Think Locally, Get Acted Upon Globally

Climate change is already destabilizing the peaceful little California county where I live.

The sea level isn’t rising yet. Agriculture is doing just fine for now. There’s no water rationing, although there might be soon—California had its driest first three months on record in 2013, and there are wildfires in the south, even though it’s only May. The weather’s a bit erratic. Yesterday it was sunny and in the high 80s. Today it’s windy, cloudy, and thirty-five degrees cooler, but nothing that would provoke more than a passing comment from most people.

No, what’s got the locals all het up is regional land use planning.

It ties back to AB 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 and SB 375, the Sustainable Communities Act of 2008. These laws require regional planning to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. To do this, coalitions of local governments within several multi-county areas negotiated where future job growth and housing development should go.

The logic is that regional planning will spread the inevitable burden of population growth equitably and intelligently, using land use principles that minimize traffic and sprawl and promote public transit. One of those principles is to put affordable housing near transit corridors to encourage lower-wage earners to settle in the county rather than outside it.

Bad juju, apparently.

Here in this bastion of exclusivity, some people don’t want change at all, much less change that bears the fingerprints of outsiders. Their refrain is local control. We worked hard to buy a chunk of this pricey real estate, they say, and we’re affronted that somebody might get a subsidized deal. Affordable housing is perceived as a handout, not a way to enhance living conditions for all.

We’re not talking about project housing. We’re talking about 70 tax-advantaged condos with below-market rent, so teachers, mechanics, and shop owners can live near where they work. These units would be constructed on the site of a derelict shopping center and a vacant lot where a gas station once stood. I believe the qualifying income level is somewhere around $65K for a family of four.

To be fair, the local tax structure means that any children who move in will be added to the school population with less than full tax dollars to support them. We’re talking maybe a $200 reduction in yearly per-pupil funding—which, in a world without climate change and sprawl, would be something I myself might be concerned about.

And who wants change, really? I would love to maintain the semi-bucolic nature of this area, just as I’m sure the residents who lived here before my subdivision appeared would have loved to preserve the open fields that were bulldozed to build it.

But the choice isn’t between change and no change. It’s between managed change and unmanaged change.

Immediate, local concerns trump all. Emotions are at a fever pitch. Our county supervisor may have to face a recall election because she supports this eminently sensible housing project. I don’t dare bring up climate change in this context—to say, think globally, act locally—even though it’s the driver for this land use decision. It’s exactly the sort we need to agree on through the mechanism of government to avoid the unbearable costs of climate change, which will be orders of magnitude higher than $200 a year, very possibly by the time today’s kindergarteners are graduating high school.

Will climate change be forestalled if people embrace this one housing project? Of course not. It’ll take many, many decisions like it. In fact, it’ll take a shift in the state of mind, not any one decision or set of decisions, that leads to a different way of approaching things altogether.

That’s the essence of the tragedy of the commons. The immediate personal concern overwhelms the long-term societal concern. Preserving the current quality of life (however futile that hope) is the only issue in their eyes. But if educated, well-off people who live in a state with active climate change legislation aren’t making that shift, it doesn’t bode well for the rest of the country, or the world.

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Filed under Climate Change, Culture, Democracy, Economics, Politics

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