Eight Chapters, Thousands of Members, One Voice

Strategic Growth Council affirms its role as lead agency implementing cap and trade revenues for sustainable communities

By Amanda Eaken

SGC Chart 1.jpg

Amanda Eaken, Deputy Director, Sustainable Communities, San Francisco

“We definitely know both in statute and because of agreement among the Council that the Council will retain all important authority over this program and all responsibility for the success of this program.” – Mike McCoy, Executive Director of Strategic Growth Council, July 10, 2014

From the standing room only turnout at last week’s Strategic Growth Council (SGC) meeting, you would never have guessed we were smack in the middle of summer vacation season. The meeting was convened to discuss the new Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities Program (AHSC), a recently designated recipient of some of the proceeds from California’s cap and trade program.

Supporters of California’s landmark sustainable communities and climate law SB 375 cheered this new program, as it represents the first permanent source of funding for implementing the Sustainable Communities Strategies that regions around the state have developed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions under SB 375. The AHSC program received $130 million of cap and trade proceeds in the 2014 fiscal year, and 20% of all cap and trade revenues in following years (total estimated at several billion per year). Eligible uses of the AHSC funds include: affordable housing and transit-oriented development, transit, active transportation, complete streets, farmland conservation, planning to implement Sustainable Communities Strategies, and other programs and projects designed to limit greenhouse gas emissions by reducing car travel.

With an aggressive timeline to deploy funds, the Council is already starting to act.

In advance of the hearing, responding to some concerns about the Council’s proposed action to delegate implementation authority of the AHSC program, Senate President pro Tem and author of SB 375, Darrell Steinberg, sent a letter to Council Chairman Ken Alex. This letter makes clear that:

1) the Council should lead on ranking projects and distributing funds;

2) regional agencies charged with implementing SB 375 should play an active role in selecting the best projects for their regions;

3) the fund guidelines should be reexamined and open to revision after this first push to deploy funds; and,

4) the focus should be on GHG reductions.

During the Council meeting, good discussion clarified the Staff’s recommended action and provided greater specificity to the roles of the Council and supportive state agencies. An amendment to the Council’s action was made, clarifying that the Council will retain authority and coordinate the technical and administrative support from the Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD), the CA Natural Resources Agency, and the CA Department of Conservation (referred to in the chart below as “implementing agencies”). Council discussion—though no amendments to the motion—also affirmed their agreement with Steinberg’s other key points, namely 1) the MPOs will be key partners in fund distribution, 2) the Council fully expects to revisit these guidelines and implementation decisions after the first round, and 3) the mandate to reduce GHG emissions through this program is abundantly clear and was several times reinforced.

Councilmember Laird explained the collaborative effort under the Council’s leadership: “We’re reserving all the high-level decisions here. They are not being surrendered in every way, but for the expertise that our staff doesn’t have, or the capacity, or the breadth–that’s where you’re doing it [pointing to a HCD representative] within the overall direction or approval of the Strategic Growth Council.” The chart below presented by Council staff illustrates this point:


We are pleased to see the Council commit to a thorough public outreach process to develop the guidelines this summer. We had initially reacted that any decisions about which agency should be charged with implementing this program should follow rather than precede the public outreach process, but we are sympathetic to the goals of getting the funding out the door to communities expeditiously.

The breadth of possible projects, potential for innovation, and guarantee of greenhouse gas emissions reductions within this program is tremendous. We look forward to working closely with the Council, HCD, the Natural Resources Agency, the Dept. of Conservation, stakeholders, and other supportive agencies as they develop fund guidelines for this first round of cap and trade dollars and get money flowing quickly towards the best projects.

