It's now well established that leadership on the issue of global warming is a ticket to political stardom. Lest you doubt that, consider the irresistibility of a fantasy presidential ticket shared by global-warming policy leader Michael Bloomberg and climate-change proselytizer Al Gore. The first leaders to realistically grapple with the next big climate change question — how to deal with the effects, rather than merely the causes, of global warming — will become, like Gore and Bloomberg, political lions waiting in the tall grass.
But grappling with global warming's effects is no small conceptual problem. Popular discussion about how to actually address climate change still consists largely of swapping bits of ignorance. That's because although there are reams of conclusive science on the "whether" of global warming — there's no doubt it's happening — there is limited information on the when, where, and what comes next, and what exactly we should do about it.
This brings us to our just-finished local election, and the question of what our newly re-elected mayor should do now that he'll be turning his aspirations toward state or national office. Gavin Newsom earned his second term in part by racing a decade ahead of the rest of America on the issue of gay rights. Rising to national stature from backwoods San Francisco might mean similarly separating nonsense from reality on the issue of what to do about global warming.
Just as Michael Bloomberg promised to build a million new apartments in already-dense New York as an anti-global-warming measure, Newsom could become an environmental star by raising, and broadening, San Francisco's skyline more aggressively than anything we've seen before. This would not only reduce the amount of greenhouse gas produced by new San Francisco residents who might otherwise commute to Bay Area jobs from Tracy and Woodland. It could also help prevent the extinction of California animal and plant species as they're pushed to the cooler north by a warming climate.
To the extent the sleepy 2007 mayoral election was controversial, the one issue people complained most about was the supposedly troublesome fact that new skyscrapers are being built downtown.
Emblematic of this ill-informed fretting was an article in a not-to-be-named local leftist political pamphlet that last week denounced high-rise buildings because residents "can't grow their own food" — as if Bay Area duplex dwellers somehow could. Just as supposedly bad for the environment, according to the pamphlet: Multistory buildings are wasteful because their construction requires "extra-enforced foundations" and "high-tinsel steel."
There's no telling what exactly "extra-enforced" means. But I'm guessing that "high-tinsel steel" must belong to the same category as "high-garland steel" and "high-flocking steel," which would presumably create buildings so gaudily festooned as to distract migratory birds. A solution: Reinforce tall buildings with high-tensile steel instead.
On the other end of the political spectrum — but somehow caught in the same trap of illogic — is this coming weekend's "Preserving the American Dream: Recovering from Smart Growth" conference in San Jose. This is an extreme-property-rights-zealot gathering sponsored by builders of suburban housing tracts. Speakers and attendees believe it's wrong to protect natural areas and parkland from development, according to conference organizer and CATO Institute fellow Randal O'Toole.
"If you didn't have all those regulations and reserves, more people would be able to buy houses in Contra Costa County, and wouldn't want to live in San Francisco," he explains. "I think we need to have parks, but we don't need to have four acres of parks for every acre of developed land."
As is typical among extremist libertarians, O'Toole has a bit of trouble with economic principles: Vastly higher land prices in San Francisco demonstrate that people are much more eager to live here than in Contra Costa County. But he accurately states another choice California residents face: We must increase urban density, or we'll end up paving over open space.
Environmentalists have long known sprawl harms the environment. But the latest research from scientists who study the possible effects of climate change suggests continued California sprawl could be ecologically catastrophic. Thanks to global warming, suburban expansion — which is the functional alternative to increased urban density such as San Francisco is enjoying South of Market and downtown — is even more of an environmental calamity than previously realized.
While media discussion of the effects of global warming consist largely of wondering where to move sunken coastal cities such as San Francisco a century from now, natural scientists are beginning to discuss catastrophes that will soon be under way.
Until now, the march of time has been characterized by swift human progress and glacier-paced ecological transformation. But as the planet warms, the reverse will be true. Some of global warming's most notable environmental changes will appear without warning, as ocean temperatures and currents, extended growing seasons, extinction of microorganisms, or any combination of these factors cause a series of cascading effects.
With a warming planet, invasive species will no longer merely be exotic plants and animals that came from another continent. They'll be native grasses, shrubs, mammals, birds, beetles, and microorganisms for which higher average temperatures have opened up new "native" habitats to supplant. Many of these species won't thrive in their too-hot former homelands, which in turn might provide adequate climate for different warmth-loving species from further south. So the big question facing environmentalists during the coming decades is, "Are we going to assist species migration?" says Nathan Stephenson, a research ecologist at the Western Ecological Science Center in central California.
Helping plants and animals migrate north isn't just a matter of potting, trucking, then unpotting plants — although some of this type of climate-change horticulture might take place. Many species under global-warming threat aren't easy to transplant. Soil microorganisms, insects, and other creatures critical to ecosystems may also find their current homes hostile as average temperatures rise. Addressing the effects of climate change on the natural world will be a local problem as millions of individual species seek to adapt in their own specific ways.
In a very broad sense, climate change will have the effect of shifting parts of the northern hemisphere's natural world further and further north. So as the temperature rises, entire ecosystems will need broad corridors of unperturbed natural areas in order to migrate to cooler northern habitats.
In cases where these plants, animals, insects, bacteria, and fungi are blocked by strip malls, cul-de-sacs, and boulevards, ecosystems will perish, scientists say. Meanwhile, habitats able to seamlessly spread to cooler northern climates, without sprawl getting in their way, have a better chance at survival.
Saving nature in California, therefore, will mean ensuring entire habitats have broad swaths of wild land along an uninterrupted pathway north. Scientists are only now beginning to speculate where and how such habitat migration might take place. "We need to take into account this vulnerability to large vegetation shifts, " says Patrick Gonzalez, a forest ecologist who works with The Nature Conservancy. "One way in which we're using that data is in the establishing and maintaining of corridors that link areas in the network."
But accomplishing this on a meaningful scale will require treating habitat-choking urban sprawl as a true environmental calamity. It will mean building cities up, rather than out — or choosing to foster massive species death.
During the past couple of years San Francisco has endeavored to increase the density of apartments downtown. This policy has the obvious economic and social benefits of providing more much-needed housing while making it easier to walk — rather than drive — to shopping, work, and play. But an antidevelopment political culture here makes it difficult to increase local apartment density on a truly meaningful scale — unless you're a leader no longer running for local office.
Perhaps a Gavin Newsom not tethered by the need for local re-election, who is focused on his national stature, could speed up this densifying trend and spread it beyond downtown and into the Richmond, the Van Ness area, Glen Park, the Mission, the central waterfront, and beyond. If Gore and Bloomberg's popularity are any guide, it's not just Mother Nature who will offer thanks. Voters will eventually come around, too.