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How Not to Fight Global Warming

WHILE A DEBATE RAGES in Los Angeles over dense, multistory apartments popping up citywide, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Attorney General Jerry Brown are moving forward with new ways of forcing significantly more density upon L.A. and other cities.

Illustration by Mitch Handsone

(Click to enlarge)

Convinced that suburban living causes global warming, and that dense urban housing reduces it, private groups and numerous state agencies are pushing hard to radically redesign the state’s cities and counties by using the Schwarzenegger-signed Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, which requires that California’s greenhouse gases be reduced to 1990 levels by 2020. In June, the staff of the state Environmental Protection Agency will issue an initial plan on cutting greenhouse-gas emissions; in late 2008, the California Air Resources Board, appointed by the governor, will vote to enact the winning ideas.

But the debate is being dominated by the smart-growth movement, unsettling several top global-warming scientists and researchers, who say the sweeping land-use proposals being considered by Schwarzenegger’s Climate Action Team — from lifting hard-won zoning caps to create far more high-rises to watering down longtime fire codes to permit “compact development” — have little basis in science.

“I am happy to know that your attorney general is going to fight global warming,” Konstantin Vinnikov, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Maryland, wrote in an exchange with L.A. Weekly. “But contemporary global warming is a result of overpopulation. This is politically incorrect truth. It is [the] wrong idea to settle as many people as possible in [a] limited area.”

Andrea Sarzynski, a research analyst for the Brookings Institution, was mocked by smart-growth proponents when her own studies unexpectedly found that housing density, instead of helping, actually spurs congestion and pollution. “There’s no consensus whatsoever on the contributions from these two [different types] of land use,” she says, “and there is no comprehensive study in existence on this.”

Some climate scientists wonder whether state policymakers are taking into account the fact that California, much of which is arid and not green, cannot expect to get the same bang for its buck from reducing paving, roof coverage and other suburban features that a lusher state might get from the same effort.

Russell James, a housing researcher at the University of Georgia, says in an e-mail that climate-change studies showing rising temperatures after loss of farmland in much more green East Coast states aren’t really applicable here. “The difference depends in part on what natural landscape was in the area before the house was there — e.g., building in a desert doesn’t change much, but cutting down a forest to build probably changes a lot.”

One leading global-warming researcher, and the only one who asked not to be named, says he’s come to the conclusion that in the longer term, “dense urban cities ... are more sustainable using less resources, including but not limited to energy resources, and therefore contribute less to human-caused climate change.” But that’s only if California and other regions comply with one startling caveat he raises, which would require a drastic rethinking of private land ownership. He says that if Los Angeles and other cities are made far more dense under the belief that global warming will be reduced, the private and public “land not turned into suburbs” would have to “remain as green space” forever in order for results to be achieved.

Several scientists say the urban-versus-suburban issue is far too tangled, and suggest that California spend its enormous anti-global-warming dollars on effective, known ways to reduce emissions and warming, like finally, properly insulating millions of energy-wasting California homes.

YET JERRY BROWN IS SO CERTAIN he’s right about urban density as a method for reducing warming that he is using his office’s power, recently suing San Bernardino County, largely as an object lesson. (See accompanying story.)

Brown also speaks at statewide global warming “workshops” that offer virtually no scientific data and are, in fact, promotional events presenting his view that suburbs cause global warming and urban density fights global warming.

These sessions are not financed by the state government, but by smart-growth proponents who created a non-profit group calling itself the Local Government Commission (LCG) to tout their ideas. Aside from Brown, the group’s promotional sessions also feature speakers from EDAW, a global firm of some 50,000 employees that is one of the world’s most ardent, for-profit peddlers of dense, urban “smart-growth.”

The science offered is so thin that, at one “workshop” last month, a smart growth proponent presented online photographs comparing an ugly, suburban shopping center to a cozy block of cute, urban shops. This was offered as an example of how suburbia creates distance and global warming.

When the Weekly described to leading scientists what California politicians are claiming, several expressed hope that an extensive, multidisciplinary study can be conducted before California and other areas make major land-use decisions that could waste billions, dramatically refashion people's lives and potentially fail even to dent global warming.

One scientist, J. Marshall Shepherd, a professor of meteorology and climatology at the University of Georgia, emailed this comment: "This is very interesting... a housing faculty [member] here at UGA approached me about a year ago on conducting a study on this very issue,” because, despite what California leaders are saying, there’s no certainty about the relative roles of dense urban living and suburban living in reducing global warming.

But some in the Schwarzenegger administration are distancing the governor’s efforts from Brown’s.

“This is not at all a tandem process,” says Andrew Altevogt, a climate-change program manager at the state EPA who oversees the work of the Climate Action Team. “Our process hasn’t had direct contact with Jerry Brown’s office, and I can’t comment on what data they have or how they have interpreted it.”

Altevogt says the 2006 global-warming act requires that the California government adopt only those ideas that are technologically feasible and economically wise. “If the data is not there, there’ll be things we cannot do” regardless of the push by smart-growth advocates, he says.

Despite Altevogt’s assurances, the governor’s Climate Action Team has already concluded, largely ignoring the shaky science, that about 12 percent of the total reduction in transportation-related global-warming emissions in California must come from changes in land-use patterns.

Stanley Young, a spokesman for the California Air Resources Board, dismisses the consternation of global-warming researchers and says that smog officials in California already have enough data to embrace smart-growth and the plan for far more dense towns and cities, though the board won’t vote on a plan until the end of the year. Because California cannot find enough ways to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions through new technologies and better fuels, Young heavily implied, the smog board will declare urban density an effective approach despite its lack of proof.

“A lot of thinking, including some empirical studies [over the] last 20 years,” Young says, “indicated that when you have housing that is denser and approaching several units per acre, the use of transit rises, and the number of vehicle miles traveled by car drops.”

But other studies also exist. And they show that middle-class residents who move into dense housing — the very people targeted by smart-growth — do not use their cars much less, because, as Andrea Sarzynski says, “they want to use their cars, and they can afford to use their cars.”

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