The Past and the Future Are at Odds in California
There’s a strange story unfolding in Berkeley, Calif., right now. That may present as a tautology, but bear with me. This one provides a window into a problem that endangers us all.
An organization called Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods, led by a former investment banker, sued the University of California, Berkeley for adding too many students, too quickly, without careful enough consideration of how bad students are for the environment.
If the number of students at U.C. Berkeley seems of questionable environmental relevance, well, I’d say you’re right. If this sounds to you like a bunch of homeowners who don’t want more college kids partying nearby, I’d probably agree. But the courts sided with Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods and froze the university’s enrollment at last year’s levels, forcing it to potentially rescind admission to thousands of students and ordering it to conduct a deeper assessment of the harm students could inflict (more trash, more noise, more homelessness and more traffic were all mentioned in the court case, if you’re curious about the specifics).
This kind of NIMBYISM is noxious. The way to ease homelessness in Berkeley is to build more homes for everyone, not keep out a bunch of kids looking to better their lives. And if there’s too much trash, maybe nearby homeowners, who’ve seen their property values rise to astonishing levels in large part because of U.C. Berkeley’s gleam, should pay higher property taxes for more frequent pickup. But on its own, it’s hard to get too exercised about this suit. The world has bigger problems than the size of Cal’s incoming class.
Zoom out from the specifics, though, and look at what it reveals about how government, even in the bluest of blue communities, actually works. Why was it so easy for a few local homeowners to block U.C. Berkeley’s plans, over the opposition of not just the powerful U.C. system but also the mayor of Berkeley and the governor of California? The answer, in this case, was the California Environmental Quality Act — a bill proposed by environmentalists and signed into law in 1970 by Gov. Ronald Reagan that demands rigorous environmental impact reviews for public projects, and that has become an all-purpose weapon for anyone who wants to stymie a new public project or one that requires public approval.
There are laws like this in many states, and there’s a federal version, too — the National Environmental Policy Act. They’re part of a broader set of checks on development that have done a lot of good over the years but are doing a lot of harm now. When they were first designed, these bills were radical reforms to an intolerable status quo. Now they are, too often, powerful allies of an intolerable status quo, rendering government plodding and ineffectual and making it almost impossible to build green infrastructure at the speed we need.
A bit of history is useful here. The environmentalism movement as we know it today was built around the risks posed by humans acting too fast, without sufficient consideration of consequences. Government was, in this era, part of the problem. A big part. This is a story Paul Sabin, a historian at Yale, tells in “Public Citizens: The Attack on Big Government and the Remaking of American Liberalism.” In it, Sabin questions the received wisdom that it was a revolt on the right that got Americans to see government as an incompetent foe rather than a powerful friend. The most potent attacks, as he sees it, came from inside the Democrats’ house.
These attacks were mounted for good reason. America’s major cities were choked with smog. Developers paid little heed to the presence of precious ecosystems or rare habitats. An explosion of industrial innovation led to an explosion of industrial runoff and novel chemicals and byproducts were dumped into waterways, poisoning people and wildlife alike. America was growing, and the government was trying to sustain and support that growth. The environment was an afterthought, if that.
As Sabin writes, Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” the foundational text of modern environmentalism, was an attack on “government-led efforts to deploy science and engineering” and “the legitimacy and trustworthiness of agency decision-making.” Ralph Nader, and the manifold organizations he birthed, was similarly focused on the failures of government agencies.
What emerged was an entire branch of liberalism — and a whole universe of activist organizations, and even laws — dedicated to critiquing and then suing and restraining government. As Sabin writes:
I want to say this as clearly as I can: Carson and Nader and those who followed them were, in important respects, right. The bills they helped pass — from the Clean Air Act to the National Environmental Policy Act — were passed for good reason and have succeeded brilliantly in many of their goals. That it’s easy to breathe the air in Los Angeles today is their legacy, and they should be honored for it.
But as so often happens, one generation’s solutions have become the next generation’s problems. Processes meant to promote citizen involvement have themselves been captured by corporate interests and rich NIMBYs. Laws meant to ensure that government considers the consequences of its actions have made it too difficult for government to act consequentially. “It was as if liberals took a bicycle apart to fix it but never quite figured out how to get it running properly again,” Sabin writes.
These bills were built for an era when the issue was that the government was building too much, with too little environmental analysis. The core problem of this era is that the government is building too little, in defiance of all serious environmental analysis. This is the maddening inversion climate change imposes upon us: To conserve anything close to the climate we’ve had, we need to build as we’ve never built before, electrifying everything and constructing the green energy infrastructure to generate that electricity cleanly. As the climate writer Julian Brave NoiseCat once put it to me, “If you want to stand athwart the history of emissions and yell ‘stop,’ you need to do really transformational things.”
