Big city with the lowest emissions - Los Angeles?!

There's a new report out from the Brookings Institution ranking the country's 100 largest urban areas by carbon emissions from transportation and residential energy use (The New York Times article here, rankings and graphics here). Some of the results are pretty surprising, but the report only gives numbers, not explanations. Here are the top ten:

1 Honolulu, HI
2 Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana, CA
3 Portland-Vancouver-Beaverton, OR-WA
4 New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, NY-NJ-PA
5 Boise City-Nampa, ID
6 Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA
7 San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA
8 San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, CA
9 El Paso, TX
10 San Diego-Carlsbad-San Marcos, CA

At first glance, the West Coast and Southwest (including Texas) seem to be doing quite well, the Midwest and South are doing badly, and the Northeast is in the middle. As someone in the habit of demonizing sprawl "cities" like Houston, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and the concrete desert of southern California, this was a bit disorienting. Could it be that, as The New York Times article emphasized, a warm climate that obviates the need for heating is a better way to reduce emissions than compact, mixed-use cities? Don't the first three use huge amounts of energy on air conditioning? Does it make sense to build cities in the desert if it'll fight global warming?

In fact it's not nearly that simple, as indicated by the inclusion of Chicago, New York, and Boston (none of which are known for their mild winters) in the top quintile. Those cities' high density and good (for the US) transit systems help them compete with the sprawling cities of southern California and the Southwest, but that doesn't fully account for the results either.

First we have to separate transportation and residential energy. The helpful maps included in the report show that warm-weather states dominate the top quintile of residential energy use - which also includes New York - while the second quintile is evenly split between southern states and the Northeast (plus Chicago). Heating is certainly a factor, but power sources seem at least as important. Those states with low emissions rely to an unusual degree on nuclear, hydroelectric, and/or geothermal power for electricity, none of which produce carbon emissions, while those with high emissions correspond closely to the country's coal belt. (See the government's figures on energy consumption by source and by state here.)

Since nuclear and hydroelectric power both have serious drawbacks, it's not at all clear how far these emissions numbers get us toward finding green models to follow. More useful might be total per capita energy use, which you can see graphically on the maps at Nationalatlas.gov (go here, click People > Energy consumption > Residential energy per capita, then Redraw map to see use by states). Here we can see that warmer states do use less energy, but much of the Northeast uses a similar amount, while the heaviest users include both cold states and southern states like Alabama and Mississippi. I don't have any explanations for these patterns, but it would be worth looking into it to figure out the best policies for reducing energy use.

The transportation numbers, with fewer variables involved, are a bit more straightforward. Dense cities with transit networks perform the best, which means the Northeast is the hands-down winner (except for Trenton, which is dead-last in car emissions). Other winners are Los Angeles (#5), Philadelphia (#6), Portland (#10), Cleveland (#12), and Chicago (#17). The bizarre spectacle of LA ranking better on highway emissions than places like Philly and Chicago is explained by the fact that LA has very little freight traffic, so trucking emissions drag Chicago and Philly down even tho they beat LA easily when only car emissions are considered. Still, LA remains in the top 20 on cars so clearly there is a fair amount of transit use and population density is not nearly as low as many other cities. How Houston (#31) managed to beat much denser cities like Minneapolis (#37) and St Louis (#75), I have no idea.

In the end, the report reminds us that carbon emissions are spread unevenly across the country - a result primarily of differences in density, the quality of transit, and the source of electricity. It raises the difficult question of whether we should be expanding nuclear power to reduce carbon emissions. And it shows yet again that public transit is one of the best ways to fight global warming.


Why taxes are better than charity

This year's graduation ceremony at Columbia University honored individuals who have made major contributions in physics, history, music, math - and money. Like the rest of the country's most prestigious universities, Columbia has been flooded with contributions from rich alumni for years now, and they barely know what to do with the money. One popular choice is to aggressively expand existing campuses, often at the expense of neighboring communities. Columbia is trying to seize part of Harlem, Harvard is building a major addition in Boston's Allston, Yale is undertaking a massive remodeling and expansion, and even the relatively poor University of Chicago is expanding its presence in Woodlawn and just bought Harper Court in Hyde Park, which it will replace with new buildings and retail. What these universities are not doing is investing in meeting the needs of the often poor neighborhoods they are expanding into.

