Why the free market alone can’t protect us

Excerpt from Climate-proof Your Family Budget.
To be published in early 2016.

Is this capitalism's best idea for protecting us from global warming?

When it comes to handling problems today, many Americans believe the free market offers self-correcting mechanisms that are better than government regulation, and that we can count on capitalism to produce and sell what we need to dodge the costly effects of warming. How? Well, carbon sequestration, geoengineering, and other inventions are being touted as a contribution the free-enterprise system could make to solving our problems.

But it’s hard to see the business incentive. Remember that letting the free market solve problems doesn’t mean letting business solve them. The free market isn’t a bunch of companies; it’s us, the consumers. If we want to get free enterprise to solve a problem, we need to create demand, to provide a big incentive to meet our market needs.

Today it should be obvious that corporate leaders have very little reason to climate-proof us from the effects of global warming. And who can blame them? To prevent further warming, we’d be asking them to

-       replace a profitable fossil fuel industry with a new untried one,

-       to trash the value of some big corporate assets, like oil fields, and

-       to rapidly reduce sales of some popular products, like meat or light trucks.

To protect against the effects of warming, we’ll need businesses to do things like

-       suppress real estate development on big watershed tracts,

-       consider fresh water supplies to be a public good instead of a private asset,

-       boost certain household costs so families are pushed to change generations-old habits,

-       finance major construction projects whose only payback is public cost avoidance, and

-       ease the effects of warming on the poor.

What business leaders wouldn’t throw up their hands? The benefits to corporate shareholders just aren’t there.

Where will effective incentives come from? How do we start to give businesses enough dollars-and-sense reasons to become part of the solution, not the problem? A carbon tax would be a hell of a start! After all, it operates on consumer demand. And it’s a conservative idea.

Otherwise, American families are going to need lots of self-reliance when it comes to climate-proofing our lives.


Basements could control climate-related flooding

Your flood-prone neighborhood needs a place to store runoff for a few hours or days.
What about your basement? It’s going to flood anyway.

We’ve discussed the intense downpours and land subsidence that cause flooding problems around Norfolk. These have focused the thinking of Tidewater residents – and a student design project in Chesterfield Heights, VA - on how to protect low-lying communities from flood damage.

Climate-proof with basement cisternsNeighborhood flooding is only a big deal for a short time. Residents told them about their flooded basements but noted that before long the water would drain out through permeable floors.

The frequency of basement flooding is up in recent years, so most flood-prone residents don’t keep much in their basements anyway. Rather than looking at how to keep the water out, this started the students working with design specialists on the idea of adapting existing basements to serve as cisterns.  This storage would reduce street and lawn flooding and cut down on the resulting pollution.

Milwaukee is exploring a similar climate-proofing idea: create basement cisterns in empty, beyond-repair homes. A single ‘base-tern’ project is expected to cost between $34,000 and $79,000, relatively inexpensive if it reduces sewer overflows. Thousands of American neighborhoods facing growing run-off floods may want to consider base-terns.


Carsharing checklist to help climate-proof your budget

Shared cars can provide real savings,
but you need to live where those cars are.

Warming is predicted to push up transportation costs such as energy prices, road tolls, and auto maintenance. So it makes sense to live where you can get around cheaply – where you might even save the cost of owning a car.

Carsharing as a climate-proof strategy

More and more cities are making carsharing practicable. Here’s a checklist of signs to look for in your city.

Checkbox   Does a carsharing provider offer one-way service, letting you leave the car in any legal parking spot in the city? Zipcar is rolling out such a service in Boston.

Checkbox   If not, one reason may be city parking regulations. Is your city amending its regulations to allow one-way carsharing? Portland, WA is.

Checkbox   Does your state mandate that insurance carriers cannot cancel your auto insurance if you rent out your own car? California, Oregon and Washington now do.

Checkbox   Are there housing complexes in your area that offer carsharing as an amenity for residents?  Brooklyn’s Greenpoint Landing does.

Checkbox   Is your municipality shifting from an owned fleet of cars to a shared fleet to save money? Washington, DC, Sacramento, and Vancouver are.

Checkbox   Are there businesses near you that have chosen carsharing over owned or leased fleets? Verizon has.

If a city really is cultivating a variety of carsharing methods (carsharing firms, private cars, or slugging, jitneys and licensed vans), residents may see a noticeable reduction in traffic congestion – on top of a drop in their family’s transportation costs.


The PREPARE Act – a step toward US climate-proofing

A bill in Washington could fight the effects of warming on our wallets.
What’s come over them!

Fighting the causes of climate change has been tough for Congress to do. It means accepting that it’s warming, that there’s something we can do about it, and it’s probably a tax. All political no-no’s to many Americans.

The House is considering a bill to help cope with at least the effects - although not the causes - of warming.But fighting the effects of warming, such as severe weather, on Americans’ personal finances seems to be getting a little easier these days.

