Welcome back to Sunday reading. It is a black week: The erratic man-child in charge of the US government has announced that the US will withdraw from the Paris Agreement, which commits signatories to set and periodically review voluntary targets for greenhouse gas emission reductions. If you’re under the age of 50, this decision will define much of the rest of your life.
— Sophie Lewis (@aviandelights) June 2, 2017
My parents were born in a world with a stable climate. By the time I was born, it was apparent to many scientists that human activities were beginning to change that climate, with unpredictable effects. By my teenage years, there was a broad scientific consensus that anthropogenic climate change was happening, and emerging evidence of the human and ecological catastrophes it would bring. The Bush administration refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, which would have set us on a path to avoiding climate disaster.
I have lived my entire adult life under the shadow of climate change. When the Paris Agreement was signed, I was disappointed by past failures to cooperate and increasingly worried by the rising lines on graphs of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations and global temperature. Paris was a sign of hope: It wasn’t perfect, but it would give us a basis for cleaning up and protecting our environment. An environment that I hoped to continue living in.
And now a man elected by a minority of Americans and aided and abetted by a Republican Party that has turned nihilistic in its pursuit of power has torn the fabric of that agreement. He won’t be alive to see it, but Donald Trump will be remembered as one of history’s worst betrayers: A Quisling to all future generations. I have no words that are strong enough. May God have mercy on his soul, because I cannot.
So what can we do?
America’s moral failure in the face of a pressing collective-action problem is a serious problem: Since 1850, the US has contributed roughly one-quarter of the total human-emitted carbon in the atmosphere. It remains the world’s second-largest carbon polluter, after China.
But that doesn’t mean the rest of us are helpless. Former California governor / time-travelling robot impersonator Arnold Schwarzenegger had some words: We must fix the problem at any level where we have leverage, because it’s the right thing to do:
— SeriouslyUS? (@USseriously) June 2, 2017
European leaders – and, importantly, China – have committed to stick with the Paris Agreement, as an Associated Press story summarises:
Top European leaders have pledged to keep fighting global warming as US President Donald Trump announced he was pulling out of the Paris climate accord, but they rejected his suggestion the deal could later be renegotiated.
The leaders of France, Germany and Italy said in a joint statement they regretted the United States’ decision to withdraw from the accord, but affirmed “our strongest commitment” to implement its measures and encouraged “all our partners to speed up their action to combat climate change”.
While Trump said the United States would be willing to rejoin the accord if it could obtain more favourable terms, the three European leaders said the agreement couldn’t be renegotiated, “since it is a vital instrument for our planet, societies and economics”.
French President Emmanuel Macron repeated that belief in an English-language speech from the presidential palace, unprecedented from a French president in an address at home. He said, “I do respect this decision but I do think it is an actual mistake both for the US and for our planet.”
“Wherever we live, whoever we are, we all share the same responsibility: make our planet great again,” Macron added.
Macron’s statement, by the way, was excellent:
— NBC News (@NBCNews) June 1, 2017
One factor moving in our favour is that the cost of solar power has reduced massively in recent years. This is a big deal. If rapidly-developing countries like India can fuel their growth with solar rather than coal, it will take a big wedge out of our future emissions. We will still be faced with the hard task of reducing our current emissions, but the target won’t be getting harder, faster. Ian Johnston (Independent) reports on recent solar auctions in India:
India has cancelled plans to build nearly 14 gigawatts of coal-fired power stations – about the same as the total amount in the UK – with the price for solar electricity “free falling” to levels once considered impossible.
Analyst Tim Buckley said the shift away from the dirtiest fossil fuel and towards solar in India would have “profound” implications on global energy markets.
According to his article on the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis’s website, 13.7GW of planned coal power projects have been cancelled so far this month – in a stark indication of the pace of change.
…an auction for a 500-megawatt solar facility resulted in a tariff of just 2.44 rupees – compared to the wholesale price charged by a major coal-power utility of 3.2 rupees (about 31 per cent higher).
“For the first time solar is cheaper than coal in India and the implications this has for transforming global energy markets is profound,” Mr Buckley said.
As David Roberts (Vox) discussed last year, the path to a zero-carbon economy will mean converting all our electricity generation to zero-carbon sources… and then electrifying everything that needs power to run:
Tackling climate change is a complicated undertaking, to say the least. But here’s a good rule of thumb for how to get started:
Replace technologies that still run on combustion, like gasoline vehicles and natural gas heating and cooling, with alternatives that run on electricity, like electric vehicles and heat pumps. Get as much of our energy consumption as possible hooked up to the power grid.
The need for electrification is well understood by climate and energy experts, but I’m not sure it has filtered down to the public yet; the consensus on it is fairly new. For decades, the conventional wisdom has been the other way around: Electricity was dirty and the process of generating it and transmitting it involved substantial losses, so from an energy conservation point of view, the best thing to do was often to burn fossil fuel on site in increasingly energy-efficient devices.
So why did the CW change? There are several factors involved; I’ll run through the three most important…
But it’s not just about electricity generation. Especially in New Zealand, transport and urban policy will have to pick up a lot of the slack to reduce carbon emissions. Fortunately, the technology is already there to achieve a substantial reduction: The more people move on public transport or under their own power, the lower our emissions will be.
— Metro (@metrolosangeles) June 1, 2017
This isn’t just a pipe dream, either: there are real-world examples of cities that have chosen to change and succeeded in doing so. For instance, a new study shows what happened when Seville, Spain, radically expanded its network of safe cycleways. Michael Andersen (People for Bikes) reports on the study:
The paper by R. Marqués and V. Hernández-Herrador, published this month in the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention, provides one of the first academic studies of one of the largest rapid bike-infrastructure investments in world history.
In 2003, the 2,200-year-old Spanish city of Seville (population 700,000) voted more Communists than usual onto its city council. (Yes, this is a thing that happens in Seville.) The left-wing party had pledged a major investment in bike transportation — and after they joined a coalition with the center-left Socialist party, they delivered. In 2007 alone, the city built 40 miles of protected bike lanes, a 542 percent increase to the existing 7 miles citywide. It created an imperfect but connected network through the central city.
The evolution of Seville’s bikeway map, from 2006 (upper left) to 2010 (lower right). Source: Marqués Sillero, R. (2011) via Pensando el Territorio.
Another 46 miles were installed over the next six years, along with a popular new bike-sharing system. (These six years overlapped, it’s worth noting, with the global financial crisis and a particularly deep recession in Spain — national unemployment peaked at 27 percent in 2013. Seville’s tourism-heavy region, Andalucia, had the worst job market in the country, and the city itself fared only a bit better.)
Two things started happening in Seville almost immediately: the number of bike trips soared and the risk of a bike trip plummeted.
Source: R. Marqués and V. Hernández-Herrador (2017).
In the past, New Zealand has been more timid: we’ve let inertia and the easy way guide us, rather than choosing to change. While we have taken a number of steps in the right direction, we often let them unravel in the details, as the interesting example of Gulf Harbour shows:
Fun fact: Auckland's Gulf Harbour was meant to replicate Portofino but the density limits & parking controls made that urban form impossible https://t.co/RuMLUVUO86
— Francis McRae (@FrankMcRae) May 31, 2017
In Noted, Findlay Macdonald interviews Chris Harris, who has a new book coming out on the mistakes that Auckland made:
And this dismissal of proper urban thinking and planning seems, as you argue, to be part of a wider self-mythologising as a rural Arcadia that New Zealand has indulged in.
A lot of people have written about this. The Arcadian image of New Zealand, it seems to me, is often misleading and tendentious. It creates this image of infinite rural promise, whereas in reality, if we look at the detailed topographical maps, we see that New Zealand is actually the dividing mountain range of a submerged continent, and it’s very mountainous and hilly. I like to say that no frontier society had less frontier. Very little of New Zealand is actually very fertile farmland – about a sixth of it. The rest is just hills.
Which is really strange, because we were arguably more urbanised than many European countries quite early in our colonial history.
New Zealand’s identity and politics are organised around the denial of urbanisation and, presumably, the denial of urban problems and opportunities as well. What we really have is a whole lot of cities, nearly all of them built on some waterfront riviera or on a lake. The only exceptions are Hamilton and Palmerston North, which are cities of the plains … So the Arcadian myth claims that we have this vast frontier of freely available land, and anyone who wants to prosper just needs to get out and work in the countryside. It really serves as a denial of reality and a pretext for ignoring the city – and a pretext for basically allowing the city to go to pot. Public transport, pedestrian amenity and the provision of affordable housing are neglected in ways that are often taken for granted among the long-suffering Aucklanders, but stick out to the overseas traveller who returns to Auckland.
Why do you think this myth is so powerful and persistent?
A part of it, and this is something other historians have said, is that the urban population of New Zealand isn’t concentrated in one big place, or even in a compact sort of region. It’s scattered up and down the country, and in each of these urban centres, people look out the window and see all these mountains and hills and rural landscapes. So the urban principle in this country just doesn’t acquire a critical mass. And, in government terms, Wellington-based agencies tend to have a one-size-fits-all approach, and treat downtown Auckland the same way they would some hill outside Taihape that presents an obstacle to the state highway system.
If we want to play a positive role in the future – and get a better city in return – we’re going to have to choose to change, and change fast. It’s urgent, but it will be good for us.
"As the city filled w/ mobile strangers,
even next-door neighbours became strangers"
—Marshall McLuhan, 1964
hat tip to Donald Appleyard! pic.twitter.com/d7VWknJfFD
— Taras Grescoe (@grescoe) June 2, 2017
To close where I started, writer Rebecca Solnit had a scathing piece on the US president: “The loneliness of Donald Trump“. Even if you’re trying to keep your eyes off American politics, it’s worth considering her comments on the importance of equality:
Equality keeps us honest. Our peers tell us who we are and how we are doing, providing that service in personal life that a free press does in a functioning society. Inequality creates liars and delusion. The powerless need to dissemble—that’s how slaves, servants, and women got the reputation of being liars—and the powerful grow stupid on the lies they require from their subordinates and on the lack of need to know about others who are nobody, who don’t count, who’ve been silenced or trained to please. This is why I always pair privilege with obliviousness; obliviousness is privilege’s form of deprivation. When you don’t hear others, you don’t imagine them, they become unreal, and you are left in the wasteland of a world with only yourself in it, and that surely makes you starving, though you know not for what, if you have ceased to imagine others exist in any true deep way that matters. This is about a need for which we hardly have language or at least not a familiar conversation.
That’s it for the week. Hopefully next week has better news.