The huge amounts of money being invested by universities - much of which has gone toward science and health research facilities - makes a strong contrast with the massive underinvestment in basic infrastructure that is plaguing the country, as bridges collapse, mass transit systems stagnate even as ridership hits record highs, and public housing is quietly dismantled. The striking difference between the capacity of private and public institutions to realize their priorities is nowhere more clear than in New Haven. As shown in this article, the impoverished city government must beg Yale for scraps and leave many important projects unfinanced, while Yale has complete freedom in its building plans.

But this contrast is simply a powerful symbol for what the neoliberal economic restructuring of the last generation has wrought. Almost all of the increased wealth of the last 30 years has gone to the super-rich, even as taxes on them have been slashed. All levels of government, starved of funds and fully captured by business interests, have cut social programs, neglected basic maintenance on infrastructure, and spent what resources they have on beautification efforts for the well-off.

Public interests are now thoroughly subordinated to the priorities of the wealthy, and investment decisions that were once made by our elected representatives have been taken over by unaccountable private interests. This does give us the chance to see the results of the conservative/libertarian fantasy of low taxes, with public needs being met by charity. Rich people aren't interested in donating their money to the sewer fund, the subway fund, or a fund to provide health insurance to the poor. In fact, for the most part they don't want to donate their money for anything - they spend most of it on luxury goods. But those who do donate tend to give money to universities, museums, arts organizations, and medical research (see this list of the top donations of 2007).

These are all worthy causes, but they tend to make the social hierarchy steeper rather than distributing resources and opportunity to those who are excluded. Good universities, good cultural institutions, and advanced medical treatment are things that the already-privileged can easily access, while members of the working class and underclass find it much harder to benefit. What they need most - good primary and secondary schools, good transit infrastructure, affordable housing, health insurance - are exactly the goods that are being neglected by both the government and by charitable donations.

So the experiment in getting rid of equity-promoting goods and services provided by a redistributory government and replacing them with the whim of rich people is a failure. But underlying this policy argument is a basic ideological issue: should we look on the distribution of personal income according to market forces as natural and just? Or should we interpret the creation of wealth as a social product that is currently distributed according to the logic of capital, which is no more "natural" than any other distributory mechanism - unless you regard the war of each against all as humanity's natural state.

Market forces decide incomes not based on merit, but according to the amount of bargaining power one has - which is why people who work incredibly hard will make almost nothing if there are many others willing to the do the job and they aren't unionized. Those crushed by the invisible hand are victims, not shirkers, so we must use the state to mitigate the injustices of the market until we attain a truly just system of producing and distributing wealth.

In the meantime, concentrating ever more wealth in the richest universities is not useful - those resources should be going to the cash-starved state universities and other unglamorous capital investments that serve society much better. Taxes should be raised sharply on the rich so we can start to undo the massive upward redistribution of wealth of the last 30 years, and those resources should be poured back into the social needs that have been starved for decades.


Foie gras legal again

Yesterday morning Daley stooge and restaurant owner Alderman Tom Tunney suddenly announced that City Council would, within hours, hold a vote to repeal Chicago's ban on foie gras. Daley, lording over the Council, prevented any debate and the ban was overturned, 37-6.

Opponents claimed that the government should not be in the business of telling you what to eat. But we already have laws prohibiting cruelty to animals, and they're actually enforced pretty regularly. There's a strange ethical disconnect in this country, where outrage and legal action follow something like dog fights or puppy mills, but the industrialized torture of food animals is not only many thousands of times more widespread, its either completely legal or fully tolerated. I agree that the government should not tell you what to eat - but it should be in the business of preventing and punishing the infliction of pain on animals, regardless of the reason cited.

Since most Chicagoans have no idea what foie gras even is, much less how it's produced, the ban was probably premature, and it's not clear how effective it was. But it was symbolically powerful, and activist groups around the country could point to Chicago's example when arguing for new limits. The only aldermen who stood with Joe Moore (49th), the bill's sponsor who fought valiantly for it till the end, were Toni Preckwinckle (4th), Ricardo Munoz (22nd), Ed Smith (28th), Scott Waguespack (32nd), and Rey Colon (35th). If your aldermen is one of these fine people, please let them know you appreciate their vote against animal cruelty. Otherwise give your alderman an angry call or email and don't forget when elections come up.