A weak link

Michael Lewyn's picture
Blogger
A common refrain among environmentally-minded planners is: policy X will reduce global warming. So why would anyone be dumb enough to oppose policy X?

But often, global warming will be the weakest, not the strongest, argument for policy X. Here's why: to get people to change their minds about policy X based on concerns about global warming, you have to persuade them that:

1. Global warming is real- a claim that are still controversial in some circles, and
2. Global warming is induced by carbon dioxide emissions (ditto) and
3. Global warming is so dangerous that it should affect your jurisdiction's policies (ditto), and
4. Policy X will reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and finally that
5. Even though global warming is a really serious crisis, policy X can reduce pollution enough to limit global warming.

All of these claims will be hard to prove, for the simple reason that all of them involve the kind of scientific issues that most ordinary citizens know little about. For example, you may want to argue that more walkable communities reduce pollution by reducing driving- but even if your opponents are willing to admit the seriousness of global warming (points 1-3 above), they may argue that faster, smoother traffic flow also reduces pollution by reducing congestion. How can the average scientifically illiterate citizen (or city councilperson) know who is right?

And even in a relatively pro-environmentalist state or city, point 5 may be a hard sell. For example, suppose you want your city to rezone land for higher density. You argue that more compact development means more walking, which mean less driving, which means less pollution, which means less global warming.

Opponents of your proposal may respond: if global warming is such a huge global problem, how is making our city slightly more walkable likely to matter? Won't your proposal give us the worst of both worlds, by giving us all the negative side effects of density without reducing pollution enough to affect a worldwide problem?

Of course, this doesn't mean you should never raise global warming as an argument for policies you favor; such an argument will resonate with the most environmentally-minded voters and policymakers. But global warming should never be your only argument.
Michael Lewyn is an assistant professor at Touro Law Center in Long Island.

Comments

Comments

"but even if your opponents

"but even if your opponents are willing to admit the seriousness of global warming (points 1-3 above), they may argue that faster, smoother traffic flow also reduces pollution by reducing congestion. How can the average scientifically illiterate citizen (or city councilperson) know who is right?"

I would explain that walking is also an antidote to the epidemic of obesity, that it heightens a sense of community, that it reduces noise, that it makes us less energy dependent on foreigners, that it is cheaper than even very smooth traffic, etc. I can't think of an issue that walkable cities do not impact beneficially.

Michael Lewyn's picture
Blogger

Precisely my point!

Mr. Burrowes gets it exactly right- global warming will help persuade some people some of the time, but there are a variety of arguments for walkability that will be more effective, especially with people who are less environmentally minded.

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