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Dysfunctional Senate fails to extend wind tax credit

frustrated woman and wind turbines

The wind energy tax credit has been sucked into the maw of senatorial dysfunction.

As National Journal reports, “Rejecting Democratic overtures to work out a plan for amendments, Senate Republicans blocked sprawling, bipartisan tax legislation Thursday, heightening the chances that Congress won't work the issue out until the lame-duck session after the November elections.” The wind energy tax credit is part of that package, and losing it threatens the nascent industry.


We need old buildings to make great cities, but we need new ones too

old building and new building

In January I was delighted to come across a post on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s blog containing the following sentence: “Prominent urban thought-leaders such as Edward Glaeser, Ben Adler, and Matt Yglesias have argued that cities need towers and skyscrapers if they are to remain (or aspire to be) innovative, affordable, and sustainable.” Me, a “prominent urban thought leader”? I promptly emailed my parents.

Unfortunately, I was being put in that category as a way of setting me up as a proponent of a supposedly wrong-headed trend toward pro-density thinking among urbanists. The post ended with this toss of the gauntlet: “This spring, the National Trust’s Preservation Green Lab will release a report that builds upon extensive city mapping and analysis to demonstrate the important role that older, smaller buildings and mixed-vintage commercial corridors play in fostering vibrant communities. We will show, with data, just how right Jane Jacobs was: Older, smaller buildings and diverse urban fabric play a critical role in supporting robust local economies, distinctive local businesses, and unforgettable places where people connect and unwind.” [emphasis in original]

The report, released on Thursday, seeks to empirically demonstrate that human-scaled buildings create a better urban experience than skyscrapers. For example, the National Trust writes, “Nightlife is most alive on streets with a diverse range of building ages.” The report uses a rather odd metric to bolster its point: “San Francisco and Washington, D.C., city blocks composed of mixed-vintage buildings host greater cellphone activity on Friday nights.” Even so, the group is obviously right. One need only walk around D.C.’s low-scale, historic Georgetown neighborhood at night, followed by its sterile neighbors, Foggy Bottom and Arlington, which are full of taller, more modern buildings, to see that this is true. It seems as if virtually every city’s biggest nightlife district is in a historic quarter. It’s also true, as the report points out, that older buildings tend to house more independent businesses and fewer chain stores than new buildings.

Read more: Cities, Living


Udall systems go

Enviros pump money and energy into Colorado Senate race

Sen. Mark Udall and Rep. Cory Gardner
Sen. Mark Udall (D) is defending his seat against Rep. Cory Gardner (R).

The U.S. Senate race in Colorado -- which is a dead heat in the latest polls -- pits a climate hawk against a climate change denier. The outcome may hinge partly on environmental issues, and it may also determine control of the Senate.

Republicans need to pick up six seats to take the Senate. Luckily for the GOP, Democrats have to defend a number of seats in red and purple states, many with significant fossil fuel interests, including West Virginia, South Dakota, Montana, Arkansas, Louisiana, North Carolina, Alaska, Michigan, Iowa, and Colorado. Given that Democrats are vacating some of these seats -- and are lucky ever to have won in some of the redder states -- holding Colorado is essential to any map in which Democrats retain the majority.

In some of these races, like with Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, the Democratic incumbent has such an anti-environment record that greens are not motivated to help, even though the Republican would be worse.

But Colorado is different. The fact that it is a swing state disguises that it is not so much moderate as idiosyncratic. It encompasses liberal, pro-environment bastions of crunchy culture like Boulder. But it also has oil, natural gas, coal, ranchers, and Evangelical Christian outposts like Colorado Springs. In the greater Denver area, the highly educated workforce leans left while the state’s vast rural expanses are staunchly conservative.



Senate Republicans torpedo a non-controversial, bipartisan energy-efficiency bill

Bryan Burke

Back in March, the House of Representatives amazed jaded journalists like me by actually passing a bill that would slightly reduce carbon emissions. The Energy Efficiency Improvement Act, which passed the Republican-controlled chamber by an overwhelming margin, would, among other things, increase energy-efficiency requirements for federal buildings and create a voluntary certification system for private buildings. Passage of the Senate version, sponsored by Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio), seemed assured, since Democrats control the chamber.

But on Monday, Senate Republicans invoked a filibuster -- a tactic once reserved for unusually controversial legislation -- to prevent Shaheen-Portman’s passage. Sixty votes were needed to prevent a filibuster, cut off debate, and move the bill forward to a simple majority vote, but only 55 senators voted in favor, including Portman and two other Republicans. All other Republicans voted against.

When the bill passed the House, I concluded that energy-efficiency measures could win Republican support if they avoided any mandates on the private sector and any spending of government money. After all, there is nothing for conservatives to oppose about making government more efficient and offering voluntary programs to help companies save money.

Well, now you can add another condition to the list of Republican demands: Even a modest energy-efficiency measure cannot be passed without including unrelated giveaways to fossil-fuel industries.


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: