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Joe the Climate Change Champion? Guess Again

Dick Platkin: Trump’s tantrums and tweets will be sidelined, but the twilight of his climate change denials hardly translates into White House support for AOC’s Green New Deal or even Biden’s own campaign climate proposals.
Climate Change Champion

Because Donald Trump has a well-deserved reputation for making the climate crisis worse, many pro-Biden pundits believed that Biden’s victory over Trump means the United States government will now take the climate crisis seriously.

They point to Biden’s appointment of former Secretary of State John Kerry as his climate change envoy. Press reports indicate that Kerry’s first assignment will be orchestrating U.S. reentry into the Paris Climate Accords. 

But, before anyone prematurely pops the champagne corks, these are several reasons why the ascendancy of a Biden-led Democratic Party will barely impact the climate crisis. True, Trump’s tantrums and tweets will be sidelined, but the twilight of his climate change denials hardly translates into White House support for AOC’s Green New Deal or even Biden’s own campaign climate proposals.

Federal Government: The first reason is the outsized role of DC swamp creatures in the new administration, especially Biden’s appointment of insiders committed to the use of US military force to secure oil fields, shipping lanes, and choke points. These U.S. global energy policies began with the 1980 Carter doctrine, and forty years later have not lost momentum. For example, Biden’s proposed Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, means a steadfast military hawk will hold the new administration’s most important cabinet position. If Blinken’s business partner, Michelle Flournoy, becomes the Secretary of Defense, the trajectory toward more military bases in energy rich regions and reignited energy wars will continue. 

The second reason is the likelihood that the Biden administration will continue the Obama Administration’s policy of “all of the above” to increase fossil fuel production. This means the new administration will soundly reject policies like Bill McKibben’s call to keep oil, gas, and coal in the ground. We have already seen the campaign preview of this approach when candidate Joe Biden rejected fracking bans. Of course, the progressive wing of the Democratic Party will push for aggressive climate programs, like the Green New Deal, but this will require mass mobilizations, not more press conferences. 

While this is the predictable climate approach of the new Democratic administration, the Democratic Party’s internal contradictions over climate change mitigation and adaptation are most apparent at the state and local levels. 

In Sacramento, where the Democratic Party holds every statewide office and has a super-majority in the California legislature, the steady drum beat of laws benefitting real estate speculators makes the climate crisis worse, not better. Democratic State Senator Scott Wiener and his allies, like Senate President pro tempore Toni Atkins, have championed laws to weaken zoning and environmental regulations. They argue, without supportive data, that the elimination of land use and environmental regulations will result in a building boom. In its wake, they claim, low priced housing will miraculously appear and end the housing crisis.

But, as I have explained in previous Planning Watch columns, this approach’s primary impact is to increase property values and driving. Whether property owners sell their suddenly more valuable parcels to developers or they eventually build market rate apartments, the new housing will be expensive. Even if the developers reduce the size of units or can dodge laws regulating residential density, building height and mass, and on-site parking and open space, the new units will make the housing and climate crises worse, not better. 

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Private housing investors have never been able to make a profit from low priced housing, despite enormous unmet demand. This is why they build expensive housing, even though their affluent tenants drive cars, one of the major causes of the Green House Gas emissions responsible for continuous global warming.

 Traffic jam in Hollywood, despite plentiful mass transit and Transit Oriented Development.

 Traffic jam in Hollywood, despite plentiful mass transit and Transit Oriented Development.

The legislators face a second problem by promoting real estate speculation through deregulation. When developers build expensive apartment buildings without on-site parking or open space, they undercut themselves. At present, residential vacancies are increasing in Los Angeles, and such gimmicks as a month or two of free rent cannot make these new, spartan accommodations inviting or affordable. 

Furthermore, in many cases these new apartments replace existing rent stabilized apartments. They are not only increase evictions, but landlords are free to raise rents whenever they wish. When they do, they are also pull up the rents of nearby older apartment buildings, further increasing driving and reducing the supply of low-income units that could meet the needs of LA’s growing homeless population. 

City Government: Without or without Sacramento legislation to promote statewide up-zoning, cities like Los Angeles, which are dominated by Biden Democrats, such as Mayor Eric Garcetti, are pursuing local ordinances that makes the climate crisis’s worse. 

First, Los Angeles has failed to prepare a Climate Change element for its General Plan, despite models from the Governor’s Office for Research and Planning, as well as extensive policies and scattered across LA’s 23 operating Departments. While Mayors Villaraigosa and Garcetti prepared in-house climate documents, they are only unfunded, short-lived, executive show pieces. The City Council has not adopted or funded them. 

Second, City Hall is aggressively using the updates of LA’s 35 Community Plans to deregulate Los Angeles through up-zoning ordinances, Community Plan Implementation Ordinances, Community Benefits Agreements, and parallel Transit Neighborhood Plans. Once future economic conditions are right, property owners or developers can then build highly profitable luxury housing far beyond the reach of the middle class and the old and newly homeless. Since these are the people who regularly use transit, these ordinances will increase automobile driving and the resulting generation of Green House Gas emissions. 

Luckily, the future is not chiseled in stone, and nothing prevents emerging mass movements from pushing the new administration, state government in Sacramento, and LA’s City Hall to pursue concerted actions to seriously address climate. The question is not what should be done, but how to make it happen.

Dick Platkin

Reposted with permission.