The California Dream Turns Into a Nightmare

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I must confess I’m biased. The one year I spent in California, I couldn’t help but feel trapped. That’s what living in Silicon Valley without a driver’s license would do. Newlywed East Coast transplants attempt to navigate California by bike, bus, and train alone; hilarity ensues. (It didn’t help that Caltrain construction saw the two of us packing our clunky college bikes onto the front of the bus heading into San Francisco almost every weekend morning to explore city life.)

$69.​9B Renewable power investment worldwide in Q2 2020

Dubai, United Arab EmiratesMost polluted air today, in sensor range 0 5 4 3 2 1 ,0 2 1 0 9 8 0 9 8 7 6 5 0 5 4 3 2 1 Soccer pitches of forest lost this hour, most recent data

50,​820 Million metric tons of greenhouse emissions, most recent annual data 49% Carbon-free net power in the U.K., most recent data -39.​80% Today’s arctic ice area vs. historic average 0 6 5 4 3 2 0 3 2 1 0 9 0 4 3 2 1 0 .0 9 8 7 6 5 0 7 6 5 4 3 0 5 4 3 2 1 0 6 5 4 3 2 0 0 9 8 7 6 0 5 4 3 2 1 Parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere +0.​92° C Jul. 2020 increase in global temperature vs. 1900s average

California, of course, is about possibility, freedom, exploring the big outdoors. Caltrain is fun and a lifeline for some, but it’s hardly the California dream. Cars and trucks and things that go are.

Fast forward two decades. The underlying California dream hasn’t changed. Meanwhile, nobody currently is worrying about exploring much of anything — city or outdoors. Daily life is more about finding the closest escape route in case of evacuation orders.

Fossil-fueled wildfires have already set a new annual record, and fire season isn’t close to over. This year’s fires are more intense and morewidespread, withover 2 million acres burned already, but they are no aberration. It isyear four of catastrophic fires, and counting.

Contrast that with California’s generally liberal outlook on life, and its relatively progressive institutions and politics. California leads the nation — and often the world — with everything frommileage standards for cars to itscomprehensive climate policies. Its flagship emissions trading system covers 85% of all greenhouse gases, more than any other system of its kind. The European Union’s barely covers half of its carbon emissions alone. Sweden, oft-lauded for its high carbon tax, exempts all industry covered by the EU’s system.

One lesson from all of this is the standard trope about global warming being a global problem. It is. No single state, no single nation, can solve it all. (Hence, the importance for the U.S. to remain — or, more likely, rejoin — theParis Agreement on climate change, and then some.)

Another clear lesson is that we can’t go on like this. Easy to say this, I realize, sitting in my750 square feet in New York, but yes, perhaps the suburban dream has always been just that: a dream that can only remain without consequences as long as we stay asleep at the wheel.

Before even the first global climate negotiations, in the lead-up to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, President George H.W. Bush reportedlysaid, “The American way of life is not up for negotiations. Period.” Since then, of course, it has only gotten bigger and badder.

In the early 1990s, monster trucks were largely confined to eponymous rallies, withpollution largely affecting those who chose to attend. By now, trucks have taken overpolitical rallies and our roads. (If you don’t drive an SUV, you must not like your children enough to want to protect them against the evils of the world, everyone else be damned.)

An even more consequential policy failure centers on California’s obsession with single-family homes and sprawling suburban subdivisions. Almost as predictable as wildfire season is the defeat of yet another attempt to allow for — shucks, encourage — building up, not just sideways.

Ever more single-family homes ever farther out put more and more people into harm’s way. It also locks in ever more carbon and other pollution, to say nothing of the enormous effects onnature and wildlife more broadly. It has always been clear that there are consequences to having everyone who can afford it live in as large a house, on as large a property, with as large a car as money could buy. The fact that the climate and affordable housing crises intersect makes the failure to act on a policy level all the more consequential.

I wish there were an easy technofix, unless one considered building houses on top of one another such a fix. (The self-driving electro-car, a perennial Silicon Valley obsession, isn’t it. If anything, it alone would simply encourage ever more driving and ever more development ever farther afield.) It takes realizing the systemic consequences of our collective failure to act. It takes policy.

There’s much to like about California, not least the fact that it is better equipped to deal with the devastating wildfires than most other places. Its politics may yet align sometime soon to come around on a set of much-needed “YIMBY” — “Yes, in my backyard” — housing bills.

Truly addressing the problem, though, will take more than tinkering on the margins. You don’t have to go all the way to arguing for “one billion Americans” to realize that addressing affordable housing, climate, and other environmental crises will take aradical rethinking of how and where we live. The current state, a near-constant multiple-alarm fire, surely isn’t it.

Gernot Wagner writes the Risky Climate column for Bloomberg Green. He teaches at New York University and is a co-author of Climate Shock. Follow him on Twitter: @GernotWagner. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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