Source: National Resources Defense Council

Five ways to think about greener, healthier cities

By Kaid Benfield

Copenhagen (photo courtesy of Payton Chung)

Kaid Benfield, Special Counsel for Urban Solutions, Washington, DC

I like to consider “people habitat” – the realm of places that humans build and inhabit – as having an ecology of its own, roughly analogous to that of natural wildlife habitat. Nature works best when it is in balance and, like the natural environment when operating at its best, the built environment created by us humans should achieve harmony among its various parts and with the larger world upon which it depends. But, while the ecology of the natural world – at least as usually studied – concerns itself primarily with the interdependence and health of non-human species, the ecology of people habitat concerns itself also with our relationships as humans to each other, and with the health of communities that support those relationships and allow us to flourish alongside and within nature.

I believe we humans have an opportunity and a duty to make our habitat work both for us as people and for the sustainable health of the planet writ large. Indeed, if our solutions do not work for people, they will never work for the planet.

I would like to posit five principles that, for me at least, help frame a positive, solution-oriented approach to thinking about the built environment, the habitat we make for people. They certainly aren’t the only important principles, or even the only ones I like to write about. But they are, I believe, essential, and among the universe of city thoughts that are dear to my heart.

(These five principles are adapted from, and are among those elaborated in, the book People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think About Greener, Healthier Cities, distributed by Island Press.)

1. It’s not really about ‘cities’

Merriam-Webster defines a city as “an inhabited place of greater size, population, or importance than a town or village.” That’s the way most of us use the word, most of the time. But Merriam-Webster also defines a city as “a usually large or important municipality in the United States governed under a charter granted by the state.” These are two overlapping but very different things: using the first definition, one might say that “Atlanta” is a sprawling metropolis and powerful economic entity with a population of over 5.4 million people; but, using the second, Atlanta becomes a much smaller area containing only 432,000 residents (as of 2011). Metropolitan Atlanta holds over twelve times the population of the “city” of Atlanta.


The smaller, jurisdictional Atlanta may mean something to candidates for city office and cartographers, but it has very little to do with economic or environmental reality. Jurisdictional city boundaries – the “city limits” – are largely arbitrary in today’s world. They date back to the early 20th or even 19th century in many cases, are frequently drawn in crazy ways, and bear little relation to how places function now. I prefer to think in terms of regions (particularly metropolitan regions) and neighborhoods.

With respect to regions, environmental media certainly don’t respect political boundaries: Here in the Washington, DC area, the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers receive runoff from Virginia and Maryland as well as from the jurisdictional cities of Washington and Alexandria; the Chesapeake Bay watershed includes parts of seven states and scores of municipalities. In Chicago, the air moves freely around the seven counties and 284 separate municipalities just within the Illinois part of the region, to say nothing of those in nearby Wisconsin and Indiana. Very little of the energy consumed within the jurisdictional limits of the city of San Francisco is generated there. And so on. These are fundamentally regional issues.

I would submit that the other scale (besides metropolitan regions) of people habitat that matters the most to the greatest number of people is the neighborhood. Neighborhoods are where we eat and sleep and where, if we are lucky, our kids play and go to school; where we shop for food, take our dry cleaning, and maybe grab a bite to eat; where we meet neighbors on the street on in community gatherings; if we’re really lucky, the neighborhood will even have a library branch and a hardware store.

While those of us who live in metropolitan areas – and that includes 83 percent of all Americans – zip all around them to visit friends, conduct business, and shop, we’re usually going to other neighborhoods when we do. If the region represents the economic and environmental scale of real cities, the neighborhood represents the human scale.

2. What seems green may actually be brown

Everyone wants to be green these days, especially enterprises that seek to exploit the cachet of sustainability and sell to consumers attracted to a more environmentally friendly lifestyle. The “green” label may be especially appealing if customers don’t have to change any of their habits, because the desirable features are embedded in the products or services for sale. But a selective set of facts may conceal the true picture.

Texas sprawl (photo c2014 FK Benfield)

The problem is that, in reality, sellers’ offerings really can be green in some ways while being “brown,” or unsustainable, in others. My favorite example is the phenomenon of so-called “green” buildings or subdivisions located in non-walkable locations that require long car trips for people to get anywhere from them or from anywhere to them.

