Monday, August 27, 2007

Transportation Secretary Unclear on What Transportation Is

Bear with me here on the chain of citations.

Via the D.C.-area CommuterPageBlog, Richard Layman of the blog, Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space, cites a StreetsBlog article pointing to an interview U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters had a few weeks ago on PBS' "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" on the nation's transportation infrastructure in the wake of the Minneapolis bridge collapse, in which
Peters said that instead of raising taxes on gasoline to renew the nation's sagging infrastructure, Congress should examine its spending priorities -- including investments in bike paths and trails, which, Peters said, "are not transportation."
Here is the official transcript from the NewsHour, where Peters was interviewed by Gwen Ifill:
GWEN IFILL: Aren't many of those [earmark] projects, even though they're special interest projects, aren't they roads and bridges, often?

MARY PETERS: Gwen, some of them are, but many of them are not. There are museums that are being built with that money, bike paths, trails, repairing lighthouses. Those are some of the kind of things that that money is being spent on, as opposed to our infrastructure.
Peters is making a valid point when referring to non-transportation projects like museums; there were indeed many of those in the pork-laden SAFETEA-LU. (Just go to the full text of the legislation and search for "museum".) Yet by implication here she says that bike paths and trails are not our transportation "infrastructure".

The transcript continues:
[MARY PETERS:] I think people are reluctant to spend more money unless they know that money is going to actually make an improvement in the transportation infrastructure.

GWEN IFILL: Who is spending the money inappropriately?

MARY PETERS: Well, there's about probably some 10 percent to 20 percent of the current spending that is going to projects that really are not transportation, directly transportation-related. Some of that money is being spent on things, as I said earlier, like bike paths or trails. Some is being spent on museums, on restoring lighthouses, as I indicated.
So it appears that Peters is unclear on what actually constitutes transportation. Not the best attribute to have when you're U.S. Transportation Secretary.

The League of American Bicyclists was all over Peters' ignorant statements. Here's part of a response letter (PDF) to Peters by the League's executive director, Andy Clarke:
Dear Secretary Peters:
I listened with dismay to your recent interview on the MacNeil Lehrer Newshour, August 15 airing, on the subject of transportation funding and the Minneapolis bridge collapse. I was particularly taken aback by your comments related to the funding of bicycle projects in the United States.

1. Your statement that bicycle trails and paths are not “transportation-related” or “infrastructure” is baffling. I have been riding to work every day in Washington DC for almost 20 years on one of the regions many well-used bicycle paths, many of which have benefited from Federal transportation funding. Tens of millions of bicyclists and pedestrians in communities across the country use trails to get to work, school, shops, and to visit friends and family — and every one of these trips prevents congestion, pollution, and energy consumption while improving the health of the rider or walker.

2. You left the impression that an enormous percentage of Federal transportation funds are spent on projects such as these. The reality is that only one percent of these funds are spent on bicycling and walking projects despite the fact that these two modes account for ten percent of all trips in the country and 12 percent of traffic fatalities each year.

3. You also left the impression that critical bridge projects are being left unfunded because of this. You did not point out the huge sums of money that states have been allocated for bridge projects over the years but they have failed to spend. Indeed, states have returned to Washington hundreds of millions of “unspent” bridge program dollars as part of recent rescissions ordered by the Congress.

[snip]

Secretary Peters, as Federal Highway Administrator you delivered remarks at the 2002 National Bike Summit that presented a much different view of the role bicycling can play in our national transportation system.

As you stated then, and I quote, “Many people in our country use bikes for more than recreation. For them, bikes are their vehicle for the commute to work and for the errands of daily life. We need every mode of transportation to keep America mobile. What modes did you use to get to your hotel? Very few of us depend on a single mode. I strongly agree with Secretary Mineta, bicyclists are an integral part of our nation’s transportation system and we all need to work together to develop a better more balanced transportation system that provides facilities and programs for bicyclists on a routine basis.”
So it appears that Peters' confusion is only recent. Maybe joining Bush's cabinet just has a "dumbing down" effect.

The larger issue behind Peters' words is that the bicycle continues to be disrespected, both on the local and national levels, as a mode of transportation. For her to single out this mode and imply that it is at fault for our nation's crumbling bridge and road infrastructure is truly dumbfounding. Don Young (R-AK) and Congress steered close to $500 million in federal tax revenues to the two Alaska "Bridges to Nowhere" -- which Peters does mention in the interview -- and yet she still brings bikes into the equation? Unbelievable.

