Per Capita Davis: The Paradigm Shift Must Be Now

I was a member of the Davis Planning Commission for several years back in the early 1980s. I left the commission in 1986, in part because I was burned out on late-night meetings that often went into the early morning, but there was more to it than that. I would have stayed on longer except it was my perception that land-use policy was stuck in a rut and was unlikely to change.

I remember being asked by Mike Fitch, then an enterprising reporter with The Davis Enterprise, why I was resigning, and replying that it was because I thought that a rut also can be viewed as a groove, and in either case, when the rut or groove got deep enough it was very difficult to change course.

I told him that I thought at some time in the future there would be a set of circumstances that would result in a paradigm shift, and that this would create a community consensus for the urgency of exploring a new direction, but for now (then), the commission would be adjudicating lot line disputes, variances and other relatively minor issues.

Back then, I don’t think I had even heard the term “climate change,” and the paradigm shift that I guessed was coming in the future and that would usher in a new set of planning principles was related only to an undefined sense that current practice was unsustainable.

Stepping back just a second, please don’t get me wrong. The Planning Commission does much more than deal with minor issues, and it is because of the folks who have volunteered their time and expertise, with the addition of a very committed City Council, that Davis has been and remains a leader in environmental and land-use policy.

Davis has adopted a substantive Climate Action Plan with aggressive policies for energy efficiency and development of renewable energy that — in combination with the recent decision to pursue Community Choice Energy — make it possible to reach a goal of producing as much electrical energy as we consume. As we all know, Davis also encourages, through policy and smart planning, non-fossil fuel transportation options.

We are doing pretty well. I hate to start the year on a sour note, but “pretty well” isn’t good enough. The circumstances that should create a paradigm shift in planning are upon us.

Recent reports from scientists combine to give us all a shot of adrenaline when it comes to what we can do as individuals and collectively as a city to respond to climate change.

First, the oceans are heating up, with an estimated 90 percent of the excess heat in the atmosphere created by greenhouse-gas emissions absorbed into the oceans.

And who says scientists can’t communicate in a language all of us can understand? According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, energy gained in the atmosphere between 1971 and 2010 is equivalent to “the power required to run 140 billion hair dryers” over that same period.

Second, one result of increased ocean temperature is that warmer sea water is flowing under the Totten glacier in East Antarctica, eroding the glacier’s floating ice shelf, causing the shelf to lose somewhere in the range of 75 billion tons of its mass each year. Or, put another way, about 30 feet of its mass is melting away into the ocean annually. It has quite a ways to go, but if the whole thing goes, the world’s oceans rise nearly a dozen feet. This is also taking place in West Antarctica.

So, the bottom of the planet is, so to speak, a canary in a coal mine; an early sign of big trouble. What’s happening at the other pole? The answer is more bad news.

Air temperatures in the Arctic last October and November were, at times, recorded at “an unheard of 60 degrees higher than normal” over most of the Arctic Ocean. We are not talking about 2 or 3 degrees, even 10. The result is that at a time of year when sea ice should be forming, it is actually vanishing, and at an accelerating rate.

Sea ice reflects about 80 percent of sunlight while open ocean absorbs about 90 percent, so the Arctic Ocean has entered what appears to be an irreversible feedback loop, has crossed over a “tipping point” where less ice means more heat absorbed means less ice means more heat absorbed, etc.

This melting is calculated to increase global warming by 25 percent over what is caused just by greenhouse-gas emissions.

The bottom line for this gloomy first-of-the-year column is that the canary has, for all intents and purposes, stopped singing and the paradigm for actions at both the local and global levels needs to shift as well.

The election results don’t bode well for action at the national level but there’s a lot that can be done here in Davis. Buildings downtown need to be higher, proposals for hotels that manage zero net electrical energy need to be taken very seriously, and the city should plan on doubling down on energy efficiency and renewables through operation of the Valley Clean Energy Alliance.

Per Capita Davis: The Paradigm Shift Must Be Now, by John Mott-Smith, The Davis Enterprise, January 4, 2017.

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