impressed when I visit my daughter and Metro system around the D.C. area. We headed into the city and around the whole area, including the zoo from one parking lot near her home. What heaven!

  8. Asta

    May 31, 2007 at 9:08 am

    Considering that the permafrost is melting, the Eskimo people might have valid opinions about what’s going on, now that their houses are sinking into the mud.

  9. Donnat

    May 30, 2007 at 3:30 pm

    when they have no facts.

    “Whether you agree with the vast majority of scientists who say human activity is having a profound and possibly disastrous effect on global climate change or not, it is beyond reasonable dispute that our behaviors have some impact. ”

    Yes, I think I will agree with the vast majority of scientists who actually know about this kind of thing, rather than the vast majority of human hot air factories on FOX that think if they keep saying “there’s no such thing” long enough, people will believe them.

    When you can already see the shape of the poles changing due to melt off, I think we gotta problem here. What is it going to take for fat, lazy, deluded Republican America to get active?

    I almost don’t want to know.

    Donnat

  10. Paolo

    May 30, 2007 at 3:30 pm

    Your response was reasoned and factual, with only a slight bit of invective. Far better than the average post! However, I still disagree.

    You still relied on the argument, “scientists are saying.” Your underlying assumption is that your scientists speak the truth, while those scientists who disagree are “don’t understand the research.” Not true–do some homework and check out the work of reputable climatologists who disagree. You will find many thoughtful, well-researched articles disputing the hypothesis. But the fact of the matter is, scientists will not be deciding the political “solutions” to this “problem.” Laymen (hopefully, intelligent ones) will be the ones making the tough decisions.

    You still didn’t answer the question as to what caused the much warmer temperatures of the Middle Ages, and what caused the Ice Ages. Of course, I don’t expect you to answer those questions, because frankly, no one knows the answer for certain. The same goes for the “mini Ice Age” of the 17th century.

    You used the analogy of someone who is sick refusing to see the doctor until they understand everything about the human body. I think a better analogy is a hypochondriac who runs to the doctor and takes hundreds of doses of medications that are either do no good, or actually do harm, based on “symptoms” that are either nonexistent, imagined, or of minor concern.

    Insisting that we strangle growing economies to prevent alleged global warming is like amputating your arm because you have a hangnail.

    Which reminds me: part of the complexity of this whole debate is making reasoned judgments: if we hold back economic development, we would probably kill more people through poverty than would die from the worse impacts of alleged global warming.

    Only thirty years ago, the “consensus” of scientists was that we were entering another Ice Age. And who knows–maybe they were right. The evidence from the ice core samples you cite shows that, when Ice Ages begin, they come on suddenly, in climatic terms. We might very well be panicking today about global warming, only to find ourselves at the beginning of a new ice age a year or two down the road.

    Or, we might really find that some amount of global warming occurs over the next, say, century or two. I would ask you: can you tell me, for absolute certain, that this global warming will continue upwards, indefinitely? Or, is it more likely that, because of feedback loops, the increased temperature would tend to level off?

    Also, we need to evaluate whether alleged global warming would be entirely negative, or would there be positive impacts, such as increased farming in the higher latitudes.

    I hope you can see by my analysis that I am not “squeezing my eyes real tight and hoping the bad thing will go away.” I am merely asking sensible questions about a very complex, disputed issue. With eyes wide open, I am asking whether this “bad thing” really exists, and if it exists, is it temporary in nature, and does the effect tend to be self-limiting.

    I think the global warming hypothesis is one of those things that “everyone knows” that ends up being false, or exaggerrated.

    Again, my compliments on a fine post.

  11. Rob of UnSpace

    May 31, 2007 at 2:22 pm

    I threw that post together on the fly based on the research I’ve actually read. Here’s a primer for you:

    New Scientist Climate Myths

    BTW: New Scientist is wrong on Pluto. I went over it pretty thoroughly at my own blog, UnSpace. I need to tackle the other cases (Jupiter, Mars, and Triton). But claiming that Pluto’s warming is proof that global warming is not anthropogenic is nonsense.

    I apologize for the invective, but look at it from my viewpoint. How many times do I have to explain basic science to people who get their knowledge from Rush Limbaugh each day? There’s only so much stupidity I can deal with, and it gets really frustrating.

    As far as holding back economic development, that’s absurd. The required effort to get global warming under control is currently small, relative to the GNP (recent study released by the UN). The longer we stall, the more expensive it gets or, when the tundra melts and releases all the methane, quite possibly unstoppable at any reasoned cost.

    The US ought to be taking the lead in developing the necessary technology. Instead, just as we did with much of the sulfur control technology, we’re going to let everyone else take the lead and then wind up paying them for what we need.

    Do you remember the lesson from the pollution controls US Steel put in during the late 60s and early 70s? They wound up collecting and either selling or using pollutants they previously threw away. Net, they made money on the pollution control technology. Same thing happened in the 80s with sulfur emissions, but the cost savings weren’t nearly as good because we had to pay other countries’ companies for use of their patents.

    As far as “what about the benefits,” again, that’s nonsense. Think of the surface area of segments of a sphere. Increased loss of farming ability at the equator is not going to be made up by less land at higher latitudes that becomes available. The destruction to the environment will not be stopped by any such effect you’re hoping for — an effect that, despite numerous studies, has not been shown to exist.

    You didn’t answer an important point, btw. What of the problem with sulfur emissions in the ’80s? The Republicans told us it wasn’t caused by man and it wasn’t a significant problem — there might even be benefits to acid rain. They themselves were forced to admit they were wrong on both counts. Why should we believe them now?

    Finally, you’re obviously male. Men say “It’s nothing serious” and then don’t go to the doctor until the problem has gotten much worse and much harder to fix — if fixable at all. I used to have great fun doing CPR, intubating, defibrillating, and then pronouncing people who thought that chest pain and diaphoresis and weakness were insignificant symptoms. As long as you’re the one pushing the epinepherine, cardiac arrests are fun.

    I wonder if anyone has ever looked into the benefits of dying? Maybe we shouldn’t be doing ACLS. Maybe things improve once you die.

    Not likely, huh? Neither are the offsetting benefits from global warming.

  12. tgbrowning

    June 2, 2007 at 8:35 pm

    I strongly suggest that you read the current issue of National Geographic. At this point, the only question is how much of an effect and how soon.

    I’ll grant that the subject is complex beyond belief, but that does not mean that you can ignore hard physical evidence such as the world wide retreat of glaciers, the unprecidented loss of ice from southern Greenland, the Artic and the Antartic. It *is* happening. It’s been accelerating over the last twenty years and it truly is a reason for grave concern.

    I have to wonder at this point, what motivation one really has to be so hesitant to agree that human induced climate change is real and measurable. The question is no longer how much of an effect. Let me also say I do NOT mean to say that your motives are evil, self-serving or anything derogatory. I simply cannot understand them.

    Sorry, but I think your post shows very little understanding of the scientific method, data interpretation or logic.

    Browning>>>

  13. Access Of Evil

    June 3, 2007 at 10:59 pm

    If we were really smart we’d tax the bejeezus out of having kids. Tax kid’s clothing, strollers, baby food.

    Eliminate tax deductions for “dependents” and instead impose a “kid tax” on each child.

    Childless people get a $5,000 annual “population compensation grant” — lump sum payment. Cash.