One ray of hope in the current political scene comes from the land of deep blue. However one views the immense expenditure on solar panels, windmills and electric cars, (produced in the US by US union labor, of course), plus forced electrification of heat and cooking, a portion of the blue-state left has noticed that this program cannot possibly work given laws and regulations that have basically shut down all new construction. And a substantial reform may follow.
I am prodded to write by Ezra Kleins’ interesting oped in the New York Times, “What the Hell Happened to the California of the ’50s and ’60s?,” a question repeatedly asked to Governor Gavin Newsom. The answer is, of course “you happened to it.” For those who don’t know, California in the 50s and 60s was famous for quickly building new dams, aqueducts, freeways, a superb public education system, and more.
Gavin Newsom states the issue well.
“..we need to build. You can’t be serious about climate and the environment without reforming permitting and procurement in this state.”
You can’t be serious about business, housing, transportation, wildfire control, water, and a whole lot else without reforming permitting and procurement, but heck it’s a start.
Hitting these [climate] goals requires California to almost quadruple the amount of electricity it can generate — and shift what it now gets from polluting fuels to clean sources. That means turning huge areas of land over to solar farms, wind turbines and geothermal systems.
or, heaven forbid, nuclear, which among other things works at night. I don’t think most of San Francisco’s progressive gentry really understand how massive their envisioned “transition” really is.
It means building the transmission lines to move that energy from where it’s made to where it’s needed. It means dotting the landscape with enough electric vehicle charging stations to make the state’s proposed ban on cars with internal combustion engines possible. Taken as a whole, it’s a construction task bigger than anything the state has ever attempted, and it needs to be completed at a speed that nothing in the state’s recent history suggests is possible….John Podesta, a senior adviser to President Biden on clean energy, said in a speech last month. “We got so good at stopping projects that we forgot how to build things in America.”
“I watched as a mayor and then a lieutenant governor and now governor as years became decades on high-speed rail,” he said. “People are losing trust and confidence in our ability to build big things.
Losing? That train left long ago, unlike the high speed one.
The part that really caught my eye: Klein complains that Newsom’s current proposal is
a collection of mostly modest, numbingly specific policies. When a lawsuit is brought under the California Environmental Quality Act, should all emails sent between agency staff members be part of the record or only those communications seen by the decision makers? Should environmental litigation be confined to 270 days for certain classes of infrastructure? Should the California Department of Transportation contract jobs out by type, or does it need to run a new contracting process for each task? Should 15 endangered species currently classified as fully protected be reclassified as threatened to make building near them less onerous? And on it goes.
Maybe, as Klein suggests, this is a measure of the bill being small and marginal. But I think the point is deeper: this is what regulatory reform is all about. Which is why regulatory reform is so hard. “Stimulus” is easy to understand: Hand out money. Regulatory reform, especially reform to stop the litany of lawsuits and dozens of veto points which are the central problem in the US, is all about the mind-numbing details. “should all emails sent between agency staff members be part of the record” sounds like a mind-numbing detail. But think how these lawsuits work. Is discovery and testimony going to allow this entire record to be searched for an email where staffer Jane writes to staffer Bob one line that can be used to restart the whole proceedings? “Only” 270 days rather than 10 years? That matters a lot. Contracting process, which can be the basis for a lawsuit.
I’ll retell a joke. Fixing regulation is a Marie-Kondo job; long hard and unpleasant, each drawer at a time.
The article is also interesting on the fight within the left. There is really a deep philosophical divide. On the one hand are basically technocrats who really do see climate as an issue, and want to do something about it. They believe their own ideology that time matters too. If it takes 10 years to permit every high power line, Al Gore’s oceans will boil before anything gets done.
On the other side are basically conservatives and degrowthers. “Conservative” really is the appropriate word — people who want to keep things exactly the way they are with no building anything new. Save our neighborhoods they say, though those were built willy nilly by developers in the 1950s. (Palo Alto now applies historic preservation to 1950s tract houses, and forbids second stories in those neighborhoods to preserve the look and feel. How can you not call this “conservative?”) “Degrowth” is a self-chosen word for the Greta Thunberg branch of the environmental movement. Less, especially less for the lower classes, not really for us who jet around the world to climate conferences. Certainly do not allow the teeming billions of India and Africa to approach our prosperity. I think “deliberate impoverishment” is a better word. Some of it has an Amish view of technology as evil. And some is, I guess, just habit, we’ve been saying no to everything since 1968, why stop now.
Klein characterizes the opponents:
More than 100 environmental groups — including the Sierra Club of California and The Environmental Defense Center — are joining to fight a package Newsom designed to make it easier to build infrastructure in California.
… opposition groups say that moving so fast “excludes the public and stakeholders and avoids open and transparent deliberation of important and complicated policies.”
…The California Environmental Justice Alliance sent me a statement that said, in bold type, “Requiring a court to resolve an action within 270 days to the extent feasible is harmful to low-income and EJ” — which stands for environmental justice — “communities.” It doesn’t get much clearer than that.
I am delighted to see in the New York Times, finally, the word “communities” adorned with scare quotes. But there is the tension: You can’t both be really serious that climate change is a looming existential threat to humanity that demands an end to carbon emission by year 20X in the near future, and the view that in 270 days we cannot possibly figure out how to do so in a way that protects “communities.” Climate must not really be that bad, or perhaps it was just an unserious talking point in a larger political project.
These are the beginning stages of a transition from a liberalism that spends to a liberalism that builds. It’s going to be messy. Until now, progressives have been mostly united in the fight against climate change. They wanted more money for clean energy and more ambitious targets for phasing out fossil fuels and got them. Now that new energy system needs to be built, and fast. And progressives are nowhere near agreement on how to do that.
The last three sentences are telling. Did they really want just to announce goals and spend a few hundred billions and feel good? Or did they actually want all the windmills, solar cells, and power lines involved?
But the fight isn’t just about this package. Everyone involved believes there are many permitting reforms yet to come, as the world warms and the clock ticks down on California’s goals and the federal government begins to apply more pressure.
Once something becomes partisan in the US, it freezes and little gets done. I am hopeful here, because it plays out within one party. California is a one-party state, but that does not put it above politics. It does mean that progress is more likely. Can we hope that “a liberalism that builds,” in reasonable time and somewhat less than astronomical cost, projects that might be actually useful, could emerge from all this?
In the larger picture, a movement among good progressive democrats in places like California has figured out that if we want more housing at more reasonable prices, just letting people build houses might be a good idea. Houses, apartments, any houses and apartments, not just dollops of incredible expensive government-allocated (“affordable”) and homeless housing. This is the YIMBY movement in California. It is sadly instantly opposed by Republicans, but maybe that’s for the better given how reviled that brand is in Sacramento. And it is also making slow headway.