Great movie commemorating a great loss; it really helped to humanize Michael Jackson. It made me a little jealous of him. He got to check out before the climate really changed and we are left holding no option but to adapt or die. Expressive, expansive, belated tip of the hat to you, MJ.
But I didn’t mean to write about a movie. I meant to write down the dissertation idea that finally fit. This is it: How National Environmental Policy Act environmental review would change if Carbon Dioxide (CO2) were named a criteria pollutant.
It crystallized out of unrelated Friday conversations at work. One was with my supervisor Janeen Spates, debating whether activities that add CO2 to the atmosphere cause physical change to the environment.
Harris County and HUD have always assumed that using federal grant money to support public services such as ambulance rides or bus ride vouchers for ill patients produced no physical changes to the environment and were thus exempt from NEPA environmental review under 24 CFR Part 58. On the other hand, constructing new apartment buildings or a new park with play equipment for the kids would produce physical changes to the environment, triggering full environmental assessment under the same federal regulations.
However, the plastic “Donald Duck” play seats that Diana and I used to love to swing on at Marquette Park on Lake Michigan in the 1960s have already cracked up and either joined all that trash in the landfills or is by now well on its way floating serenely toward the great Pacific Ocean garbage flow. A permanent physical change to the environment? Certainly, even though no physical evidence of the play equipment remains on the beach less than fifty years after installation. But the CO2 that left the tailpipe of our car as we happily wheeled down Lakeside Drive to cavort on that same beach is still with us. So is the CO2 expended in constructing the “Donald Duck” swing equipment, in manufacturing the plastic seats themselves, in transporting them from wherever they were made to the beach where they were used by countless happy kids, each of which transferred over a pound of Carbon (2.5 miles * conservatively .9 lbs of carbon dioxide/2ish kids per car) to the atmosphere on the way there, and after wiping off their sandy feet, again on the way back. About half that carbon dioxide was absorbed by the world’s waters, acidifying them, and the other half is still up in the air, for a century or more, helping raise the mean temperature of earth during the entire time.
So if the Carbon emissions produce more permanent change, and arguably more adverse change, to the environment than the plastic and metal remnants of the disused 1960s play equipment of my youth, why is CO2 still generally discounted in the federal environmental review process?
That part of the NEPA environmental review process that I work with almost daily is HUD’s interpretation of the statute codified in federal regulations at 24 CFR 58. Another Friday conversation was with one of my two planners, Jared Briggs, who fresh from recent training relayed the sense that HUD is moving away from narrowly defining its community development mission as safely housing people with less toward a broader view of real community building. In lifting its view from only those traditionally underserved to the whole community, a move that has been underway at least since the welfare reforms of the Clinton era, opportunity exists for adopting a more generally holistic view that is consistent with the postmodern American city and country.
Houston can be a tough crowd for an ecocentrist. Yet even Dr. Stephen Klineberg’s evenhanded Rice University Houston Area Survey finds increasingly that the population considers the threat of global warming as “very serious,” passing the majority mark in 2008. The Houston Area Survey found consistently that between the 1980s and the 2000s people agreed (ranging between 61% to 72%) with the statement, “Protecting the environment is so important that continuing improvements must be made, regardless of cost.” If they’re saying that in the (petroleum) energy capital of the world, how much more acutely must the rest of the world feel this?
After last night’s sleep, I thought that if we gave long-lived greenhouse gasses their shrift in environmental review, our assessment of what produces beneficial and adverse environmental effects would change quite radically. My wife Donna, upon hearing it, told me to write it down this morning before I forget, which is her quite meaningful stamp of approval. Ha-ha, forget a real dissertation hook into the climate change adaptation planning that I have been working toward at TSU since 2004 and also lets me engage Dr. Ibitayo on my committee? I wrote it down.