Monday, May 18, 2015

Do Voters Really Want to Spend More on Roads?

Spring in New EnglandFollowing in the footsteps of Massachusetts voters last fall, Michigan voters recently rejected a gas tax increase. This reaction from Gov. Rick Snyder (R-MI), who pushed the tax hike referendum, caught my eye:
"While voters didn't support this particular proposal, we know they want action taken to maintain and improve our roads and bridges," Snyder said.
We hear that from politicians and political commentators all the time, but is that really true? And what if it's not?

Raising the gas tax is a very good idea, yet it's also extremely unpopular. This is always interpreted as anti-tax fervor, or that there's something unique about the gas tax that voters don't want that raised but they'd be more tolerant of some other tax hike to fund roads, because voters are dumb, I guess?

As Gov. Snyder said, it's always taken on faith that voters want to spend more on roads and bridges, but don't want to have to pay for it. Most polling isn't helpful in that it just asks if voters want to raise the gas tax to fund transportation projects, but doesn't ask whether funding more transportation projects is itself a worthy goal.

Here's what some polling can tell us:
  • A 2014 YouGov/Huffington Post poll found fewer voters wanted to spend more (45%) on roads and bridges than wanted to spend the same (31%) or less (15%). That's not exactly a mandate for saying "we know they want action taken," is it?
  • A Smart Growth America poll back in 2007 found voters supportive of spending more on road repair, but strongly opposed to spending more on new roads. This is a key point because states spend most of their transportation money on building new roads.
  • poll ahead of the Michigan referendum showed the biggest chunk of voters didn't want their taxes raised and others didn't like the complex referendum proposal. But at least 1 in 5 voters didn't want to spend the money spent at all, calling it wasteful government spending. 
What would it look like if we stopped increasing spending on roads and bridges? In the short term, we'd build fewer brand new or expansion projects, and focus on repairing existing ones. If those polls are right, that's actually much more in line with public sentiment than our Big New Project status quo.

Would it be a traffic nightmare if we stopped expanding roads? Transportation researchers say no:
The Surface Transportation Policy Project and other researchers have found that for every increase in our highway network, half of the new capacity is taken up by "induced demand" -that is, traffic drawn to the road because it's there. Building new roads and adding more lanes draws people who otherwise would not have driven onto the roads. Combined with the delays created by construction and the time it takes to complete a major project, roadbuilding provides almost no relief from traffic delays. And it's incredibly expensive.
Maybe instead of spending more money on roads and bridges whether voters like it or not, politicians and pundits should try listening to them instead?

Friday, May 15, 2015

Ignoring Climate Change Fails to Make It Go Away, 2015 Edition

With a few outliers like Germany, nations aren't taking aggressive action on climate change. President Obama is taking a two steps forward, one step back approach. Congress is doing absolutely nothing. For every governor like Washington's Jay Inslee pushing for aggressive action, there's one like Massachusetts' Charlie Baker, who won't lift a finger to help clean energy.

So what are we left with?

"The obvious truth about global warming is this: barring miracles, humanity is in for some awful shit," writes David Roberts in a must-read at Vox.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Stop Drinking Poison

the new eyepatchNot sure what's more shocking - that we eat 46.2 pounds of high fructose corn syrup per person every year in the United States, up 3,903% in the last 40 years, or that our consumption is down from a high of 63 pounds a year in 1999, according to Danielle Kurtzleben at Vox. Fueling the trend: Our consumption of soda is up 78%.

In related news:
Over the past 35 years, obesity rates have more than doubled. From 2009 to 2010 to 2011 to 2012, rates remained the same. The average American is more than 24 pounds heavier today than in 1960.

Childhood obesity rates have more than tripled since 1980.
Why did we ban Joe Camel because he was marketing poison to kids, but not Coca Cola's polar bears, Ronald McDonald, and Twinkie the Kid?

Monday, May 4, 2015

Grumpy Old Columnist Tells Kids to Give Up on Divestment

Hey, you kids! Pull up your pants and turn down that loud music! An old lawyer is here to condescendingly tell you how to stop with your popular, effective actions against climate change, and instead take up his ineffective, wildly unpopular niche solution that won't at all solve global warming! 

The fossil fuel divestment movement has gotten hundreds of colleges, communities, religious institutions and foundations to commit to selling off stocks, bonds or funds that invest in climate-disrupting fuels. But Boston Globe columnist Tom Keane is here to tell you divestment is stupid and all those kids are stupid too:
It’s easy to question the students’ tactics. For one, there’s a whiff of hypocrisy. The same students doubtless drive cars, ride the bus, and fly in airplanes, all powered by petrochemicals. Demanding divestment gives the illusion of clean hands without actually having to wash up. Of course, almost all of us who worry about climate change are hypocrites as well. Fossil fuels are ubiquitous and necessary. Yes, Al Gore would jet from country to country telling folks, basically, not to fly in jets. But how else could he get there?
If you go anywhere you're killing the planet! But we have to go places to get anywhere! I have no idea what Keane's point is here. College kids are ruining the planet by taking public transportation?
In any event, occupying presidents’ offices won’t do much to help the environment.
What did protesting ever solve, anyway?
What could? Conservation.
"Mookie Betts won't win the World Series for the Red Sox. What could? A well-constructed 25-man roster and a deep farm system." Is that really a fair standard for judging Betts' effectiveness?

