The green issue

Pub date April 17, 2007
WriterTim Redmond


Climate change is a global problem. A lot of the solutions, at least in the United States, are going to be local.

And a lot of them are going to start and end with the way we use land.

That’s a critical theme for this year’s Earth Day: cities like San Francisco, which claims to be (and really ought to be) a world leader in environmental sustainability, have to rethink everything from housing and consumption to open space and energy use — and particularly transportation.

Cars — private-use automobiles, the center of so much of American life and public policy for the past 100 years — are also one of the greatest threats to the future of the planet. The byproducts of tens of millions of internal combustion engines on the roads every day are a major component of greenhouse gases (not to mention other environmental pollutants). And the oil that fuels them drives a foreign policy that leads, as we’ve seen, to tyranny, instability, and millions of deaths.

It’s not enough to raise gas taxes or promote hybrids or increase fuel-efficiency standards (although all of those should be on the national agenda). Cities and states have to profoundly change the way people get around and the way they use public and private space.

Some of this is just so simple you can’t believe it’s not already happening. As Steve Jones reports ("The Silver Bullet Train"), a high-speed rail connection from San Francisco to Los Angeles would get almost two millions cars off the road and cut down immensely on the use of airline fuel. It would also pay for itself in a few years. It’s a form of public transit that would work right away: nobody likes to drive to LA. If you could take a train, get there in less time than it takes to fly, and pay less than $50 for the trip, why would you travel any other way?

Some of it requires more political vision (and political guts). If San Francisco wants to fight sprawl and encourage less car use, it has to be willing to build housing for people who work here — and that means, by city estimates, ensuring that two-thirds of all new housing be affordable.

And if San Franciscans want to reconnect to urban land and encourage bikes and walking, we have to think seriously about open space — even if it means that roads and private developments have to be sacrificed. That’s what Deborah Giattina describes ("Open Water,").

Cities and states also have to think about energy policy, and that means reclaiming energy as a public good, not a private commodity. San Francisco’s private utility, Pacific Gas and Electric Co., is spending millions trying to tell us how green it is; as Amanda Witherell notes ("Green Isn’t PG&E,"), that’s a big lie.

On this Earth Day 2007, the time to mess around and debate has run out. Think globally, act locally — and push for a city and state environmental agenda that is more than hot air. *