The truth is that suburban sprawl isn’t worthy of the name “green,” no matter what environmental bells and whistles are placed on it. In 2010, I reviewed a development called Prairie Ridge Estates, a single-use, single-family residential subdivision being constructed on farmland 40 miles southwest of Chicago. Prairie Ridge’s developer billed it as “the nation’s first net zero energy community of custom designed homes,” in effect suggesting that, if you purchase a home here, you’re as green as it gets. The development’s web site devoted a page to LEED – the industry-leading green building rating system – featuring the US Green Building Council’s LEED logo and even including a mention of LEED for Neighborhood Development.

In fact, Prairie Ridge is not true green development but exurban sprawl. One can earn LEED building certification pretty much in the middle of nowhere, unfortunately, so this project may well be eligible for a green building certification. But – speaking as someone who helped write the LEED for Neighborhood Development standards – there is not a chance in hell that Prairie Ridge could earn certification under the more demanding LEED-ND system, which is designed to reward smart, green urbanism. If it can, there is something very wrong with LEED-ND.

3. Revitalization can be powerful

When revitalization of our distressed neighborhoods and older towns is done well, it is almost unrivaled in its ability to advance simultaneously the “triple bottom line” goals of sustainability: improving the environment, the economy, and social equity. Cities, once seen by many only as a source of environmental problems, can be better understood today also as a source of environmental solutions.

Philly Painting helps an older neighborhood come alive (photo courtesy of Philly Painting)

In particular, America’s environmental community was initially built on the celebration of wilderness and the rural landscape as a more romantic and pastoral antidote to cities and towns. Cities were seen as something to escape. Environmentalists were among the many who stood by while we severely disinvested so many of our inner cities and traditional towns in the latter half of the 20th century; many Americans embraced unlimited and poorly planned suburban expansion as a sort of (illusory, as it turned out) approximation of living “closer to nature.”

We now know that we ignore cities at our – and the environment’s – peril. We were and remain right to uphold nature, wildlife and the rural landscape as places critical to celebrate, preserve, and withdraw to. But reinvestment in older cities and towns – the kinds of communities where for millennia people have congregated in search of more efficient commerce, resource sharing, and social networks – holds our greatest hope for sustaining the rural landscape. The best way to save wilderness is through beautiful communities that are built to a walkable scale and do not encroach on places of significant natural value.

For our cities and towns to function as successful people habitat, though, they must be communities where people want to live, work and play. We must make them great, and always within a decidedly nonsprawling form. As it turns out, more efficient land use – in communities of streets, homes, shops, workplaces, schools and the like assembled in proximity to each other – not only helps to save the landscape; it also reduces pollution and consumption of resources. We don’t need to drive as far or as often; we share infrastructure.

We cannot continue to spread out as we have in the recent past. The result, as we now know all too well, has been desecration of the natural and rural landscape, decaying city infrastructure, polluted air and waterways, and distressed populations.

Today, we need our inner cities and older communities to absorb as much of our anticipated growth as possible, to keep the impacts per increment of expected growth as low as we can. And, to do that, we must bring cities back to life, with great neighborhoods and complete streets, with walkability and well-functioning public transit, with clean parks and rivers, with air that is safe to breathe and water that is safe to drink. This is the essence of revitalization.

Where cities have been disinvested, we must rebuild them; where populations have been neglected, we must provide them with opportunity; where suburbs have been allowed to sprawl nonsensically, we must retrofit them and make them better. These are not just economic and social matters: these are environmental issues, every bit as deserving of the environmental community’s attention as the preservation of nature.

4. Cities need nature

Speaking of nature, we humans have an intrinsic emotional need to connect with the natural world. The eminent biologist E. O. Wilson first called this affinity “biophilia,” and the term has stuck. Yet cities also, and fundamentally, need the structure of hardscape urbanism – streets, buildings, and infrastructure – in sufficient density to achieve environmental and economic efficiency and nurture social bonds. It is critical that we incorporate nature into cities, but we must do so in a way that supports urbanity rather than replaces it.

