Climate Change and Inequality

Mark Gamba   Mayor of Milwaukie

Mark Gamba
Mayor of Milwaukie

The last time carbon in our atmosphere routinely exceeded 400 ppm was three million years ago. At that time, temperatures were 3.6 to 5.4 degrees warmer, and the ocean levels were 15 to 25 meters higher. Imagine if, instead of being above 80 degrees the last week in July, we were well above 90 degrees, and in August if we exceeded 100 degrees for weeks on end. With summers that hot in the Northwest, the probability of wildfires and forest fires increases. Energy usage would skyrocket as more air conditioners were installed, and our air pollution would rival or exceed Los Angeles.

These are not predictions; they are all already happening. Climate change isn’t something happening in some distant future; it is already here.

Climate change caused by human-triggered greenhouse gas pollutants such as carbon dioxide cannot be addressed by any one country, let alone a municipality the size of Milwaukie. That is just one reason why the Paris Climate Agreement, despite all its shortcomings, is so important. The Paris Agreement created a framework for the world to come together and reverse the damage already done — and yet to be caused — by greenhouse gas pollution.

While the rest of the world is taking steps to reduce per capita carbon pollution, the U.S. has abrogated its global leadership position. This not only creates a vacuum of leadership globally but also denies critically needed resources to states and cities. Instead of funding research for innovative climate smart technologies, instead of developing the next generation of climate smart buildings, energy grids, and transportation networks — all of which could produce family-wage level jobs — the U.S. is surrendering the future to China and others. This is not how we Make America Great Again.

Into this crisis are stepping a number of cities. Milwaukie is one of them. We have placed a modest fee on ourselves, dedicated to the future. With these revenues, we are building out our active transportation system to allow kids to walk to school and families a choice other than driving a car, to get to the grocery, the park, or their neighbors. We have developed a plan for the future with more energy efficient buildings, placed in locations that will reduce commute times, travel congestion, and be connected by public transit, bike and pedestrian transportation. We have hired a full-time employee that works on nothing but reducing our impact on the planet.

 We are working with TriMet, the single largest consumer of diesel fuel in Oregon, to develop energy efficient alternatives. Buses purchased today will still be in service a decade from now when our environment will be very different. Our goal is to give our children and their children a stable and nurturing environment, literally.

The city is using our building codes and zoning to incentivize planned development that include affordable rentals located close to jobs. We are going to plant more than 22,000 trees in Milwaukie, aiming for a 40 percent canopy cover city-wide. Trees are nature’s most efficient carbon storage devices.

Each one of these actions will create jobs for our citizens, jobs that must pay enough for our citizens to afford to live in our city. Solar retrofitting of existing buildings, especially in our industrial zoned areas, can create hundreds of family-wage jobs and be cost efficient, even in Oregon, where moss grows on all sides of the tree.

In order for us to succeed we will need the support of our citizens. Our citizens see the rise in rents and the stagnation of their wages. They experience rapidly rising health insurance premiums from the dismantling of the Affordable Care Act at the same time as the quality of their medical care declines. The end result in a small school district like ours is that we have more than 400 children whose families are homeless. We have thousands more who are one medical emergency away from being homeless.

The huge gap between the one percent and the rest of us drives these and other economic and social costs. It creates distrust and a loss of faith in government at all levels. This loss of faith undermines the trust required to create the political consensus needed to tackle issues such as climate change.

There are several alternative futures. We can do nothing, as many people suggest, and suffer dire consequences today and tomorrow. Or we can do something, just as FDR did by creating the New Deal and rebuilding the foundation of our economy and defending our democracy.

We chose to do something. But what?

The options are many but they all must deliver a similar outcome: a lower carbon economy with much greater economic equality then we have today. The massive proportion of the benefits created by carbon pollution have accrued to the one percent; thus it is only fair that they pay their fair share of what it will take to mitigate greenhouse gas pollution.

The private market of multinational corporations is wonderful at creating innovative new goods and services, and the economic efficiencies to produce them at competitive prices. It’s not as good at reflecting all the costs of production in those market prices; of “internalizing” costs like pollution or traffic congestion. Inexpensive electricity is a wonderful servant, but the emissions from burning coal and gas to generate it are not. And the costs those emissions impose on all of us — especially the climate disruptions resulting from unchecked carbon emissions — have to be reined in through carbon taxes or a carbon cap such as the one the Oregon legislature will be considering in 2019. Only the government can require that those costs be internalized — included as a cost of generating electricity or refining gasoline.

And when the government does this, our wonderful, creative marketplace will find replacement products with lower overall costs, including lower or zero carbon pollution. How can we be so sure? Because even with modest carbon regulation of the sort states like California and Oregon are devising, costs of wind and solar electricity have dropped dramatically and are now cheaper than new coal or gas plants. As lithium-ion battery costs fall, the up-front price of an electric vehicle is becoming competitive with that of a conventional car, while driving and servicing the EV is far lower cost.

Mitigating the harshest aspects of climate change will require all citizens to work together.

In order to have the trust required for such a consensus, we must have a society that values humans more than unregulated markets, and insists that market prices reflect these truer values. Government must act today to restore a reasonable balance between the one percent and the rest of us. If we fail to create a fair economy for all, then we may well have no life for any.

Photo courtesy of TriMet.