If more people incorporated bicycling into their everyday transportation needs, we would have less need for such an extensive network of highways, and our scarce maintenance dollars, which already compete for new highway pork, wouldn't be stretched so thin. We would have better quality infrastructure if we could concentrate this funding on a smaller network. Then maybe more of our worst-conditioned bridges, like the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis, could get repaired in a more timely fashion.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Iraq: The Imbalance of Opinion

100 American foreign policy experts said it:
No effort of the U.S. government was more harshly criticized, however, than the war in Iraq. In fact, that conflict appears to be the root cause of the experts’ pessimism about the state of national security. Nearly all—92 percent—of the index’s experts said the war in Iraq negatively affects U.S. national security [emphasis mine], an increase of 5 percentage points from a year ago. Negative perceptions of the war in Iraq are shared across the political spectrum, with 84 percent of those who describe themselves as conservative taking a dim view of the war’s impact. More than half of the experts now oppose the White House’s decision to “surge” additional troops into Baghdad, a remarkable 22 percentage-point increase from just six months ago. Almost 7 in 10 now support a drawdown and redeployment of U.S. forces out of Iraq.

[snip]

But is Petraeus’s plan [the recent troop surge] working?

The index’s experts don’t think so. More than half say the surge is having a negative impact on U.S. national security, up 22 percentage points from just six months ago. This sentiment was shared across party lines, with 64 percent of conservative experts saying the surge is having either a negative impact or no impact at all [emphasis in original]. When the experts were asked to grade the government’s handling of the Iraq war, the news was even worse. They gave the overall effort in Iraq an average point score of just 2.9 on a 10-point scale [emphasis in original]. The government’s public diplomacy record was the only policy that scored lower.

Seven U.S. soldiers in Iraq said it:
Given the situation, it is important not to assess security from an American-centered perspective. The ability of, say, American observers to safely walk down the streets of formerly violent towns is not a resounding indicator of security. What matters is the experience of the local citizenry and the future of our counterinsurgency. When we take this view, we see that a vast majority of Iraqis feel increasingly insecure and view us as an occupation force that has failed to produce normalcy after four years and is increasingly unlikely to do so as we continue to arm each warring side.

The American people said it (once more):
A majority of Americans remain pessimistic about the direction of the war in general. Just 29 percent say the U.S. efforts to bring stability and order to Iraq are going well, while more than two-thirds say those efforts are going badly.

Almost everyone is saying that the Iraq war is a disaster, despite recent conjured up fluff over the troop escalation from the media and some Democrats.

Almost everyone knows that it was a mistake, that it is irrational and immoral, that it has harmed this country.

So, why is Mr. Bush wanting to extend his policy of putting American troops' lives in danger?

When you have a so-called "President" who has no regard for rationality or morality, you might as well ask, "Why wouldn't he?"

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Step It Up, Part Two

Step It Up, a day of action this past April that called attention to the urgent need to enact policies to mitigate global warming, was a huge success. It generated over 1,400 demonstrations calling for Congress to enact an emissions reduction target of 80% by 2050.

In response, Washington politicians briefly yakked up their supposed environmental records until the people went away to leave them with their thumb-twiddling. This is the downside of singular days of action; they fizzle away in our distraction-based society and the status quo quickly resumes.

Aware of the need to keep the heat on (no pun intended), Bill McKibben is organizing Step It Up 2: Who's a Leader? for November 3, 2007. It is a shrewd attempt to separate those politicians whose rhetoric generates tons of hot gas from those who are actually trying to cut tons of greenhouse gas. For those of you who couldn't participate in an event back in April (which includes me, as I was working at a conference the whole day), now's your chance to be a part of the advocacy side of one of the most pressing issues ever to face humanity.

Read more at the link above, or see A Siegel's summary on Daily Kos.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Imagine All of New York State Flooded

Cross-post: Daily Kos

If the entire state of New York were flooded, then about as many people would be displaced as the current flooding in South Asia. In India, Bangladesh, and Nepal, about 20 million have been uprooted from their homes, and the death toll is now approaching 200.

At first, this looked looked like a severe weather event not too out-of-the-ordinary for the monsoon season. After all, a third of Bangladesh is usually under water at this time every year (CIA World Factbook). But as the rainy day streak has now stretched to 20, the descriptions have turned dire:
"some of the worst floods for years"

"In some areas, the floods are being called the worst in living memory." [BBC, first link]
They might as well get used to them, because, unless things change, the world won't be able to reach the emissions targets necessary to render unlikely the increases in flooding climate change models suggest for the low-lying areas of South Asia.

Those who know anything about the likely impacts of climate change have a general idea that Bangladesh will be (and probably is now) one of its first victims. In a January diary, A Look Down the Barrel of the Global Warming Gun, I provided a little more detail as to why this is so.
If the climate model results reported in the New Scientist in 2003 come even close to being true, the land will be pushed over the edge:
Flooding in the country is set to increase by up to 40 per cent this century as global temperatures rise, the latest climate models suggest.