Russell Square, London (photo c2014 FK Benfield)

I remember a happy day in our neighborhood a few years back. When I came home from work, three new trees had been planted on our block. That’s a small thing, of course, just three street trees. But their predecessors had been sorely missed for a few years. When we moved into the neighborhood a little over 20 years ago, one of its major assets was large, stately street trees, most of them oaks, on nearly every block. The neighborhood was built in the 1920s, so our oldest trees would have been around 70 years old when we moved in.

Many of those older trees remain, but over the twenty-plus years that we have lived in the neighborhood we have lost quite a few to disease and, mostly, storms. I’m sure I was not the only one whose spirits were lifted by the discovery that new ones had been planted: researchers have shown that even just a view of greenery from a window can give us a psychological and physical boost.

Indeed, for our ancestors a keen awareness of the natural environment was essential to survival. When we are deprived of nature, we lose a basic aspect of humanity. Who among us has not enjoyed a stroll, ridden a bike, read a book or magazine, learned a sport, fallen in love, taken a nap, or otherwise enjoyed the respite and communion with nature provided by a natural area or lovely city park? In cities, the presence of nature – whether interspersed among our streets, buildings and yards or more organized into parks – connects us with growth and with the seasons, providing a softness to complement the concrete of our streets and sidewalks and the brick and wood of our houses.

5. Sustainability is where the heart is

Environmentalists, for the most part, operate in a world anchored in science: particular species saved or threatened, grams of carbon or nitrogen oxide in the air, levels of pollutants in waterways, vehicle miles traveled, and so on. These are critical, but so are characteristics that cannot be measured.

Seattle (photo c2014 FK Benfield)

For example, we all know city places that inspire romance – places that kindle love, if you will. There are the biggies, such as Paris, Rome, and San Francisco. There are historic districts in many cities with narrow, brick or cobbled streets. There are city squares set against dramatic natural views of mountains, desert, or water, or set against dramatic urban views of skylines, majestic buildings, and twinkling lights. There are tucked-away spots with an architecture of intimacy. Most of us have our favorites.

But I submit that almost all of these city places that inspire love, and others that simply inspire, are also lovable themselves. Is this important? Should those of us who care about sustainability also care whether a place is “lovable”? Shouldn’t we only care about the resources it consumes and the pollution it generates?

I reject the assumption that great numbers on sustainability indicators make a great place, or that whether a place is great doesn’t matter if it shows well on sustainability indicators. In fact, as my friend Steve Mouzon has articulated so well, I’ll stand these notions on their head and say that places are sustainable only if they are also lovable. The truth is that the mushy stuff – legacy, beauty, places that speak to the heart and soul – matters. But what about the whole “it’s in the eye of the beholder” thing? If we can’t reach consensus on a definition of lovable, then how do we know when we have it?

I’ll grant that lovability – or beauty – can be elusive to define, especially over time. But being elusive to define with certainty is not the same thing as being unimportant. While there may not be unanimity, there are in fact places that are pretty darn close to being universally loved. And they are the ones most likely to be defended and cared for over time, and thus the most sustainable in a very literal way. We should study them, learn from them, and create more of them. Lovability alone may not equate to environmental sustainability; but good environmental performance alone may not equate to literal sustainability.

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Kaid Benfield writes about community, development, and the environment on Switchboard and in other national media. Kaid’s newest book, People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think About Greener, Healthier Cities, is available from Island Press and booksellers nationwide.

Source: NRDC

A New Architecture for a New World: Linking Global Aspirations with Local Actions

By John Romano

Central Park

John Romano, Global Fellow, International Program, New York City

NRDC has begun the New Year building upon promising momentum at the United Nations for addressing a wide range of urban sustainability and climate challenges.

