By Frank Ackerman
Climate change is at once a common problem that threatens us all, and a source of differential harms based on location and resources. We are all on the same boat, in perilous waters – but some of us have much nicer cabins than others. What is the relationship of inequality to climate policy?
The ultimate economic obstacle to climate policy is the long life of so many investments. Housing can last for a century or more, locking residents into locations that made sense long ago. Business investments often survive for decades. These investments, in the not-so-distant past, assumed continuation of cheap oil and minimally regulated coal – thereby building in a commitment to high carbon emissions. Now, in a climate-aware world, we need to treat all fossil fuels as expensive and maintain stringent regulation of coal. And it is impossible to repurpose many past investments for the new era: they are sunk costs, valuable only in their original location or industry.
If we could wave a magic wand and have a complete do-over on urban planning, we could create a new, more comfortable and more sustainable way of life. Transit-centered housing complexes, surrounded by green spaces and by local amenities and services, could offer convenient car-free links to major employment sites. Absent a magic wand, the challenge is how to get there from here, in a short enough time frame to matter for climate policy.
Space is the final frontier in energy use. Instead of shared public spaces for all, an ever-more-unequal society allows the rich to enjoy immense private spaces, such as McMansions situated on huge exurban lots. This leads to higher heating and cooling costs for oversized housing, and to higher infrastructure costs in general: longer pipes, wires and travel distances between houses. And it locks in a commitment to low population density and long individual commutes. Outside of the biggest cities, much of the United States is too sparsely settled for mass transit.