[snip]

...heavier rainfall triggered by global warming will swamp Bangladesh's riverbanks, a previously unforeseen effect, flooding between 20 and 40 per cent more land than today, says Monirul Qader Mirza, a Bangladeshi water resources expert now at the Adaptation and Impacts Research Group at the University of Toronto.

...People can grow crops on land regularly fertilised by nutrient-laden silt from the rivers...But extreme floods cause considerable hardship and loss of life: in 1988 and 1998 over two-thirds of the country was under water at some point.
Granted, the 40 percent figure is the worst case scenario, but even
[i]f temperatures rose by just 2 °C, two of the models showed that the mean flow of the Meghna and Brahmaputra rivers would increase by 20 per cent. (New Scientist Article)
What will it take to give ourselves a good chance of (but not ensure) avoiding a 2 °C raise and increase the likelihood of sparing Bangladeshis great hardship? According to this seminal article by George Monbiot (related to his new book), it will take a 60% global reduction of greenhouse gases, a 90% average cut by rich countries, and a 94% cut by the U.S by 2030. If this reasoning is even close to the mark, things look really bad for Bangladesh.

The IPCC's latest report echoes these findings. The following are excerpts from the Asia (PDF) section of the Working Group II contribution on "Climate Change Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability" of the Fourth Assessment Report (bold emphasis mine).
Climate change impacts.
An enhanced hydrological cycle and an increase in area averaged annual mean rainfall over Asia were projected. [10.1.1]

Increased rainfall intensity, particularly during the summer monsoon, could increase floodprone areas in temperate and tropical Asia. [10.1.1]

Annual mean rainfall exhibits increasing trends in Western China, Changjiang Valley and the South-Eastern coast of China, Arabian Peninsula, Bangladesh and along the western coasts of the Philippines. [10.2.2]
In other parts of Asia there will be less rainy days and more droughts, but in Bangladesh and India, the current floods are evidence of the IPCC's predictions, as well as current trends.
[Adapted from Table 10.2, "Summary of key observed past and present climate trends and variability", Ibid]

Region: South Asia
Country: India
...
Change in precipitation: Increase in extreme rains in north-west during summer monsoon in recent decades, lower number of rainy days along east coast

Region: South Asia
Country: Bangladesh
...
Change in precipitation: Decadal rain anomalies above long term averages since 1960s
Keep in mind that the east coast of India is not one of the affected areas. They are Assam (in the far northeast), Uttar Pradesh (in the north central and northwest), and Maharashtra (in the west, including Mumbai).

The result is hardship. Residents of low-lying areas are incredibly resilient to flooding, but when things get this inundated, no one can stay put.
Almost 200 people have died in the floods in the last few days.

In Bangladesh thousands of families are on the move in search of higher ground.

Hundreds of thousands of people across the affected area are at risk from hunger and disease.

...food, clean drinking water and medical aid are the priorities, but just a fraction of those who need them are receiving supplies as aid agencies and government teams struggle to get through.
Hardship. That is the primary (anthropogenic) motivation for environmentalism, the primary reason to reduce our emissions. No matter what we do, a large number of people will survive. We could go on burning fossil fuels until all the economically extractable resources have been used up, increase the GHG concentration in the atmosphere to well over 550 parts per billion, and increase the average global temperature to well over 2 degrees celsius from pre-industrial levels, and still not everyone or every species will become extinct. But there would be a massive amount of hardship.

Assuming that we as a global society care about avoiding hardship and pursuing happiness, then one would think that we would be preparing for and trying to minimize future negative changes before they spring upon us. This is the fundamental human ethical connection to fighting climate change and drastically cutting our emissions. It applies not only to ourselves and our neighbors, but people halfway around the world. I personally need that ethical grounding to give strength to my environmental beliefs. We're not just fighting climate change for the hell of it; we're doing so to, other things equal, preserve a certain level of global quality of life. So the question remains: do we want an easier transition or a harder one? The answer lies in how proactive we want to be about global warming.

If George Monbiot is correct (and I strongly recommend Heat; I'm reading it right now and it is a well-researched, honest, interesting, thorough, and tremendous book), then even the most progressive political solutions getting any attention (i.e. the Sanders-Boxer bill) will fall short of the ideal emissions cuts. For all the exciting involvement in the US Mayors' Climate Protection Agreement (645 cities), as well as ICLEI's Cities for Climate Protection Campaign (over 800 local governments) and the Clinton Climate Initiative (40 large cities), still, in the US the only city coming close to keeping its emissions level, much less reducing them, is Portland, Oregon (source).

So we have a long way to go, but the ingenuity is already within us. We just need to keep motivating ourselves that this is a cause worth fighting. Perhaps if we just imagined if our own state was flooded (or desiccated, or denuded of certain tree species, or whatever the predicted effects are for each of our areas), then we'd always be able to find that motivation.