By Josh Stephens
For this issue of InTransition I spoke with a wide array of scholars, public officials, businesspeople and activists from around the United States to find out what the field of transportation planning can do to combat climate change. I got a different answer for every interview I conducted. It is only natural that a problem on the order of climate change -- arguably the greatest problem that humanity has faced or ever will face, short of a wayward asteroid -- would elude simple solutions.
The only agreement was that, despite good intentions and a concerted effort to conceive of solutions, America's response to climate change is in its infancy. And there isn't much time for it to grow up.
The question I did not ask in any of my interviews, perhaps because it is too depressing (or because I wanted to save it for another article) is, "What happens if we fail?" Actually, I'm not sure that "if" is at issue. The question should refer to "when." Judging from some of the projections, the matter may already be out of our hands.
Put together, all of the world's climate change mitigation efforts might, if we're lucky, reduce the amount of pollution we put into the atmosphere -- as opposed to merely reducing the rate of increase. Even if clean fuels, innovative engines and compact development can help cut greenhouse gas emissions by one tenth, one quarter or even a half, the atmosphere will continue to heat up from the gases that have already been released. (Never mind China, India, and the other developing countries that are asserting their right to unfettered commerce.) Ocean currents will continue to change. Storm patterns and rainfall will still go haywire. Waves will still lap at the ankles of Miami, Dhaka and Venice. Crops will still fail, and species will go extinct.
In fact, greenhouse gas emissions are not expected to fall to zero for another two centuries. Not because we'll have solved the problem but rather because that's when the earth's crust will finally be exhausted of fossil fuels. In the meantime, demand for those fuels continues apace and the rate of extraction will fall while fuel prices rise.
But there is no telling when pedestrian-friendly suburbs will be built; because zoning laws and the myth known as “the American dream” continue to spawn tract after tract of detached, dispiriting homes. And, having already sent the electric car to a premature death, there is also no telling where all this fiddling with hybrids, hydrogen and Smart Cars will lead. More likely than not, this country, and its transportation planners, will have to figure out how to operate its transportation network when many people can afford to drive -- whether they like it or not.
We have built a world -- of freeways, boulevards, suburbs and office parks -- that was designed and honed for a certain commodity at a certain price. So what do we do about would-be commuters marooned many miles from work by gas prices? How do we get cars off crowded, inefficient urban streets if there's no money to buy buses or build rail lines? How do we fix tens of thousands of crumbling bridges when the costs of steel, concrete, and gas are making billion the new million? What do we do with our ports and airports when the wheels of globalization begin to turn backwards? Where do we put the people driven off their land by rising tides -- and how do they pay for their relocation?
These questions are, perhaps, far more urgent than those about solutions. Solutions are uncertain. But the ravages of climate change are all but assured. In the future, all planning may be disaster planning.
Hyperbolic? I hope so. But the more people are afraid to talk about it, the worse the consequences will be.
I dearly hope that the strategies and solutions outlined in my article come to pass and that they work. I hope that everyone who reads it will take it not as a point of interest but rather as a mandate for action. In fact, I believe that this mandate is already taking hold, and my article is only a tiny part of a growing movement. But we must move quickly indeed.
In my article I compared this challenge to that of Sysiphus. But Sysiphus had one luxury that we do not: his mountain never got higher.
Josh Stephens is the author of the Winter 2008 issue’s cover story, “Transportation Planning Warms Up to Climate Change.”