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You've got rail

This bill would help build the kinds of communities where millennials want to live

light rail in Salt Lake City

Where we live and how we get around are inextricably linked. But until recently, the federal government separated housing and transportation policy into completely separate silos. Federal transportation dollars can only be used for building highways or (to a much lesser extent) transit systems. Federal housing dollars largely go to supporting homeownership, and sprawl, with a smaller amount used to subsidize renting for lower-income families.

This is exactly the wrong approach if we want to build sustainable communities. We need to design our housing and transportation systems in tandem. Transit stations should be surrounded by dense clusters of housing, shopping, and offices. This is the kind of walkable, transit-accessible urbanism that millennials want.

The Obama administration has started to break down the silos. It has aligned some investments in housing and transportation through its Partnership for Sustainable Communities. But the vast majority of federal transportation dollars are still simply handed out to states via formulas and spent on highways and other roads. The Sustainable Communities efforts have involved just a tiny fraction of all transportation and housing spending, and it became even tinier after Republicans won control of the House of Representatives in 2010.

Developing transit-oriented housing requires infrastructure investments: sidewalks have to be built or widened, traffic-calming measures like median strips may be needed, bike lanes may be created and street lamps installed. Federal transportation money currently can’t be used for any of that, even while it can be used to build a road to nowhere.

“In a lot of cases, local government wants the opportunity to develop, improve their tax base, build more housing, but they may not have money to put in the new infrastructure,” says David Goldberg, spokesperson for Transportation for America. “They might sometimes require the developer to do it, and the developer may be able to get financing for apartments or retail, but public infrastructure may be an additional cost they cannot wrap into their financing.”

Now a group of senators have proposed another way to help build communities where you don’t need a car to get everywhere. Earlier this month, Democratic Sens. Brian Schatz (Hawaii), Ed Markey (Mass.), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), and Jeff Merkley (Ore.) introduced the Transit-Oriented Development Infrastructure Financing Act, which would make federal loans or loan guarantees available for transit-oriented development.

Read more: Cities, Politics


Obama lays out plan to boost solar energy and energy efficiency

Obama at Walmart
Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

On Friday, President Obama rolled out a series of executive actions to reduce our dependence on dirty energy.

"There are cost-effective ways to tackle climate change and create jobs at the same time," he said during a speech at a Walmart in Mountain View, Calif., which he chose because -- unlike most Walmarts — it uses solar panels on the roof, LED light bulbs, and efficient refrigerators.

The initiatives announced today have two main aims: boost the deployment of solar energy in the private sector, and improve energy efficiency throughout the economy. Environmental groups are enthusiastically praising the measures.

If you’re apoplectic about the horrible, deadly consequences of unchecked climate change, recently detailed in the Obama administration’s National Climate Assessment, these steps might seem a little small-bore. They are.


Why there is no liberal equivalent to climate change denial

man with closed eyes and fingers in ears

The center-left wonkosphere has been roiled by a recent debate over whether liberals are really just as intellectually dishonest as conservatives.

In a fascinating treatise launching his new site, Ezra Klein drew on academic studies to argue that liberals and conservatives are equally likely to misinterpret evidence when it conflicts with their ideological convictions. In one study, for example, liberals believed that a ban on concealed carry of handguns reduced crime, even if the data they were shown said it didn’t, and conservatives believed such a ban did not reduce crime even if the data said it did. “People weren’t reasoning to get the right answer,” Klein writes. “They were reasoning to get the answer that they wanted to be right.”

In explaining why people are so averse to accepting an inconvenient truth, Klein gives the illustrative example of conservative climate change denial. Just think of the professional cost to a right-wing pundit like Fox News’ Sean Hannity if he were to decide he believed in anthropogenic global warming, Klein suggests.

But it is telling that Klein does not use an example of a liberal MSNBC host who cannot face a scientific fact because it contradicts a widely held view among liberals. In a test lab, conservatives and liberals might be equally likely to deny objective reality. But out in the real world, there is no left-wing equivalent to the widespread conservative rejection of scientific consensus on evolution or human-caused climate change. According to a Pew poll from 2013, Republicans are evenly split on whether the climate is changing, and just 23 percent of them agree with the 97 percent of climate scientists who say that climate change is being caused by human activity. As New York Times columnist and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman argues in response to Klein, in the real world conservatives overwhelmingly deny certain facts in a way that liberals don’t.


