On July 24, the world’s first named heatwave — Category 3 Zoe — hit Seville, Spain, with temperatures over 110 degrees Fahrenheit, signaling a new level of awareness of the tragic course the world’s climate is headed down. Los Angeles, with more than 2 million people considered “highly vulnerable,” is one of half a dozen cities poised to follow Seville’s example with a new life-saving alert system, but we’re farther behind many European cities when it comes to a deeper response: changing our built environment to a more climate-resilient mode.
Triple-digits heat waves as far north as England blanketed Europe throughout June and July along with North Africa and the Middle East, bringing a wave of wildfires as well. In Portugal and Spain alone, deaths had topped 1,700 according to the World Health Organization, even before Zoe hit.
East Asia and North America were hit as well, with persistent triple digits in the Pacific Northwest.
In the midst of all this, Joe Biden’s efforts to pass climate legislation were abruptly derailed on July 14, when West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin withdrew his support — highlighting concerns about inflation — only to reverse course 13 days later, announcing support for a renamed “Inflation Reduction Act” that contains $369 billion in climate investments — substantially less than the $555 billion passed by the House of Representatives last fall, a figure that was already a compromise.
Using inflation first to kill climate legislation and then to sell it highlights a profound absurdity. Inflation today is a global phenomena, largely resulting from the pandemic and pandemics, in turn, will become increasingly common as a result of further global warming. The shifting of wildlife ranges “poses a measurable threat to global health, particularly given several recent epidemics and pandemics of viruses that originate in wildlife,” according to a recently-published article in Nature. So delaying climate action on account of inflation only increases future harm from inflation — along with the more deadly aspect of pandemics, and the enormous costs they entail.
IRA Still Points to Uncertain Future
Although passage isn’t assured, the IRA would easily be the most substantial climate legislation ever.
“This is a game changer,” said Dr. Leah Stokes, a climate-focused political scientist who advised Senate Democrats in negotiations. “It would get us 80% of the way to President Biden’s climate goal,” she tweeted. And it would answer Manchin’s concerns: “This bill will cut energy costs for everyday Americans. 41% of inflation is driven by fossil fuels,” she explained. “The bill will help Americans buy clean energy technologies, like EVs, solar and heat pumps, which will lower their energy bills every month.”
But even 100% would not be enough, as this summer’s heatwaves underscore that catastrophic impacts are arriving much sooner than expected, which means an even greater need to invest in mitigation and adaptation in addition to clean energy transition. Phasing out fossil fuels won’t be enough.
Some of that is addressed in the bill, including good news for us locally. “This bill also contains key environmental justice investments — and at $60 billion it will be the largest EJ investment in American history,” Stokes noted. “There’s funding to clean up ports, set up community grants, and clean up dirty vehicles that hit communities of color the hardest.”
The 710 Freeway as Microcosm
A microcosm of what lies ahead can be seen in the 710 Corridor planning process following the abandonment of the freeway expansion we reported on in June. That decision was monumental, according to Commissioner Joe Lyou, California Transportation Commission, president of Coalition for Clean Air and 710 Task Force member.
“We’re witnessing a profound and systemic shift in how we think about and act on transportation in California. The 710 freeway — both north and south — is a good example of that.” Lyou told Random Lengths News. “Now we need to deal with the huge backlog of historic projects planned long before our thinking shifted from car-centric freeway building to a much greater focus on mobility, equity, air quality, and climate protection. Fixing these problematic pipeline projects will require commitment, persistence, leadership, money and lots of hard work.”
But even as big-picture thinking has begun to change, old habits die hard, especially when powerful interests are involved. Although 710 funding is unrelated to the IRA, the struggle to shape an equitable future involves many of the outstanding major issues on a down-to-earth scale. European cities like Munich start off less auto-dependent and plan to become even less so. Munich’s 860 acres Freiham district plan will create an ecodistrict with 15,000 jobs, a mix of homes for 25,000, schools, daycare, cafes, shops, car-free streets, parks and courtyards, all combined with high capacity transit.
No American city plans anything like this, but the revised 710 project represents progress in that direction, with guiding principles of equity and sustainability. The equity principle is stated as “A commitment to: (1) strive to rectify past harms; (2) provide fair and just access to opportunities; and 3) eliminate disparities in project processes, outcomes, and community results.” The sustainability principle is defined as “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
“We see the vision for this project as supporting sustainable communities by enhancing health and quality of life of residents,” Fernando Gaytan, an Earthjustice attorney told Random Lengths. “That for us is the most important guiding principle because it encapsulates each of the other goals of improving air quality, mobility, safety, economy and protecting the environment. But it also centers the critical role that community plays in making sure that each of the goals are carried out in a way that repairs past harms.”
Standing in the way of that, Gaytan said, “The biggest obstacle that we’re going to face, in carrying out that principle is the insistence on really catering to the needs of industries that have really laid claim to the 710 as a freight corridor, without recognizing their culpability in creating the very inequities that we now have an opportunity to address through this re-envisioning of the 710.”