Minneapolis 2040 is what Climate Action Looks Like

This weekend, a pair of articles in Sunday's Star Tribune caught my eye. They were right next to each other on the site, shining a spotlight on the challenge facing our city and our country when it comes to climate change.

[We're still talking about lightbulbs.]
The first one -- the #1 most read article of the day -- is a classic good intentions piece. It tells how individual people in the Twin Cities are concerned about climate change, and trying to change their habits.

Here's the gist:
They tossed out the old gas lawn mower and got an electric one instead. The new car in the garage? It’s electric, too. 
“It’s sort of like, the more stuff that got plugged in, the more excited I got,” she said.
While the science suggests that individual actions by individual households won’t solve the problem alone, hopelessness is wrong, said University of Minnesota economics Prof. Stephen Polasky. It’s not too late, he said, and the fix can be made with tools we already have. 
“We don’t have to come up with some brand-new [technology] that we’ve never thought about,” said Polasky, who studies the intersection of ecology and the economy. It’s just a question of whether or not we act, he said.
High school senior Shaza Hussein said she, too, worries about her future, but working with friends and peers has given her hope that her generation can help build a better path forward.
Hussein, who said her relatives in Sudan have seen widespread drought decimate their farms, has been speaking at meetings and rallies, urging other young people to take a stand. 
“I tell them to recognize that even as an individual, you have power,” she said.

This piece is weird to me. Nothing against the admirable efforts and intentions of Shaza, Jessica, and the rest, but I have read that article dozens of times. You could find this same story written two years ago, five years ago, ten years ago, and twenty years ago. This was the list in Al Gore's film, and it's not too far off what you'd find in the pioneering environmental tracts of the 1970s.

Every honest person knows climate change is a global problem, and we all know what individual solutions look like. And (as the article subtly infers), people also intuitively understand individual changes are not enough to make a difference. Some things seem timeless.

The second article, further along in the paper's Local section, points to how critics of Minneapolis draft Comprehensive Plan, "Minneapolis 2040", have been trying hard to organize in opposition to the changes.

[Hi Janne!]
Here's a the meat of that piece:
Opponents dominated the first round of public input on Minneapolis’ two-decade vision for its future development. Now city planning commissioners will learn from a public hearing Monday if revisions to the plan will earn more support for increasing housing density and quell the fears of those worried about neighborhood destruction.
Opponents worried that allowing more multiunit buildings would wreck the character of their neighborhoods and give developers a free pass to buy up and tear down single-family homes, many of them small enough that they’re affordable. 
“This plan could destroy the nature of my neighborhood and my reason for living in the city,” wrote a south Minneapolis resident. “We moved here because we like the idea of living in a neighborhood of well-maintained older homes with sunny lots.” 
“NO NO NO ... You are crazy!” wrote another. “I work outside [Minneapolis] but live inside. We don’t need to develop all this land in one of the biggest giveaways to developers.”

As you may have seen, the arguments here took full fledged fight at this week's Planning Commission meeting, where people paraded to the microphone to rant about the dangers of urban density.

[Doubting Thomas, by Mark Tansey.]
Instead of diving into that debate, focus on the disconnect. The two Star Tribune articles offer the perfect distillation of why climate politics are so difficult --  sometimes wonkily called "the value-action gap" --  and this divide is the key problem in 2018 Minneapolis.

On the one hand, people in Minneapolis have the best intentions. We are a liberal bastion, after all, and most everyone believes in climate change. Most everyone agrees that inequality is a problem, that helping the world's most vulnerable is is the right thing to do, that mass extinction of species is something to avoid.

On the other hand, buying "green" products, driving a Nissan Leaf (good car!), riding a bike (good all around!), giving money to the Sierra Club (good organization!), or going out for a meal at the Birchwood (good restaurant!) remain nothing but nice gestures next to the wider systemic and structural changes that really matter.

The gap between good intentions and meaningful action remains huge.

This difference is critical because climate change is at the core of the Minneapolis 2040 Plan. The controversial housing and transportation proposals are focused directly on reducing energy and CO2 use in the city.

In my podcast with Heather Worthington and Paul Mogush, two of the key people working on the Comprehensive Plan, they explain the direct connection between climate and Minneapolis 2040. Here's the relevant quote from Paul, a planner who has worked on the plan for years:
When we started this process two and a half years ago with the public, we threw the doors open and asked big broad questions. ... That's what led to the formulation of the 14 goals that the City Council adopted a few years ago. That's what led to us adopting this plan... We wanted to make this a document that was about the future of the city.  
Among those goals, the ones that really stood out in the public process was, number one, climate change. People see that as the huge threat that it is to our Earth and our city. We as a city have to do something about that. The second is housing. Housing choice and affordability. And the third is racial equity, in general. Those were the three that really emerged as priorities. That's what you see laid out in the goals, and that's what you see laid out in the content. Those are the main lenses that we used.

The gap between intentions and action paints a dark picture of climate politics in Minneapolis.  If our city cannot take meaningful climate actions in 2018, then when and where will change take place? If basic climate action is impossible here, where does that leave the more conservative rest of the country? If Minneapolis environmentalism is limited to the things in the first article -- buying a solar panel, a critical habitat plate, an LED lightbulb -- we are dooming the majority of the Earth's species and hundreds of millions of the vulnerable poor, people just like Shaha Huzzein's family in Sudan.

I'm not being histrionic. The latest report was clear on that last fact. In a recent podcast interview with Adil Najam, one of the lead authors of the IPCC, he bluntly described the unequal stakes.

Here's a quote:
It's not a surprising report. The surprise is how we keep getting surprised about the same thing again and again and again.  
For the poorest people it the world, hundreds of millions of the poorest people in the world, climate change is not something that's happening in the future tense. The problem with this report is that it's not frightening enough. It's trying to frighten us about the future, what it’s really telling us about is the present.  
They [the report’s final authors] want to spur, mostly you and me, people who are affluent, into action. I think that's a good message, but there's another message and that is that climate change is happening now. It's happening in Bangladesh. It’s happening in Haiti. It’s happening in Mauritius. It’s happening in Vanuatu. And it’s happening with gravest consequences in places which had the least to do with causing the problem. Those who had the least to do with making the mess are at the forefront of having to deal with it. That is why I think climate is a justice issue. 
This report, I don't think they have done justice to climate as a justice issue.
(The whole thing is worth a listen.)

In this critical moment, the political choice around climate action is clear. There's a massive gap between our city's stated values and our collective actions.  For now, the only bridge we have is the Minneapolis 2040 Comprehensive plan.

If you want to feel better about yourself personally, install a solar panel on your house, buy organic food, drive around in a Prius. Walk more instead of driving, turn off your LED lights more often, stop eating hamburgers, and compost. Take whatever medication suits you.

But if you want to actually do something, Minneapolis 2040 is what city-scale climate action looks like. If you say you care about climate change, but are not supporting this plan, you are fooling yourself.

[Hurricane Michael.]


Unknown said...

Hi, Bill!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for laying it out clearly. A similar argument can be made about racial equity - if you say you care about it, and want to do something about it, then you should be supporting the 2040 comp plan.

Bill Lindeke said...

I agree completely! Also worth noting that these are only first steps.