Clearly Keane doesn't understand divestment and hasn't asked anyone to explain it to him. What do you expect, a Boston Globe columnist to leave his office and talk to people who don't agree with him? To understand divestment, go read David Roberts at Vox:
Nobody thinks the divestment movement can hurt fossil fuel companies in any direct financial way, but that's not what it seeks to do. Rather, it seeks to put mainstream institutions on record defining climate mitigation as a moral imperative, to create social consensus that inaction is not neutral — it is immoral.
Green technocrats have tried to sell Washington on solutions like cap & trade and carbon taxes using economic framings like green jobs, investment and risk management. They've lost to every time to polluters using their big money advantage to win the partisan political game. Divestment is an attempt to re-take the moral high ground - to change the game.

But folks like Keane act like all we need is an even wonkier, less popular fix:
The obvious answer is to artificially raise the price of gas by imposing taxes.

It’s an old idea. Europe does it, which is why the price of gas there is upwards of $10 gallon (and why Europeans have smaller cars and drive less). It’s resisted in the United State by both the right and left: Higher taxes are seen as just more fuel for a bigger public sector and they also disproportionately hurt those of more modest means. There is a way around those problems however. Collect the taxes, but then rebate them back. People’s pocketbooks wouldn’t be any lighter, but they would still become much more frugal in their use of gasoline.

It’s a good solution — maybe the only solution. Rather than spending their time in sit-ins, it’s an idea college students might want to rally around.
Look, I'm all for increasing the gas tax - it would raise needed revenue while adding some pain to burning a fossil fuel. But the federal and Massachusetts gas tax combined are a pathetic 44 cents a gallon. Gas is at $2.58 now. Even if you doubled the tax, gas would still be about $3 a gallon. How would that reduce gas use? Gas at $4 a gallon barely made a dent in driving. The truth is that we still subsidize driving in a hundred other ways, from untolled highways to free or low-cost on-street parking to housing policies that encourage sprawl.

Raising the gas tax is an unpopular idea that won't solve the problem, especially since it completely ignores the majority of carbon emissions that come from electricity, industrial, agricultural and other sources.

With Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker's administration pushing new & expanded fracked gas pipelines that will make global warming even worse, we need bigger-picture ideas that get to the urgency of ending our fossil fuel dependence entirely. That's where divestment comes in.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Cooper's Hawk Eating Grackle

Spotted in my backyard the other day:

Friday, April 24, 2015

Most Awkward Climate #LeaveItThere Ever?

I'm used to stories about the impacts of climate change that leave out the cause altogether. But a recent CNN story on a huge blob of overheated water off America's Pacific Coast set a new standard for brushing past climate science while still giving it the cold shoulder.

First, Slate's Eric Holthaus explains the blob's connection to global warming:
Besides El NiƱo, a more worrying, longer-term trend is also taking shape. The Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) is a decades-long periodic warming of the Pacific Ocean that tends to favor bursts of accelerated global warming. As I wrote last October, the Pacific appears to be in the midst of a shift into a new warm phase that could last 20 years or so.

The PDO—or, “the blob” as it’s been referred to recently—is starting to freak out some scientists. There are emerging signs of a major shift in the Pacific Ocean’s food chain, including a dearth of plankton, tropical fish sightings near Alaska, and thousands of starving sea lion pups stranded on the California coast. As Earth’s largest ocean, what happens in the Pacific affects the weather virtually planet-wide, and that means an “imminent” jump in global warming may have already begun—spurred on by the PDO.

The PDO has skyrocketed to record-high monthly levels over the past four months. In fact, there have only been four other similarly warm four-month bursts of the PDO in the last 115 years (in 1940, 1941, 1993, and 1997). A quick look at the historical record (for both 15 years prior to and 15 years after the bursts) shows that global temperatures rose at twice the rate of the 20th century average immediately after these bursts.

Combined with the overall long-term warming trend from climate change, the emergence of the PDO warm phase means the current state of the world’s oceans has little precedent.
CNN's story never mentions global warming - in fact, just when it feels like they're about to, the story abruptly ends. "But other scientists are saying it's more than that," says Jennifer Gray - then it cuts to black. No explanation, CNN just leaves it there.