That’s where the environmental victories of yesteryear have become the obstacles of this year. Too many of the tactics and strategies and statutes are designed to stop transformational, or even incremental, projects from happening. Modest expansions to affordable housing or bus service are forced to answer for their environmental impact. But the status quo doesn’t have to win any lawsuits or fill out any forms to persist.
“The problem is a bunch of the regulatory law doesn’t penalize or regulate pollution,” Alex Trembath, deputy director of the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental think tank that favors technological solutions, told me. “It penalizes and regulates technology, infrastructure and growth — often quite explicitly. That’s how putatively environmental regulations are used to block laws that would lower pollution or make society more resource efficient.”
It’s not just the laws that act in this way. A similar logic pervades the permitting processes and political structures. Change is discouraged; stasis is encouraged. Leah Stokes, a political scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara who studies the politics of climate change, told me a story both revealing and familiar. “I’m trying to electrify my home in Santa Barbara,” she said. “The time it takes to get permits to change my house is about a year. I’m still burning gas in my house for that year. Now we’re going back and forth about what kind of heat pump I can use. None of the system is oriented around climate being the most important thing. If you look at how planes were built in World War II, it wasn’t like this.”
I’ve heard anecdotes like that from a lot of people who work on climate policy. They’re easy to write off as picayune complaints. But their smallness is the point. If it’s so difficult for a climate expert to electrify her own house, in a jurisdiction that believes itself terrified of climate change, how hard is it going to be to decarbonize the country?
Let’s take a look.
Famously, opposition to an offshore wind farm off Cape Cod united the Kennedy and Koch families under a single banner. They’ve successfully stalled the project in litigation for more than a decade, though the Biden administration is trying to push forward with a smaller version of it.
A similar story is playing out in the Hamptons. “We just want a site that is consistent with the least environmental impact and not just a site that maximizes profits for the developer,” Michael McKeon, a communications consultant for the residents who’ve organized in opposition to a different wind farm, told The Guardian.
Environmental groups that were founded on conservation, and often on an explicitly anti-growth politics, routinely find themselves at odds with their local chapters who still hold those views even as the national organizations now obsess over the climate crisis. The Sierra Club published a revealing report on how Vermonters were organizing against renewable power. “In 2012, Vermont had at least a dozen wind projects in development,” it noted. “Today, there are none.” The article had to awkwardly note that the Vermont chapter of the Sierra Club had helped kill several of those projects.
I don’t want to leave the impression that this is all just a bunch of rich boomers trying to protect what they already have. The trade-offs between building renewable energy and conserving existing lands is hard even for young, radical organizations that speak of climate in existential terms. Go to the website of the Sunrise Movement and you’ll see, in huge letters, “WE ARE THE CLIMATE REVOLUTION.” But in Amherst, Mass., the local chapter of the Sunrise Movement backed a moratorium on solar development until the consequences for nearby forests could be more fully studied.
“It’s not just the laws, but the environmental movement right now,” Stokes told me. “It really excelled, especially in the Trump and Bush eras, at blocking things. Think about the big wins in climate lately: blocking the Keystone XL Pipeline. Blocking development of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It’s often organized around saying no. A lot of people have structured their organizing and tactics and identities around blocking things. That creates conflict when you’re trying to get to yes — to build the future.”
In the partisan folk theory of climate change politics, the only challenge is that Republicans and a few conservative Democrats are blocking everything liberals want to do. And there is, of course, truth to that at the national level. But even if President Biden could pass his climate agenda through Congress, the green infrastructure he imagines could still be blocked by obstacles liberals have constructed to construction.
“You’re throwing a bunch of money toward demand for these technologies but not dealing with the supply bottlenecks,” Trembath said. “I don’t want to say Democrats should absolutely not spend money on clean energy infrastructure until they’ve radically reformed environmental regulation, but I do think there’s a downside risk of spending a bunch of money and causing a bunch of infrastructure gridlock and backlog rather than activating a virtuous cycle of infrastructure construction.”
In a way, this is a cheering thought. There’s much that can be done to speed decarbonization even while Joe Manchin stalls. But this project will require facing something liberals prefer to ignore. Government isn’t working that well, even where liberals are in charge, and that’s partly by design. Liberals hobbled government because there was a time when government needed to be hobbled. But new problems demand new solutions. May we be so successful in pursuing them that, decades from now, our achievements can be taken for granted, and a future generation, living in a stable climate, can work to unwind our excesses.
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