Getting Sandbagged by SANDAG: San Diego’s Failure of Imagination

by on May 2, 2016 · 0 comments

in Culture, Economy, Environment, History, Politics, San Diego

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SANDAG’s Current Vision

By Jim Miller

Last week Kevin Faulconer got some good press when, “under pressure from environmental groups,” he voted no to putting SANDAG’s deeply inadequate tax measure on the ballot citing San Diego’s Climate Action plan as one of the factors in his decision. Faulconer’s opponent, Ed Harris, was quick to point out that Faulconer’s vote was less about climate change and more about pleasing his anti-tax Republican base.

In a press release the Harris campaign observed that:

“Kevin Faulconer is using the environment as a prop to cover up his real reason for voting against SANDAG’s proposed infrastructure plan today,” said mayoral candidate Ed Harris. “He claims the reason for his no vote is the plan’s incompatibility with the city’s Climate Action Plan, but in October of last year he said just the opposite.”

“[Faulconer] spokesman Craig Gustafson said SANDAG’s plan would not hinder the city’s Climate Action Plan.

“The SANDAG plan is just the starting point for improving the environment and reducing pollution and the Climate Action Plan will build upon it,” he said in a statement.

-KPBS, October 9, 2015

“The real reason Faulconer changed his position from supporting to opposing the plan is fear that his campaign for Governor could be derailed by attacks from conservatives that he supported a tax increase,” said Harris.

“As a result, his constituents in older neighborhoods will lose over $1 billion that could have rebuilt aging infrastructure (that’s how much the city would get from the SANDAG plan) just so he can keep his campaign for Governor on track,” said Harris.

“Even worse, by failing to move forward with the SANDAG plan now, when interest rates are low, Faulconer is missing a golden opportunity to make local and matching federal funds go much farther than they will in the future, when the interest rates on construction bonds will be higher,” said Harris. “Our neighborhoods are paying a terrible price today to promote Faulconer’s campaign for Governor,” he said.

“Environmentalists should be equally disturbed that Faulconer is lying, cynically exploiting environmental concerns to cover up his real motives,” said Harris.

Harris is clearly right about Faulconer’s opportunism when it comes to the SANDAG plan, and he adeptly points out that the mayor had a very different position not that long ago. With regard to the SANDAG plan, however, he is way off the mark.

As I have written here before, the Quality of Life Coalition has been pressing SANDAG for many months to come up with a better ballot measure that contains a project labor agreement, more robustly funds transit, and adequately addresses climate change. In response, SANDAG has given that coalition of labor, environmental, and community groups a deaf ear, preferring instead to invest lots of money in polling and a massive public relations campaign designed to sell the measure rather than work with the community to craft a better product.

As I wrote back in February, conversations with SANDAG are a perfect illustration of what Naomi Klein identifies as the central problem facing anyone interested in promoting meaningful climate action:

The “structural problem” we face . . . is that people can “simultaneously understand the medium to long term risks of climate change” and still believe it is in their “short term economic [or political] interest” to continue business as usual. This is precisely the situation concerned San Diegans face when dealing with the San Diego Association of Governments’ (SANDAG) limited vision when it comes to taking the actions needed to address the pressing threat of climate change at the local level.

So the problem is not so much that the folks in the twenty-some labor, community, and environmental groups that comprise the Quality of Life Coalition are too naïve to understand the political showmanship that Faulconer’s easy “no” vote represents. Of course, everyone knows that it pleases the anti-tax right while allowing the mayor to present himself as a green hero to the left. But it was the Democrats on the board who handed him the opportunity.

Credit: Climate Central

The Future of the Convention Center? – Credit: Climate Central

The real problem with this political stalemate is that the Democrats on the SANDAG board and too many other Democrats in San Diego county are satisfied to pursue business as usual and act as if they are still committed to progressive values with regard to the environment. By insisting that the current political hegemony in San Diego is unchangeable they are suffering from a profound failure of the imagination. This is particularly frustrating when one only needs to look north to Los Angeles, of all places, to see a far better approach being taken to shape the region’s future with regard to transit and reducing greenhouse gasses.

