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What the Devil won't tell you

Pima County should get houses in order to fight climate change

For the low, low price of $2.50 a month, you (!), dear friend and neighbor, can do something about climate change – something big, local and substantial.

And you can save much, much more!

Sound like a deal? Eh. Maybe. I’m sort of spitballing that figure but it’s probably pretty close. The bigger question is if we really want to do something more than hold signs on a street corner over the threat of climate change. 

I'm a bit dubious about the appetite for immediate, drastic action but we'll see.

The United Nations is holding its Climate Action Summit on Monday to discuss ways to kick up carbon-emission-lowering efforts. The Donald Trump administration's have no interest in doing anything about the problem but even they are being forced to blink at it, as the president at least agreed to show up in New York.

Trump's White Nationalist base thinks the number-one threat facing America is illegal witches. Gotcha. They weigh less than ducks. Don't expect anything from a guy who just rolled back California's emission standards.

A key challenge for the "do-something" crowd is trying to get a read on exactly how panicked we should be about this crisis. The experts don’t make it easy.

We've got Aussies telling us the end is nigh if we don’t act immediately and with warlike determination. We got an Oxford physicist arguing that we have to panic but we can think at least over a 30-year horizon to decarbonize the world economy. There’s an alliance of governors who tout projections that they will drive climate emissions of 25 percent below 2005 numbers. And we have an economist from the University of Massachusetts Amherst who said we could fix climate change for $18 trillion over 30 years, or about 2 percent of GDP (Relax, MAGAs, President Trump signed a budget this year that increases spending by 1.5 percent).

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This is good and to be expected. The more people look at the problem, the more opinions diverge. The more smart people there are looking at climate change from across disciplines, the more arguments surface. That's a feature of the urgency; it's not a problem. Leadership is required to bang heads together.

2 Cents for what it's worth

As a guy who has been between warring parties most of his adult life, a lot of what's happening with climate change seems familiar.

The one thing those voices find a consensus on is that the Earth’s climate has a hot date sometime mid-century with 1.5 degrees of warming over pre-industrial temperatures. That will significantly change climate (and therefor geography) from what human beings built civilization around and fast-track the atmosphere toward even higher temperatures. Fires, floods, droughts, hurricanes, plagues, frogs all can be expected to follow and lamb’s blood won’t save us.

Political leaders don’t help when folks like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) repeat what appears to be an over-hyped warning that the world will end if climate change isn’t fixed in 12 years. I've found no broad agreement on that timeline.

Ocasio-Cortez deserves a metric tonne of credit for driving climate change front and center on the political landscape with her Green New Deal. She trolled the right with her audacious plan. They pounced, and now the political class is all but accusing Democratic presidential candidates of caring about the issue. Then they seem to remember, “Oh yeah, it’s a big problem if you believe in particle physics.”

The Green New Deal came about in part off the research done by a team that included the University of Arizona professor Diana Liverman.

Liverman wraps climate change up in package of what can sort of be described as economic justice, among a whole bunch of other things climate-related.

"We're looking for the triple win, which will lift people out of poverty in a climate-friendly and equitable way, which may involve those with greater environmental impacts – such as consumers in the U.S. – reducing their climate impacts," she said in a news release from the university.

Hear ya. Love the sentiment. Doesn’t just that create more arguments? Do we have that kind of time? I don’t pretend to know even half of what she forgot yesterday about her subject. I do know a thing or two about politics. Win the argument you are having first. Then start the next one.

What’s clear from reading scientists and hearing political leaders discussing the urgency of the issue is that they all have a real sense of the journey’s general destination and a general idea of when we need to arrive. They have no sense of the journey’s origin. They all want to get to New York in three hours, which is possible if the trip starts  in Albany — not if it starts in Tucson.

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No climate consensus exists among the world’s population and electorates, and there's but a very tiny sense of urgency that's pretty much limited to cloth shopping bags and driving Priuses. We're facing pushback from people who tell you with a straight face that water is the biggest greenhouse gas of all, forgetting that water remains a pretty constant presence. It's not growing in atmospheric abundance like other gases. These folks find climate change inconsistent with pre-existing agendas. 

Even those who would be amenable — lefty libs — can be obstinate when it comes to convenience and cost.