Even those who consider climate change a hoax should welcome new methods that cope with storm surge, right? And improve emergency hurricane evacuation routes or shelters? How about better disaster relief coordination? Or efforts to prevent damage to taxpayer-funded infrastructure? All this to climate-proof our property and the government’s, and lower disaster relief costs.

After all, we’ve watched 42 extreme weather events in the last four years cause at least a billion dollars in damage. Total economic losses were $227 billion across 44 states, with a loss of 1,286 lives.

The “PREPARE” bill doesn’t go against the principles of RStreet, the limited-government, free-market think tank. They’re in favor of it. The fourth-ranking House Republican, Tom Cole of Oklahoma, is too. He’s a co-sponsor.

Will Congress finally acknowledge that Americans are taking a hit to our personal finances from the effects of warming? Ask your Representative to help take a small step to protect us . . . and maybe a few more steps to help climate-proof American taxpayers?


A simple life is hard to imagine. Here’s one way.

Lost driver: “Can you tell me how to get to Union Grove?”
Roadside farmer: “No. But if I was you, I wouldn’t start from here.”

Most of us have trouble seeing from here down the road. If we ponder what life would be like with a lot less water, air-conditioning, meat, or municipal services, it’s hard to visualize. How would limited transportation, lower home values, more community conflict, and food scarcities feel? We can’t quite imagine.

World Made By Hand I spend hours researching dangers like these and possible tactics for dodging them. But even I have trouble conjuring visions of their everyday consequences. When I need to peer ahead, I take another route. I re-read World Made by Hand, by James Howard Kunstler.

This sweet and anxious tale takes place in a small town “after our world changed.” Candles, wooden wheels on mule-drawn carts, and empty decaying buildings. People regrouping in smaller units, ancient skills revalued, and fresh food. It’s a good read.

Yes, the story is dystopian, but it would be hard to say, “that could never happen.” It doesn’t feel like science fiction. The humanity of the characters, the carefully thought-out circumstances of their lives, the uncertain leadership, and the acceptance of new frugal habits all ring true.

When you read some specific advice about how to climate-proof your life, and you may find yourself thinking, “I can’t believe we’d ever need to do that,” go to Union Grove for a summer (sixty-five short chapters). Maybe our needs won’t ever extend that far, but at least we can imagine them, and think backwards to a world that’s less difficult than Union Grove, yet one we need help planning for.


Don’t let energy-efficient improvements disappoint.

Thinking about climate-proofing with energy-efficient windows? More insulation?
Double-check the promised savings.

Get the promised savings from energy improvements.The EPA claims that ENERGY STAR certified windows, doors, and skylights can shrink energy bills by an average of 8 to 17 percent per year. Of course that depends on where you live, but as most of our neighborhoods get gradually warmer, the savings on air conditioning will grow.

A cautionary study out last week from the University of Chicago tells us, however, that actual savings may be way below what is claimed. A weatherization program in Michigan public housing produced savings of only $2,400 where $5,000 had been expected.

There are other possible factors at work; and this is only a single study. But for those who are planning to help protect their family budget against climate change by cutting their cooling bills, it pays to take two steps. First, get an expert estimate of the savings from your planned windows or insulation investment. Second, check with your contractor’s customers. Are they getting the promised savings?

Raising this issue outside your own family could also benefit the community. After all, it’s taxpayers like us who are paying for the disappointing public projects.


Coworking spaces provide savings – and community.

Costs from warming or other causes taking more of your family budget?
How about sharing the cost of work space?

Reducing costs by sharing a coworking spaceLori Kane is the founder of a free, in-home coworking space in Seattle. She says there are lots of advantages beyond sharing costs, and she’s compiled these into a book containing 73 hints for running such a space at home

“The fun part about being in the mini-corner of the free coworking world,” Kane tells Cat Johnson, a freelance writer focused on community, the commons, sharing, and collaboration, “is that I feel like those people are instantly my friends. If you’re on the planet, and you’re hosting free coworking . . . we are instant community.”

There’s lots of word-of-mouth local marketing that goes on. Plus the opportunity to learn from people “just a few steps ahead of you.” And for those who are hoping to simply their neighborhood’s life in order to climate-proof their community or cut down on municipal costs, a coworking group becomes a natural base for low-key activism.

“If you’re hosting a coworking space, a lot of the people who walk in are your neighbors. You start to hear the voices of your neighbors a lot. You also start to notice, when you’re elsewhere, when your neighborhood is not being listened to or included in the conversation.”

Saving the family budget through collaborative consumption can turn into strengthening the neighborhood through collaborative consumption and advocacy as well. There seem to be many such opportunities in the Seattle area.


A city dying of thirst? Seven costs.

Santa Cruz, CA just mandated a 35% reduction in water usage.
What are the actual effects?

A decade ago, a survey of Santa Cruz residents predicted dire effects from drought caused by long-term warming. Beyond the inconveniences, like reusing water, abandoning lawns, and generally using half the water per person as the rest of the state, there are less-visible financial costs coming to town. Could this happen in your town?