We’ve cleaned up our air, but now climate change is making it dirty again

screaming young woman in front of polluted city

In many ways, the recent history of America’s air is a success story. Where once our major cities were plagued by dangerous smog, forcing people to stay indoors on bad days, the Clean Air Act of 1970 did just what it was supposed to. It gave the EPA power to clean up emissions from sources such as factories and cars, pushing down levels of the particle pollution that threatens human health.

For the last 15 years, the American Lung Association has put out an annual “State of the Air" report, and it has found continual improvement. “One of the great pleasures has been seeing reduction in particle pollution because of cleaning up diesel exhaust,” says Janice Nolen, assistant vice president for national policy at the American Lung Association, which put out its 2014 State of the Air report last week. “That’s one of the great successes.”

But climate change threatens to undo some of our progress. The reason is ozone, which forms more readily in higher temperatures. Yes, ozone is the same stuff that we want to have up in the ozone layer to prevent excessive sun exposure. But though ozone is good to have absorbing the sun's rays up in the stratosphere, it isn't good for us to breathe down at ground level. “Ozone is the most common pollutant in the U.S.,” says Nolan. “It is a lung irritant. It can cause coughing, wheezing, asthma attacks, even premature death. It may have some cardiovascular harm. It can cause low birth weight in infants. We’ve made progress in reducing it, but we’re still far above where the science says it needs to be.”

Read more: Climate & Energy


Five ways we’re killing ourselves with climate change

woman in desert, feeling the heat

On Tuesday, the Obama administration released the third National Climate Assessment, laying out in detail what global warming means for the country. This NCA is the longest -- over 800 pages -- and most comprehensive yet.

“Climate change is not a distant threat; it’s already affecting the U.S.,” said John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, in a conference call with reporters about the report. “This is the largest alarm bell to date.”

There is a lot in the report to contemplate, but here's a central takeaway: Climate change is deadly, and Americans have already begun to die from it. How many more will die depends on how much more CO2 we belch into the atmosphere.

There are five main ways in which climate disruptions can lead to injury, illness, and death:


If the Chamber of Commerce wants to raise the gas tax, it should stop backing Republicans

gas nozzle and dollar bills

President Obama officially sent his plan for a four-year, $302 billion transportation bill to Congress on Tuesday. His proposal is full of good ideas, like more investment in mass transit, but he needs money to pay for them. The 18.4-cent-per-gallon federal gasoline tax, which funds highway and transit infrastructure, has not been raised since 1993, even to keep pace with inflation. So there isn’t enough money to keep up with currently authorized spending, never mind more ambitious proposals.

Obama wants to augment the depleted Highway Trust Fund and pay for his bill by closing corporate tax loopholes. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) rejected that idea before even hearing which loopholes Obama would close. (Leave it to congressional Republicans to stand up for not just a particular corporate tax loophole, but the concept in general.)

The simple thing to do here would be to raise the gas tax. It would guarantee a revenue stream, and it would have the positive environmental side effect of discouraging gasoline consumption. But Obama is afraid to propose that, since it polls poorly and Republicans would reflexively oppose it. Republicans have blocked every effort to raise the gas tax since they took over Congress after the 1994 midterm elections. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), a leader on smart growth and transportation policy, introduced a bill last December that would double the gas tax. The chair of the House Transportation Committee, Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Penn.), flatly rejected any gas tax increase in February. “Economically, it's not the time," Shuster said, as if there ever were a good time in his mind.

States also levy gas taxes and use them to pay for building and maintaining non-federal roads and infrastructure. Republicans are currently working to block state gas-tax hikes in a several states, including Delaware and Iowa.

So it's interesting to find this odd paragraph buried at the bottom of the Associated Press story on Obama’s proposal:


Why is Environmental Defense Fund backing Lindsey Graham?

Sen. Lindsey Graham
Chuck Hagel

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is not exactly what you’d call an environmentalist. His lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters is a paltry 12 percent. Lowlights include voting for an amendment sponsored by Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) that would “prohibit further greenhouse gas regulations for the purposes of addressing climate change.” He has also voted for approving the Keystone XL oil pipeline, against clean energy tax credits, and against putting a price on carbon pollution. And that’s just in the last couple of years.

Now, as Graham seeks reelection to a third term this fall, Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), is cohosting a fundraiser for Graham’s campaign on behalf of Environmental Defense Action Fund, the group's 501(c)(4) arm. (Action Funds, unlike tax-exempt nonprofits, are allowed to engage in some electioneering.)

Your confusion is understandable.