Washington State provides the prime example. It’s a state that voted for Hillary Clinton by 13 points and the same year rejected a carbon tax by 14 points the same year. Liberals argued the tax didn’t go far enough, so they helped beat it and launched their own carbon tax initiative, which voters rejected in 2018 by 12 points. Climate procrastinators still rule even the bluest of America.

Advocates of climate change need to be clear-eyed about where we are starting in order to grasp the nature of the journey, is all I'm saying.

Bring it all back home

So what can we do in Tucson? And I'm not talking about around-the-edges stuff. I mean to take a big old chunk out of our part of the equation while global and national leaders dither and state politicos call science a conspiracy.

Tucson Democratic mayoral candidate Regina Romero has come out with her own little-bit-here-tidbit-there climate plan and frankly, there’s a rationale for that. It’s hard to do at the state or local level, as the Evergreen State (not just green, but evergreen) shows.

“The overarching goal that we should strive towards is to become 100 percent carbon neutral as a city. This will require a multi-faceted approach that includes electrifying our bus and vehicle fleet, building a network of charging stations for electric vehicles, ramping up solar panel installations on city buildings, and promoting infill and density as a part of our development strategy, just to name a few of the actions we can take.”

Zero net emissions will require a little more than that but it’s a start.

If her opponent, independent Ed Ackerley has a plan, he’s not (yet) sharing it with us.

Let’s talk about one big step we could take.

Think about retrofitting existing homes for better energy efficiency. It’s a policy that literally hits us where we live and saves money down the road. It’s classic investment. If Florida insists on paying higher electric bills, that’s their problem.

Meet the demand

Why that plan and not something that gets after fossil fuel at its source? The study Liverman helped author breaks the solutions in terms of supply-side and demand-side. It's a good way to find local solutions.

Supply-side policies include things like a carbon tax or emissions controls. Both can be hard sells at the state or local level because it can seem like a drop in the bucket with economic risk. Washington voters can say “If I vote for a carbon tax on my state but not even California has one, aren’t I putting Washington at a disadvantage?” Argue the semantics all you want but it’s ripe for “whataboutist” rejection. Why is Washington the only state eating its vegetables. What about Texas … or India?

Demand side on the other hand, can produce a result that less resembles a denying ourselves nice things as much as it does “first-at-the-party” policy.

That’s rehabbing buildings. We’re all probably going to have to do it under any climate change scenario. Might as well do it now. Acting locally is just getting ahead of the curve.

Want me to go to rehab

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology did a report on this that predicted $1 trillion in national savings on a $279 billion on retrofit and rehab plan for basically every building in America. It would create 3.3 million jobs, the authors argue.

And this is what we’re talking about: MIT described the rehab process for a single family home as replacing lighting, windows and doors; improving attic and basement (not so much in Tucson) insulation; and replacing appliances.

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The report's authors lay out a case that local governments can play a role in this adaptation, which is starting to happen anyway. They just could use a kick in the keister to meet the goals that climate scientists have laid out.

“We believe that an improved enabling policy environment could dramatically speed this process,” the report states.

The cost of this quick and dirty retrofit is about $2,000 per unit. Changing apartment buildings includes fixing the insulation, windows, doors, boilers and HVAC systems.

Let’s do a quick and dirty cost estimate of 1 million people in Pima County and whether you break it down by 2.2 people per housing unit or just .3 percent of the U.S. population, it comes out to — meh — $400 to $500 million.

Let’s say the cost of this program with interest and principal, runs $600 million over the life of a 20-year bond. That’s $30 a year for each Pima County resident, and I'm not talking about tourists. Tourists, as I've heard from sales tax battles of yore, account for 30 percent of the revenue. Plus, we're adding thousands of jobs to the community.

According to the report, buildings use 50 percent of the energy in the U.S. The total savings in energy is 5 percent of the carbon emissions per year. If we aren’t willing to spend $2.50 a month to take this small step to fix climate change, then we’re definitely not ready for a Green New Anything.

On the other hand, it shows climate remediation isn't some economy-crashing exercise in nihilism. In this case, apathy is nihilism.

Price saving testimonial

Price savings? Folks, I gotta tell ya. The last place I lived was an energy sieve compared to where I’m at now. They are both roughly the same square footage. The old place cost $150 per month to keep at 90 degrees and the winters were worse.

Without the heater (and I once went seven years without turning a heater on), the temperature dropped to 45 degrees inside if it was 50 outside. That was another $100 to $120 just to keep the place at 70.