A perfect example of this failure of imagination came in Mary Salas’s response to criticism of the plan as she cast her vote in favor of the measure: “To hear some folks to say that nothing is better than something is especially irresponsible. It’s turning your back on federal and state funding that would come down in this measure that would really help leverage our dollars to get those transit projects that are so necessary, to make those road improvements.”

But in the face of looming catastrophic climate change, this kind of tired incrementalism doesn’t cut it. Something isn’t better than nothing if that something keeps us on a steady course down the suicide path. Perhaps it’s a convenient way to keep our collective cognitive dissonance at bay and feel better, but it is a deeply irresponsible, morally bankrupt approach to decisions that will help seal or save the fate of our children.

Saying we need a bolder vision to address the grim reality that the vast majority of climate scientists are warning us of is not letting the “perfect be the enemy of the good” as many SANDAG supporters have claimed. It is simply observing that the sage “political realism” of the present is not up to the real environmental challenge we face in “decade zero.”

As Mais Nada puts it:

Physics and chemistry do not negotiate: There are tipping points in the Earth systems that, once passed, would accelerate warming irreversibly. Simply put, if we pass a threshold that probably lives somewhere between 1.5°C and 2°C (relative to pre-industrial levels), we will guarantee a 4-6°C warming due to positive feedback mechanisms. Now, we already reached a 0.85°C warming. This means we have very little time left to cut greenhouse gas emissions . . . Decade Zero is a term coined to designate the decade 2015-2025, in which most of upcoming history will be decided. It is the zeroth decade for either a completely different world, or a completely different world.

Thus those critics at the SANDAG hearing who pointed out that the current vision for the future of our city being offered was inadequate were not trying to force their “ideology” on the board but rather merely addressing scientific facts that are inconvenient for those who wish to proceed as if they don’t exist. The stark fact is that we don’t have 30 years to get our act together, so the choices that we make here—and across the world—really matter right now.

The bottom line is that, as Nicole Capretz observed, “Sprawl development isn’t going to work anymore.”

The good news about all of this is that, despite the SANDAG board’s intransigence, the narrative is beginning to change in San Diego. As Gary Gallegos noted in the same San Diego Union-Tribune piece where Capretz is cited, “I don’t know that in 2004 that we saw this level of opposition from the environmental side. I think the folks on climate change, they see an urgency that they didn’t see back then.”

Perhaps this is because the bad news just keeps coming in on a daily basis and very few of our leaders seem to be paying attention. A case in point was a moment last Friday when a colleague of mine who had accompanied me to the SANDAG meeting to sit in the generic overflow room and listen to electeds pontificate about potholes nudged me and handed me his phone to show me an article he’d been reading in the Huffington Post: “Large Swaths of the Pacific Ocean May Suffocate in Just 15 Years.”

Just as the same politician came to the point in his remarks where he scolded critics of the ballot measure for their “rhetoric” and “narrow interests,” I read the following:

By 2030 or 2040, according to the study, deoxygenation due to climate change will be detectable in large swaths of the Pacific Ocean, including the areas surrounding Hawaii and off the West Coast of the U.S. mainland. Other areas have more time. In the seas near the east coasts of Africa, Australia, and Southeast Asia, for example, deoxygenation caused by climate change still won’t be evident by 2100.

Long said the eventual suffocation may affect the ability of ocean ecosystems to sustain healthy fisheries. The concern among the scientific community, he said, is that “we’re conceivably pushing past tipping points” in being able to prevent the damage.

Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Penn State University, shared these concerns, telling The Washington Post that the new study adds to the “list of insults we are inflicting on the ocean through our continued burning of fossil fuels.”

“Just a week after learning that 93 (percent) of the Great Barrier Reef has experienced bleaching in response to the unprecedented current warmth of the oceans, we have yet another reason to be gravely concerned about the health of our oceans, and yet another reason to prioritize the rapid decarbonization of our economy,” Mann said.

Unfortunately, this reason is unlikely to be the last.

So yes, there is urgency.

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