Last week, NRDC joined countries, mayors, governors, civil society groups and coalitions to highlight the critical role that cities will play in implementing a new set of global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Discussions of the Open Working Group on SDGs (OWG) – the intergovernmental body tasked with putting forward a universal set of global goals to replace the expiring Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2015 – clearly highlighted that cities and local governments are taking a leadership role in implementation of sustainable development and climate action.

Building on the stimulating discussions led by NRDC in the past few months on creating a new architecture for a new global partnership, last week’s meetings highlighted the critical part that cities must play in this new global partnership for the SDGs. This new architecture for the SDGs must facilitate the engagement of thousands of leaders from cities and local governments all around the world, and must mobilize and harness the full potential of partnerships between governments, the private sector and civil society.

Simply put, if we are truly serious about forging a transformational sustainable development agenda beyond 2015, the architecture for the SDGs must link our global aspirations to local actions within cities.

As UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon put it, “our struggle for global sustainability will be won or lost in cities.”

Discussions from the Open Working Group last week sent a very strong signal that these SDGs must include local governments in not just their vision, but also in their implementation. The engagement of local and regional governments will be critical to forging a “New Global Partnership” called for by the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on the post-2015 development agenda.

“Without cities and local authorities on board, no (climate) agreement will be possible in Paris 2015.”

– Pascal Canfin, France’s Deputy-Minister for Development

Spearheading the campaign to include sustainable cities as a part of the post-2015 agenda is the multi-stakeholder Communitas Coalition for Sustainable Cities and Regions. This coalition has proposed 25 targets for a stand-alone goal on urban sustainability, in addition to the other goals on cross-cutting issues such as energy, access to basic goods and services, and resilience. The group is working collaboratively with a wide range of actors – including NRDC as a member of its advisory committee – to refine these targets for the proposal of its urban goal at the World Urban Forum this April, with an eye toward the practical application of these targets in city-regions around the world.

Later in the week, ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability presented a recently released report on its Carbonn Cities Climate Registry (cCCR), which stands as the world’s largest global database for local commitments to climate action. The report highlights that – as of November 2013 – the Carbonn platform now has over 400 reporting cities and local governments that have made over 800 climate and energy commitments. These commitments are expected to reduce emissions by at least 123 million tons of CO2e/year by 2020 if implemented as promised.

The Partnership for Sustainable Low Carbon Transport (SLoCaT) also released a draft of its results framework at the Open Working Group, calling for a standalone goal on sustainable transport. Their campaign proposed five targets on Urban Access, Rural Access, Road Safety, Air Pollution and Human Health, and on Climate Change. The Global Taskforce of Local and Regional Governments for the post-2015 Development Agenda has also gathered over 170 signatories of mayors, governors and civil society partners to endorse a stand-alone goal on sustainable urban development as part of the SDGs.

Last Monday, I also had the opportunity to address the Open Working Group on the topic of sustainable cities, speaking on behalf of the Major Group for Children and Youth, a global constituency of young people working on sustainable development at the United Nations.

The message I delivered was very clear: Truly sustainable development is only possible within cities if it is inclusive and representative of the needs and priorities of its people – particularly young people. Without this, our collective effort to achieve sustainable development within cities will undoubtedly fall short. I also highlighted the importance of public-private partnerships in achieving these goals, particularly at the local level, where the implementation of these new goals will ultimately occur.

Children and youth have the most at stake in the post-2015 agenda, given that they are inheriting the planet and will live with consequences of our actions today, or our failure to deliver on our promises. Perhaps most importantly, we must now ensure that the architecture for the SDGs explicitly includes cities – and young people within these cities – as critical parts of the implementation of our global sustainable development ambitions.

Source: NRDC

Hamburg's ambitious green network addresses nature, climate resilience, sustainable transportation

By Kaid Benfield

Hamburg's green network (courtesy of Inhabitat)

Kaid Benfield, Special Counsel for Urban Solutions, Washington, DC

The German city of Hamburg, the 2011 European Green Capital, has announced an ambitious plan to create and link an amazing 27 square miles of new and existing green space all over the city. The result will be a city that puts nature within easier reach of every resident; becomes more resilient to flooding caused by global warming; and provides enough connectivity for walking and bicycling to become car-optional citywide in twenty years.