Take it to the people

I digressed so allow me to ingress into the problem. On the other hand, we could swap out part of the RTA's money to use for housing rehab. The state won’t let us. The RTA's taxing authority is reserved for transportation to reduce the fuss and muss of driving in our cars, trucks and SUVs.

Romero may have ideas for the city but the City Charter limits property taxes to bond at more than $1.75 per 100 of a assessed value. That piggy bank is empty. Adding a sales tax hike would hit low-income earners harder because it's a regressive tax and the city's sales taxes are already among the highest in the country. 

Retiring part of the RTA and converting it to the climate battle would not add to the existing tax burden.

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The RTA is dedicated to building new roads to accommodate new cars with some transit on the side. It's a typical transpo project that facilitates internal combustion rather than discouraging it.

If this sounds incompatible with fighting climate change, it’s because it is incompatible with climate change. The goal should be to get more people off the road. That can be done through mass transit, so we could sink a bunch of money into coaches (bus is a passe term) or rail rather than just widening Speedway to 28 lanes by 2100.

Let’s face it. Most of us want money for mass transit so all those assholes will clear the roads, leaving us to our hassle-free commute at 18 miles per gallon.

Road building becomes the be-all-end-all in transportation planning, says Jarrett Walker, a transit consultant and author of the book and website Human Transit.

He told Governing Magazine last month: “We talk about infrastructure, which evokes the heroism of builders, rather than operations or outcomes.” he says. “In my field, transit, we frequently build infrastructure that is inoperable—or that would fail utterly [in giving people freedom of movement]—simply because building becomes the goal in itself.”

So let’s dump the Regional Transportation Authority for a scaled back regional transit authority, toss some money in for road maintenance and use the bulk of the revenues for retrofitting homes in Tucson.

Better yet, establish a Pima County Climate District. We've already got a flood control district, a library district and community college district.

The MAGA-loving state Legislature and governor won’t go for this, of course. They prefer to roll back local environmental regs, not encourage them.

So we then go around them and empower ourselves, through a statewide ballot initiative, so that local governments can address carbon emissions through policy and investment.

Selling it to the people

Selling this concept to voters is a whole ‘nother problem. Industry will fight like mad and spend even angrier to stop it. Well, call 88-TOM STEYER and have him write some checks to fight for the hearts and minds.

Opinion is starting to move – maybe not with gay-marriage speed, but it’s moving. A CBS News Poll conducted this month shows 64 percent of respondents saying climate change is a crisis and 56 percent said something should be done now.

The problem has a local flavor. Since 1970, Tucson is the third fastest-warming city in the country. Phoenix is fourth. Quick reminder: Neither of these cities were temperate in 1969. Interestingly, Burlington, Vermont is fifth (no wonder Bernie is so pissy).

To take a local step to fix it will cost money, but not a lot.

The generations living on Planet Earth now didn't ask for this challenge but we got it. The effects of doing nothing could be astonishingly bad. See, the carbon it takes a few years to pump into the air takes thousands of years to wash out of the atmosphere. We could be creating a 20,000-year reality for hundreds of generations to judge us by. We can be the Nero Generations if we choose. I prefer to be more like Marcus Aurelius, myself. 

There's stuff we can do locally. Big stuff, maybe, that will save money and do our part to save civilization.  Are cloth bags and Priuses enough for people to feel like they are doing their part or do they want to go bigger?

Maybe the climate journey isn’t starting in a hypothetical Tucson after all. Maybe we’re starting in Puerto Peñasco. New York is a lonnnnng way off. Or maybe we're finally ready to make our way.

Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist who worked in daily journalism for nearly 20 years and is a former communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party. Now he’s telling you things the Devil won’t.

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have your say   

2 comments on this story

Sep 25, 2019, 12:14 am
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okay then ...

Sep 24, 2019, 11:07 am
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Who is This Cracker who presumes to describe what Trump’s White Nationalist base thinks?  I almost stopped there, rather than wander into a cloud of Derangement Syndrome spawned by someone who thinks there is a Blue America remaining.  I forced myself to read his comments, which may seem practical, on some level.  The handful of Democrats left must negotiate their needs with The Trump Dynasty, for the rest of all our lives.  Rank & file Americans will never allow “globalism” greater weight than our national good.

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Improving the insulation of Tucson's housing stock as part of a broader rehab effort is something that can be done locally while the hollering over climate change goes on nationally.

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