As the inane "debate" over climate change drags on in the more benighted corners of our republic (Washington, D.C., included), it's becoming abundantly clear that California is no longer the place where America's fruits, nuts, and loose ends come to rest. I've been on the periphery of the stateside discussion of SB 375 for the past two years, so I know that it's not news to say that there have been many earnest, productive discussions about it across the state.
Even so, I'll still take a moment to say how gratifying it is to witness an adult discussion on a topic that inspires temper tantrums in so many of our national leaders. We live in a parallel universe where people talk seriously about climate change, solutions, and economic impacts.
Yesterday's rendition, at the VerdeXchange "Green Marketmakers" Conference, featured former State Senate President Pro Tem and SB 375 author Darrel Steinberg as moderator, and Gail Goldberg of the Urban Land Institute, Lauren Faber of Environmental Defense Fund Jonathan Parfery of Climate Resolve, Tanya Peacock of the Southern California Gas Company, and Jim Wunderman of the Bay Area Council as panelists. A hand-picked panel, to be sure, but it still represented a perspectives issues ranging from environmental justice to development to utilities. (Disclosure: I used to work for VerdeXchange Chairman David Abel.)
What's great about a panel like this is that when everyone agrees – or at least accepts – that the state must do something about climate change and when you understand that laws like SB 375 can be implemented well or badly and that funds like those from AB 32's cap and trade program can be spent well or badly, you get a great, nuanced discussion among people who, whatever their differences may be, genuinely have the state's best interests in mind. And there's a lot that we can do with the roughly $1 billion in annual cap-and-trade funds that are going to be distributed throughout the state (as negotiated in the 2014 budget). People with true capitalist persuasions will recognize this as an opportunity.
Again, I know this approach to climate change isn't news in California. But imagine what this panel would be like if it was at a conference center in Tulsa rather than one in downtown L.A.
Here are a few highlights of the genuine debates that policymakers and members of organizations like the Strategic Growth Council may face as these policies evolve and funds get disbursed. Ideally, these funds can spur further investment and create the types of multipliers and positive externalities that would give Libertarians heart attacks.
Statewide Equity: $1.1 billion is a lot of money, but not when it's spread among 38 million people and hundreds of jurisdictions. The demographic split between northern and southern California – separating the southern 19 million from the northern – is, according to Parfery, roughly contiguous with Los Angeles' Wilshire Boulevard. He encourages lawmakers to keep this counterintuitive boundary in mind.
Disadvantaged Communities: 25 percent of cap-and-trade funds must go to disadvantaged communities. Now policymakers must figure out what qualifies as "disadvantaged," ensure that those funds actually go to those communities – and provide them with due benefits.
Gentrification & Displacement: SB 375 isn't only about transit oriented development. But TOD is a big part of it, and the prospect of gentrification is the most interesting and controversial potential impact. Critics argue that shiny new TOD's will attract wealthier residents who will displace poor residents. Goldberg noted that if this happens, it's doubly ironic, since new, higher-income residents may be less likely to use public transit while lower-income refugees may end up getting pushed into the auto-centric periphery.
Regionalism: Wunderman's participation brought up one of the more subtle, but crucial, issues surrounding intra-state governance. Increasing focus on climate change and regional planning requires greater regional coordination, not just among governments but also among agencies, businesses, and stakeholder groups. Peacock noted that SB 375 can provide the financial framework for a weightier version of regionalism.
CEQA: SB 375 is at the heart of the debate over CEQA reform. If the threat of CEQA-based lawsuits curtails the development of TOD's and high-density housing, then the state's two most powerful environmental laws are working at cross-purposes. Of course, some expect that glaciers will form in Death Valley before significant CEQA reform arrives.
High-Speed Rail: California's high-speed rail system will "change the way we operate as a state," according to Wunderman. It will have direct impacts on the cities with HSR stations – especially those of the Central Valley – and the system could change residential and commuting patterns throughout the state. If Bakersfield can become a bedroom community of L.A., then planners have to get going.
VMT's vs GHG's: Ever since the Model T rolled out, and especially since Americans fell in love with SUVs and other gas-guzzlers, reduction in pollution and GHG's has been synonymous with lowering of aggregate vehicle miles traveled. Now that some cars, including electric vehicles, emit far less pollution, ought the state still discourage driving and are the tools of SB 375 sufficient to do so?
These questions are vexing, to say the least. But, contrary to the forces of ignorance that are raging throughout this country, we are fortunate to have the chance to debate them, even if we're destined to come up with a few wrong answers along the way.
You might be interested to know how many times federal climate change policy was mentioned. The answer: zero. The federal government, for obvious, lamentable reasons, is a nonentity. A newly arrived alien would never know that California isn't its own country. Faber emphasized that foreign governments are now looking to California as a model while, apparently, our own federal government is rendered irrelevant. I imagine that a lot of the same folks who deny the existence of climate change would consider that a victory.