Angelika Fritsch, a spokeswoman for the city’s department of urban planning and the environment, spoke to reporter Elisabeth Braw of the Guardian:

“[The plan] will connect parks, recreational areas, playgrounds, gardens and cemeteries through green paths. Other cities, including London, have green rings, but the green network will be unique in covering an area from the outskirts to the city centre. In 15 to 20 years you’ll be able to explore the city exclusively on bike and foot.”

In all, the green network will cover an impressive 40 percent of the city’s land area.

Although the plan is being hailed as intended to make the city “car-free,” I don’t read the reports quite that way. Cars will still be allowed in Hamburg, but they may not be necessary for most tasks that able-bodied Hamburgers are likely to undertake.

The more important result may be the provision of green infrastructure to absorb rain and flood waters. Charley Cameron writes in Inhabitat that in the past 60 years the average temperature of Hamburg, a port city and Germany’s second largest overall, has increased by 9 degrees Celsius, while sea levels have risen by 20 centimeters. Sea levels are expected to increase another 30 centimeters by 2100, according to Cameron.

If fully realized, the network will cover some 7000 hectares, over half the size of Boston or San Francisco. In addition to flood and transport benefits, it will connect urban wildlife habitat, help lower summer temperatures, and provide recreational opportunities for residents.

Braw’s article stresses that the plan is still somewhat formative and the brainchild of planners. Some 30 city staff members have been working on the vision. For the plan to be successful, politicians will need to “make the green web a priority.”

Hamburg's A7 motorway before and after (courtesy of Inhabitat)

Hamburg is already a city of considerable green ambition. A head start on the linked network may be provided by a plan to cap a two-mile stretch of a major freeway with woods, parks, trails, and garden plots for city residents. The green cap, which will also reconnect neighborhoods split by the freeway, will be over 100 feet wide and as much as ten feet thick in places.

Hamburg is the tenth largest city in Europe, with a population of 1.8 million people (4.3 million in the metro area).

Related posts:

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Kaid Benfield writes about community, development, and the environment on Switchboard and in the national media. Kaid’s new book is People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think About Greener, Healthier Cities.

Source: NRDC

Importance of Green Buildings Stressed by Business and Industry at UN Climate Negotiations

By Maggie Comstock


Published on:
18 Nov 2013

Feature image:

Globally, buildings account for 40% of energy use, 38% of greenhouse gas emissions, 12% of potable water and 20% of solid waste streams in developed countries. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has identified buildings as the greatest impact, least costly way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and address climate change. Beyond emissions reduction and environmental protection, green buildings have extensive co-benefits, including cost-savings, job creation, and improved human health and productivity.

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Source: USGBC Nationals

AB758: The Most Important Energy Law You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

By Gina Goodhill Rosen, Policy and Legislative Associate, Global Green USA

One of the most exciting moments in energy policy is happening right now, but chances are, you haven’t even heard of it.  California is currently in the process of designing and implementing a statewide law that will create jobs, support a growing industry, drastically reduce the amount of energy that Californians use and the amount of greenhouse gas we release, save consumers money, and increase comfort. And we’re doing all of this simply by making our buildings more efficient.

AB758 Author Assemblymember Nancy Skinner accepting USGBC California’s distinguished service Green Hard Hat Award at this past April’s “Top10” event in Sacramento.

But let’s take a step back. In 2009, Governor Schwarzenegger passed AB 758.  Authored by Assemblymember Nancy Skinner and sponsored by Global Green USA (along with many additional supporters, such as USGBC California), the law requires the California Energy Commission (CEC) to develop and implement a program to achieve greater energy savings in all existing buildings in California. Once the bill passed into law, it became known as The Comprehensive Energy Efficiency Program for Existing Buildings (though most people still call it AB 758).

