Public Comment

Commentary: Climate Action Plan is Far-Sighted, But Needs to Be Boldly Nearsighted, Too

By Alan Tobey
Tuesday February 26, 2008

There is much to praise in Berkeley’s new draft Climate Action Plan. The goal of reducing our climate-warming greenhouse gases by 80 percent before 2050 is a bold and needed one, as 81 percent of voting Berkeleyans agreed via Measure G in 2006. The vision presented is attractive and inspiring: Berkeley as a greener city with a more sustainable economy. A Berkeley less dependent on the private gasoline-powered automobile and more supportive of walkable full-service neighborhoods, housing more of our own workers. A Berkeley using more regionally-produced food and more locally-produced renewable energy, and no longer sending our waste to landfills. And a Berkeley more lively and prosperous as an inspiring urban place. 

Even some of the means proposed are bold and innovative—most notably mayoral aide Cisco DeVries’s plan to accelerate the installation of residential solar power using individual property tax increments rather than ordinary loans. Other more conventional means involve upgrading energy efficiency standards already established by ordinance, “identifying opportunities” for other renewable energy projects, and taking practical steps toward eliminating unrecycled waste. Overall, the plan makes it sound feasible that much of what it proposes can—with an aggressive effort and a cooperative citizenry—be achieved. 

However, there is still one way the Climate Action Plan falls short of what we need. While it’s visionary and bold about the long-term future and crisp about needed revisions to existing ordinances and programs, the CAP seems to lose its courage when addressing policy-level decisions we will make in the next year or two. Instead of strong recommendations based on the principles espoused in the CAP, many upcoming items are expressed only as things to “consider” if they are “appropriate”—even when the items have already been considered to death.  

The CAP that we need should take the opposite tone: It should be most confident and specific on policy and program commitments we know we can make right away, and more tentative on what we can’t yet define in programmatic terms. If the CAP won’t drive our ready-to-go decisions now, why should we have any confidence it will actually help over the next 40 years? 

That failure of political focus makes the key chapter on transportation and land use the weakest in the document. The chapter takes the right direction by generally advocating alternative transportation and more intensive urban in-fill as the most effective reducers of greenhouse gases, but it is unconnected to our current decision agenda and fails to make any actual recommendations on that list. The best in-process policy example is the excellent draft of our new Downtown Plan, crafted by a dedicated citizens’ panel over nearly two years. This DAPAC process has already considered key desirables mentioned in the CAP chapter—such as Bus Rapid Transit and increased density of housing near transportation lines—and made strong recommendations in favor of both. Why would the CAP not support and reinforce the Downtown Plan as a crucial means for implementing its advocated climate actions? Alas, it says we should make important land use and transportation changes only “if appropriate.” Instead of leading as it should, the CAP even fails to follow; the draft Downtown Area Plan is already much more decisive on transportation and land use changes in several important ways. 

Another example will reinforce the same point. Though the CAP generally favors more in-fill housing near transportation, it is silent on the current open issue of the density bonus for new construction. If its goals are to be achieved, I’d expect the CAP to boldly recommend that we not go too far in reducing the density bonuses that have helped create what little affordable housing Berkeley has built in the past few years. 

I’ve confirmed in three private conversations that the draft submitted by Climate Action Plan staff did not demonstrate this deficiency of political courage. Its original language, for example, “flat-out stated” (as a senior Planning Department staffer put it) that “smart growth is the only way we will be able to reach our climate goals.” But senior political minds in the city manager’s office seem to have concluded that ignoring all pending issues with any controversy is the path to success, along with “considering” things till the cows come home. 

The cure for the shortfall is a simple one: eliminate from the CAP almost all the equivocal “consider” and “if appropriate” language and in most cases clearly state what “the City should enact” in the next year or two. If we are as clear on the principles as the plan itself asserts, the CAP should have no trouble recommending how to decide most well-defined upcoming policy and program questions. 

Thus our new Climate Action Plan is inspiringly farsighted, but far from nearsighted enough. It’s crystal-clear on the long-term future, but timid and unfocused about our near-term policy agenda. But if the CAP is to mean anything, it should have the courage to connect its laudable principles and 40-year vision to our specific pending decisions in clear and unambiguous language. It’s now up to the Council to insist we do so. 


Alan Tobey has lived in Berkeley since 1970.