Santa Cruz residents climate proofing 1. Water rates  Yes, residents save money when they save water, but the water authority loses that revenue. So it’s expected to raise rates 7% to 8% each year over the next decade. The city is also considering an additional “drought cost recovery fee.”

2. Water rate penalties  Big fines are added to Santa Cruz water bills if a household uses more than their allotment. A unit of water averages about $3 but can rise to $50 above the allotment. Two water cops write tickets for irrigating during the daytime or hosing down pavement. Offenders go to Water School, similar to traffic school, and can get their first fine waived if they take the two-hour class. There’s a one-month waiting list.

3. Cost of a new water source   Santa Cruz is on the ocean, where desalination is an option. The Chamber of Commerce supports building a plant, but so far the city council has bowed to public resistance. Costs running into the millions are projected, most coming from the pockets of county taxpayers.

4. Water quality down   The drought hurts water quality. With stream flows as low as 13% of average, pollutants are not diluted or quickly washed away. The county may have to add more water treatment equipment soon, another significant cost to taxpayers.

5. Municipal financing costs up   Thanks to growing drought, in 2014 S&P lowered its rating for the local water revenue bonds. The agency pointed to the dwindling revenues from lower water use, and the need for borrowing to cover the construction mentioned above. This raises the interest rate the county will pay to borrow money. S&P said the bonds could be downgraded further if water rates aren’t raised substantially.

6. Business activity in danger  Most businesses have been exempt from the rationing, in an effort to boost the economy. But golf courses have been cut back nearly 50 percent, and restrictions could jeopardize beach house rentals to vacationers. Soon water restrictions may be applied to other businesses as well.

7. Real estate values?   One might expect rising costs in Santa Cruz to depress home prices. This hasn’t happened yet. For one thing, past water shortages have led to construction moratoriums that contributed to sky-high local real estate prices. For the same reason, property values could be climate-proof for a while.

Santa Cruz has one special defense against adversity – its attitude. I’ll discuss that in a later post.


A city dying of thirst? The prequel.

At about a 30% water shortage, residents predicted the city would deteriorate.
35% reductions have just been mandated.

Santa Cruz, a county of natural beauty between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Cruz Mountains, is rated at “Extreme” risk for long-term water shortages. (400 American counties have such ratings. Another 600 are rated “High” risk.)

Notice to residents: Santa Cruz is not climate-proof. Way back in 2003, to involve its residents in visualizing the problems ahead, the city asked how people would feel at various levels of water rationing. Looking into the future, the predictions were scary.

At 10-20%, reduced outdoor watering, shorter showers and other small measures would be “inconvenient.”

20–30% reductions amounted to “hardship.” Fines would begin. Multi-family dwellings would need rules and enforcers. New domestic habits would become “disagreeable preoccupations.”

At 30-50%  most landscaping would be gone, pools and common laundry facilities closed, money spent to find and fix leaks. Lifestyles would be “significantly affected.” Personal finances would start contracting. Families would begin moving out.

Many businesses depend on water, and when it becomes unavailable, they move too. The landscape industry would be the first to go. As restrictions rise past 30%, restaurants would struggle to maintain health standards. Hospitals and clinics would cut services, maybe handling emergencies only. Golf courses would close and revert to rough ground. Visitors will stop coming. Jobs would disappear. As water sources dry up, water quality can drop too, requiring investment in more expensive water treatment.

50-60% reductions, residents said, would be “catastrophic.” Parks and playing fields would turn to dirt. The town would lose its looks. Serious conflicts among neighbors and the municipal government were expected. Property values would plummet. Programs sponsored by federal taxpayers would likely grow. Many residents would leave.

We’re no longer looking into the future. Last week state restrictions, as high as 36%, were announced. Are the privations matching the predicted pain?


Is your state bracing for drought?

Sure, California and Texas are worried about water shortages.
But Montana? Delaware? Rhode Island?

Drought predictions by state

In March, California announced mandatory water conservation rules. Most Americans, aware of California’s pain, are sympathetic. And thankful that it’s not happening in their state!

But planners in other states who are paid to look a decade or so down the road are seeing drought in their futures too. The GAO has surveyed state water agencies.

- Montana legislators have directed the state to plan for expected “statewide” water shortages.

- The Kansas Water Office has called for urgent action to reduce drought risks. Given the state’s infamous budget deficit, emphasis has been placed on creative water project financing, perhaps using new public-private partnerships.

- North Carolina has increased the governor’s emergency powers and called for conservation programs.

- Delaware and Rhode Island are predicting water shortages for whole regions of their states. Even Vermont and North Dakota are making plans to increase resilience in the face of expected local shortages.

Oh, and Texas’ response to drought? Yep, a Rainy Day Fund!

If you’re thinking about climate-proofing your family budget and lifestyle, you should take a worried look at the little-noticed risks from water shortages.