LA Times Opinion Round-Up

Today is Los Angeles Times intensive.

On high-speed rail. The Times appears to misunderstand the concept by complaining that the current federal funding for high-speed rail is debt financed, as part of the stimulus bill. Debt-financing is half the point. On the other hand, their point about gas taxes being insufficient for current infrastructure is valid, and is why I’ve previously discussed the need for mileage taxes, allowing gas taxes to be shifted toward clean energy investment and climate change mitigation. Of course, that the Secretary of Transportation was talking about mileage taxes over a month ago goes unremarked upon.

On torture. The Times nails the description of the memos, “Orwellian horrors”, and rightly calls for Obama to close a loophole suggesting that the CIA might not be bound by the Army Field Manual. However, I fail to see how that could possibly be seen as being “in the same spirit” as announcing CIA operatives wouldn’t be subject to war crimes prosecutions. And, of course, how the Times could endorse that announcement after reading the memos is baffling. But the Times has been weak on the prosecution issue all along. In a classic example, in a point-counterpoint discussion of prosecutions, both sides argued against prosecutions. Good job picking a diversity of opinions.

Tim Rutten on a truth commission. While I agree that a full report on whether actionable intelligence was gained from torture is necessary, we also need to determine the full scope of law breaking and what, if any, sanction is received from Congressional leadership. More importantly, we already know that torture didn’t work on Abu Zubaida – apparently Rutten missed that article. Of course, torture’s unreliability as an interrogation technique has been known for almost 400 years in the West as that appears to have been missed by almost everyone over the past eight years.

As an aside, Rutten’s ongoing opposition to prosecutions (he once referred to the decision to torture as a “policy difference”) should give the lie to his claim of being a civil libertarian. That, or he is too cowardly to stand far enough outside of the mainstream media to call for them.

Climate Change and California

The LA Times has an article on recommendations made by the state’s Climate Action Team to prepare the state for the consequences of global warming. Among the suggestions are limiting coastal development, phased abandonment of certain coastal areas, and relocating state infrastructure inland. Orange County and the San Francisco Bay area are particularly hard it. Notably, both the Oakland and San Francisco Airports will be under water.

Sea levels along California have risen nearly 8 inches in the past century, although this varies with coastal dynamics. According to the Pacific Institute report, 260,000 Californians already live in flood zones, but are assumed to be protected by existing structures, such as levees and sea walls.

A 1.4-meter sea level rise would increase the population at risk to 480,000. Currently, 1,900 miles of roads and highways are at risk of flooding, which would grow to 3,500 miles under the sea level rise projections.

orange-county-sea-levels1

Impact of Rising Sea Levels on Orange County

Rising sea levels are, of course, only one of the consequences of global warming. Some others include increased frequency of wild fires, drought, and inconsistent or nonexistent water supply from glacial/snow melt. Mitigating all of these will cost considerable money which is why I’ve suggested using mileage taxes for infrastructure and retasking gas taxes to climate change mitigation.

Impact of Rising Sea Levels on the Bay Area

Impact of Rising Sea Levels on the Bay Area

The full report can be found here, while a map of the impacted coastal areas is here. The images in this post are screen shots of the impact on Orange County and the Bay Area taken from the map.

More Edward Glaeser on Environmentally Friendly Development

I have previously written about Edward Glaeser, in the context of an article in the LA Times arguing that California should relax restrictions on development because households in California have a smaller carbon footprint than households in other areas of high growth. In this post at the Economix blog on the New York Times website, he makes an argument that we should support urban, rather than suburban, development.

In almost every metropolitan area, we found the central city residents emitted less carbon than the suburban counterparts. In New York and San Francisco, the average urban family emits more than two tons less carbon annually because it drives less. In Nashville, the city-suburb carbon gap due to driving is more than three tons. After all, density is the defining characteristic of cities. All that closeness means that people need to travel shorter distances, and that shows up clearly in the data.

While public transportation certainly uses much less energy, per rider, than driving, large carbon reductions are possible without any switch to buses or rails. Higher-density suburban areas, which are still entirely car-dependent, still involve a lot less travel than the really sprawling places. This fact offers some hope for greens eager to reduce carbon emissions, since it is a lot easier to imagine Americans driving shorter distances than giving up their cars.

But cars represent only one-third of the gap in carbon emissions between New Yorkers and their suburbanites. The gap in electricity usage between New York City and its suburbs is also about two tons. The gap in emissions from home heating is almost three tons. All told, we estimate a seven-ton difference in carbon emissions between the residents of Manhattan’s urban aeries and the good burghers of Westchester County. Living surrounded by concrete is actually pretty green. Living surrounded by trees is not.

Overall, I find this argument a great deal more convincing than I did the last one. We should shift toward higher density development. However, the issue I raised in my previous post remains, would changing our sources of energy provide a greater or similar benefit to changing our type of development? In the previous post, that referred to improving energy efficiency and renewable sources in other areas of the country to match California’s standards. In this case, would improving energy efficiency and renewable sources in, say, suburban Texas provide more benefit than relocating from Westchester County to New York City. From a policy point of view, this seems like the bigger question. That said, adopting the point of view that we must do everything we can to prevent climate change, clearly we should do both.

I do have a second quibble, though, especially with the last sentence quoted above, and the entire tenor of the post. Living surrounded by concrete is only more ‘green’ than living surrounded by trees given the existent types of development we have. There are all sorts of air quality and meteorological impacts to the lack of plant life in cities. Concrete and asphalt retain much more heat than countryside, to the point that Atlanta affects its own weather. Equally importantly, plant life is important to people’s psychological and emotional well-being. Rather than simply replacing actual forests with concrete jungles, we should try to make the concrete jungle a little more forested. There is more to being green than having a small carbon footprint. If we do decide that part of the solution to climate change is high-density development, we will need to invest considerable thought into minimizing the other environmental impacts of cities.

I don’t mean to say that Professor Glaeser would disagree with this point. I do, however, think that his articles may seek to make a rhetorical point that carries his argument too far.