Climate change ushers in new era
IN THE OLD DAYS, things were simpler: Developers tried to push through their grandiose plans while environmentalists, when suitably roused, tried to block those same projects as part of a broader campaign to curb runaway growth.
But global warming has changed everything, according to Kennedy School economist Edward Glaeser, director of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government and the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston. The environmental movement, he maintains, is entering a new era: It has already succeeded in making people realize the environment is important, with global warming arguably our most pressing concern.
The key now is to devise responsible policies for dealing with climate change -- policies that weigh benefits against costs while taking the full range of consequences into account. Doing this will force environmentalists to abandon the usual formulas and view their positions through a global lens instead.
FACT Less than 1/3 of New Yorkers drive to work. Nationwide, more than 7 out of 8 commuters drive.
"No community has the ability to stop development in the country as a whole," Glaeser explains. "They can merely push development elsewhere, where the impacts may be even greater." When seen in this light, he adds, "efforts that we thought were green may, in fact, be destructive."
Suppose that activists prevent a big residential/commercial complex from being built in Boston. Developers may then try to realize their plan within the inner suburbs. Failing there, the complex may be built in more distant suburbs or exurbs. Pushing development farther out means moving people to places where there's no public transportation and fewer opportunities for employment, shopping, and various services. People drive more as a result, leading to more greenhouse gas emissions.
A 2006 research paper by Glaeser and Harvard colleagues documented just such a pattern of urban sprawl in Greater Boston, where new housing has sprung up farther from the city in communities where land-use regulations are less stringent and local resistance less pronounced.
A 2007 paper by Glaeser and Kennedy School researcher Kristina Tobio attributes "The Rise of the Sunbelt" -- growth in metropolitan areas like Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Las Vegas, and Phoenix -- to the availability of comparatively cheap housing rather than to economic vitality, amenities, or an especially hospitable climate.
"It seems that the growth of the Sunbelt has little to do with the sun," the authors conclude. Yet the sun is a factor in the substantial air-conditioning loads characteristic of such regions, which translates to high energy consumption that may, in turn, contribute to global warming.
The population shift from temperate coastal zones to more torrid zones in the nation's interior has, to a large extent, meant "substituting a man-made environment for a natural one," Glaeser notes, with increased fossil fuel use as a by-product.
So if that little house on the prairie is not all it's cracked up to be, where should people live? "There's nothing greener than building in high-density regions," Glaeser replies. And by that standard, you can't beat Manhattan, the most packed population center in the United States, where fewer than one out of the three commuters drives to work, compared with seven out of eight who drive nationwide.
If Glaeser is right, environmentalists should be promoting development in places like New York, rather than trying to thwart it. When we build, it should be "up" like Manhattan rather than "out" like Las Vegas. And since we're all in this together, we all need to rethink our notions of "greenness" in the face of the new imperatives posed by global warming. -- SN
photo: Tanit Sakakini