Buildings represent the second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in California.  Much of California’s current energy efficiency policy has focused on new construction through both government and third party approaches (think Title 24 and LEED); as a result, we’ve been able to ensure that the buildings built today are more energy-efficient than at any time in the past. However, very little has been done to make our existing buildings more efficient. Given that 55 percent of California’s housing stock and more than 40 percent of California’s nonresidential building stock were built before any building energy efficiency standards were put into place, retrofitting all our existing buildings could have a serious impact. AB 758 finally gives California the tools to tackle energy efficiency improvements in existing buildings.

Making our existing buildings more efficient is crucial if we want to meet our greenhouse gas reduction targets under California’s Global Warming Law, AB 32, and if we want to seriously reduce the amount of electricity we use. After a three- year lag between passing the bill into law and designing the program under the law, we are now starting to see the CEC make the creation and implementation of this program one of its first priorities.

Global Green USA and many others will continue to advocate for aggressive implementation that is aligned with California’s Global Warming Law. We expect to see the first draft of the implementation plan in January 2013, with public workshops to follow. This will be the perfect time for those with expertise in energy efficiency retrofits to weigh in, so stay tuned for specific details on how to get more involved. After long last, we’re tackling the problem of existing buildings head on.


Greenbuild 2012: @ Home in SF



Way back in in October of 1993, USGBC’s first board meeting was held at the AIA SF (and now also USGBC-NCC) offices at 130 Sutter Street, San Francisco . It has taken a few years, but it is great to see USGBC, all grown up and now living in Washington, come back home to California. We’re so proud….

Greenbuild is always a great experience, and Greenbuild 2012 will be the biggest and best show yet. Starting tomorrow, the Moscone Center will be packed with special Summits focusing on Building Codes,  Green Jobs, Legal, Residential and International issues, an astounding variety of educational sessions and over 700,000 square feet of exhibit space. There really is something for everyone interested in breathing clean indoor air, in kickstarting the emerging clean economy, in rehabbing schools and homes and workplaces worth spending time in…in short everyone.

Lakoff: Global Warming Systemically Caused Hurricane Sandy

By George Lakoff, author of The Political Mind, Moral Politics, Don’t Think of an Elephant!, Whose Freedom?, and Thinking Points, originally in the Huffington Post

Yes, global warming systemically caused Hurricane Sandy — and the Midwest droughts and the fires in Colorado and Texas, as well as other extreme weather disasters around the world. Let’s say it out loud, it was causation, systemic causation.

Seaside Heights Laid Very Low by Sandy.

Systemic causation is familiar. Smoking is a systemic cause of lung cancer. HIV is a systemic cause of AIDS. Working in coal mines is a systemic cause of black lung disease. Driving while drunk is a systemic cause of auto accidents. Sex without contraception is a systemic cause of unwanted pregnancies.

There is a difference between systemic and direct causation. Punching someone in the nose is direct causation. Throwing a rock through a window is direct causation. Picking up a glass of water and taking a drink is direct causation. Slicing bread is direct causation. Stealing your wallet is direct causation. Any application of force to something or someone that always produces an immediate change to that thing or person is direct causation. When causation is direct, the word cause is unproblematic.

Systemic causation, because it is less obvious, is more important to understand. A systemic cause may be one of a number of multiple causes. It may require some special conditions. It may be indirect, working through a network of more direct causes. It may be probabilistic, occurring with a significantly high probability. It may require a feedback mechanism. In general, causation in ecosystems, biological systems, economic systems, and social systems tends not to be direct, but is no less causal. And because it is not direct causation, it requires all the greater attention if it is to be understood and its negative effects controlled.

Above all, it requires a name: systemic causation.

Global warming systemically caused the huge and ferocious Hurricane Sandy. And consequently, it systemically caused all the loss of life, material damage, and economic loss of Hurricane Sandy. Global warming heated the water of the Gulf and Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, resulting in greatly increased energy and water vapor in the air above the water. When that happens, extremely energetic and wet storms occur more frequently and ferociously. These systemic effects of global warming came together to produce the ferocity and magnitude of Hurricane Sandy.