Why we talk about the Kochs

Koch brothers
Free Press

Are we all too focused on the Koch brothers? That’s the argument of a feature in the current issue of Newsweek by veteran political reporter Matt Cooper. Cooper claims Charles and David Koch’s influence is overstated by Democrats, who raise money by fearmongering about the brothers’ nefarious plots, and by the media, which loves any pair of eccentric billionaires.

“With the Democrats possibly losing control of the Senate, Harry Reid, their leader in that chamber, has gone after the Kochs with what seems like unprecedented language against private citizens,” Cooper complains, noting that Reid called the Kochs “un-American” for “trying to buy America.” Here is Cooper’s argument in a nutshell:

Professionals in both parties have a vested interest in building up the already substantial impact of the Kochs. Republicans see them as loyal Americans coming to the rescue, while Democrats get a higher return on their solicitations simply by invoking the Koch name. Neither side has an incentive to say, “Yes, Koch money is a big deal, but it’s not determinative.” And neither side has an incentive to say the obvious: “Even if you believe that it’s crazy to allow that much private money in politics, the Kochs are playing by the rules.” It’s like cockfighting: Don’t hate the player, hate the game. The Koch geyser of money may be unusual but “un-American”? Oh, please.

As a writer for one outlet that talks about the Kochs frequently, let me explain why we do so: The Kochs threaten to destroy American democracy, regardless of their views. And, as it happens, their extreme and self-interested positions are taking over the Republican Party.


Leader of the PAC

This man is on the hunt for California’s next climate leaders

Nicholas Josefowitz

Tom Steyer isn't the only ambitious fundraiser working to get climate hawks elected. Meet Nick Josefowitz.

Both men live in San Francisco, but while Steyer is playing on the national scene, Josefowitz is focused on his home state. He recently founded a new political action committee, Leadership for a Clean Economy, to raise money for future leaders on climate change policy in the California state legislature. Josefowitz made his fortune founding RenGen Energy, a developer and operator of solar power plants, and at the age of 30 he has already retired to focus on environmental activism.

LCE is similar to organizations like EMILY’s List in that it does not actually collect and disburse money itself. Rather, it examines candidates and recommends the most worthy ones to a network of donors who can then make direct contributions. In California, such contributions from an individual to a candidate are limited in size to $4,100. Some PACs raise and spend unlimited amounts to promote candidates, but Josefowitz decided not to go that route. “We think raising money directly for candidates is more effective," he tells Grist. “Candidates know more about how to spend their money. If you do an independent expenditure, the first thing you do is spend $30,000 on a consultant, which is money straight down the drain.” Indeed, many PACs, especially on the right, have been caught spending most of the money they raise on operational expenses rather than activities that directly help candidates.

Given that the Democrats hold wide majorities in the California State Assembly and State Senate, it may seem odd for LCE to focus environmental dollars there. Shouldn’t the environmental movement’s top priority be helping Democrats hang on to the U.S. Senate and regain seats in the U.S. House?


Cowboys and Indians stage a feisty Keystone XL protest

Keystone protest with Native American
Jay Mallin

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Visitors to the National Mall this week might have noticed an unusual addition to the monuments and Smithsonian museums: a collection of tipis. They were brought there by groups of Native Americans and Canadian First Nations, from as far away as British Columbia, and set up as an encampment to convince President Obama to reject the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. They were the central staging ground for a week of action, culminating in a march and rally on Saturday, by the Reject and Protect coalition. The theme of the week: “Cowboys and Indians.”

It may sound strange to name a progressive movement after a politically incorrect and outdated children’s game. But the metaphor is surprisingly apt. The coalition is an alliance between those famous historical adversaries: North America’s indigenous people and the ranchers and farmers with whom they share the Rocky Mountains and Great Plains.

cowboy and Indian protesters
Jay Mallin

Both groups are threatened by the Keystone proposal. Native Americans say that the State Department has failed to consult them about the risks of running the pipeline near their lands and holy places such as burial grounds. And in Canada, First Nations near the tar sands in Alberta oppose the exploitation of the area, citing local health and environmental hazards. Tar-sands drilling has led to cancer clusters and to contamination that affects locals’ ability to hunt and fish, says Clayton Thomas-Muller, a member of the Cree Nation from Alberta and a campaigner in Ottawa for Idle No More, an indigenous advocacy organization.

Ranchers, meanwhile, are having their land confiscated under eminent domain in order to get the pipeline built. The cowboys and Indians have come together, Thomas-Muller told Grist, because “rural landowners are being treated like Native Americans.” That is to say, their land is being stolen and despoiled.