The precise details of Hurricane Sandy cannot be predicted in advance, any more than when, or whether, a smoker develops lung cancer, or sex without contraception yields an unwanted pregnancy, or a drunk driver has an accident. But systemic causation is nonetheless causal.

Semantics matters. Because the word cause is commonly taken to mean direct cause, climate scientists, trying to be precise, have too often shied away from attributing causation of a particular hurricane, drought, or fire to global warming. Lacking a concept and language for systemic causation, climate scientists have made the dreadful communicative mistake of retreating to weasel words. Consider this quote from “Perception of climate change,” by James Hansen, Makiko Sato, and Reto Ruedy, Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:

…we can state, with a high degree of confidence, that extreme anomalies such as those in Texas and Oklahoma in 2011 and Moscow in 2010 were a consequence of global warming because their likelihood in the absence of global warming was exceedingly small.

The crucial words here are high degree of confidence, anomalies, consequence, likelihood, absence, and exceedingly small. Scientific weasel words! The power of the bald truth, namely causation, is lost.

This is no small matter because the fate of the earth is at stake. The science is excellent. The scientists’ ability to communicate is lacking. Without the words, the idea cannot even be expressed. And without an understanding of systemic causation, we cannot understand what is hitting us.

Global warming is real, and it is here. It is causing — yes, causing — death, destruction, and vast economic loss. And the causal effects are getting greater with time. We cannot merely adapt to it. The costs are incalculable. What we are facing is huge. Each day, the amount of extra energy accumulating via the heating of the earth is the equivalent of 400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs. Each day!

Because the earth itself is so huge, this energy is distributed over the earth in a way that is not immediately perceptible by our bodies — only a fraction of a degree each day. But the accumulation of total heat energy over the earth is increasing at an astronomical rate, even though the temperature numbers look small locally — 0.8 degrees Celsius so far. If we hit 2.0 degrees Celsius, as we may before long, the earth — and the living things on it — will not recover. Because of ice melt, the level of the oceans will rise 45 feet, while huge storms, fires, and droughts get worse each year.

The international consensus is that by 2.0 degrees Celsius, all civilization would be threatened if not destroyed. What would it take to reach a 2.0 degrees Celsius increase over the whole earth? Much less than you might think. Consider the amount of oil already drilled and stored by Exxon Mobil alone. If that oil were burned, the temperature of the earth would pass 2.0 degree Celsius, and those horrific disasters would come to pass.

The value of Exxon Mobil — its stock price — resides in its major asset, its stored oil. The weather disasters arising from burning that oil would be so great that we would have to stop burning. That’s just Exxon Mobil’s oil. The oil stored by all the oil companies everywhere would, if burned, destroy civilization many times over.

Another way to comprehend this, as Bill McKibben has observed, is that most of the oil stored all over the earth is worthless. The value of oil company stock, if Wall St. were rational, would drop precipitously. Moreover, there is no point in drilling for more oil. Most of what we have already stored cannot be burned. More drilling is pointless.

Are Bill McKibben’s and James Hansen’s numbers right? We had better have the science community double-check the numbers, and fast.

Where do we start? With language. Add systemic causation to your vocabulary. Communicate the concept. Explain to others why global warming systemically caused the enormous energy and size of Hurricane Sandy, as well as the major droughts and fires. Email your media whenever you see reporting on extreme weather that doesn’t ask scientists if it was systemically caused by global warming.

Next, enact fee and dividend, originally proposed by Peter Barnes at Sky Trust and introduced as Senate legislation as the KLEAR Act by Maria Cantwell and Susan Collins. More recently, legislation called fee and dividend has been proposed by James Hansen and introduced in the House by representatives John B, Larson and Bob Inglis.

Next. Do all we can to move to alternative energy worldwide as soon as possible.