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By Sherry Listgarten

Which City Council candidates "get" climate change?

Uploaded: Oct 25, 2020

A few weeks ago 350 Silicon Valley and 18 other non-profits sponsored a two hour forum to solicit Palo Alto City Council candidates’ views on climate change. You can find a video of the event here. I’ve watched it a number of times and based on what candidates said in that 2-hour forum, I think I have a pretty good idea of who gets climate change and who doesn’t. The City Council election is about many things, but if climate change is important to you and you haven’t already voted, then consider these recommendations. (1)

The candidates who “get” climate change are: Pat Burt, Ajit Varma, Ed Lauing, Steven Lee, and Greer Stone. They understand the problems and are serious about finding ways to help Palo Alto and its residents reduce their emissions.

The candidates who do not get climate change are: Cari Templeton, Raven Malone, and Greg Tanaka. They surely care about it to some degree, but they are not well informed, do not have meaningful policy ideas, and are very unlikely to steer Palo Alto to hit its emissions goals.

Rebecca Eisenberg remains something of a mystery to me. She seems to care and shows a willingness to make tough decisions, but she does not appear to be well informed. So I put her somewhere in the middle.

Lydia Kou did not attend. Whether she was unable to or whether it’s not a priority for her, I don’t know.

I have more information on each candidate’s views, but first will give some high-level thoughts on the discussion.

Most of the time was spent on transportation emissions, with biking, transit, EVs, and especially housing mentioned often. (2) There was general agreement on the need to try to extend working-from-home, to encourage biking with safer lanes and safer bike storage, to build EV charging infrastructure, and to encourage dense housing near transit. But there was also a shared understanding that not everyone can bike, that transit doesn’t work well, and that working from home won’t last to the degree we see it today. So the candidates’ priorities among these differed. There was a sense that a business tax would help to pay for climate initiatives, but there were relatively few ideas on how to make the “green transition” available to all residents, and there was a lack of agreement on how much to prioritize emissions reductions during the pandemic.

The most interesting question to me was an audience-submitted question that asked whether candidates support mandates to hit the city’s 80x30 goal (3) and if so, which one(s). The candidates had unanimously expressed their enthusiasm for this goal early in the forum, but the question addressed how serious they are about it. You can watch their answers here. If you have been following the city’s sustainability work, you know that our progress towards this goal is badly lagging, with almost none in the years since we cleaned up our power. In the country, in our state, and in our city, regulations have proven to be the single most effective way to reduce emissions. You cannot be serious about our 80x30 goal and not be willing to consider mandates. This is one of the key reasons that Malone, Tanaka, and Templeton do not meet my “gets climate” bar. Tanaka continues to believe that carrots will suffice, despite years of their failing. He refers to mandates as “punitive measures”. Templeton says that her leadership style is not compatible with enforcing mandates, and she is oddly confident that it will not be “a major lift” to hit the goal with voluntary actions. Malone rules out mandates due to cost concerns, apparently unaware that regulations have many ways to control for cost. In contrast, Lee comes out guns blazing for mandates; Burt knows the city’s history on this very well and cogently explains why they are needed; and Lauing, Stone, Varma, and Eisenberg all expressed some support for additional climate regulations. (4)

Here are some more specific notes on the candidates and where they stand. I encourage you to watch some of the short answers linked to below as they give a sense of the candidates.

Pat Burt. Burt not only has conviction on the topic of emissions reductions, he has the most knowledge and the most well thought-out policies. When asked how he would approach the city’s 80x30 goal, he was the only one to state the baseline for the goal (1990) before going on to explain the need for electrification mandates and how he’d roll them out, followed by his approach to vehicle emissions, specifically prioritizing EV infrastructure over biking and commute reduction. You can listen to his outline here. I appreciate his approach to transportation as it’s often easier to change technology than to change behavior, though he does make room for both. Burt is the only candidate who offered any sort of detailed response to the critical question of how to make effective but more costly (up front) solutions like EVs, insulation, and heat pumps available to lower-income households.

Ajit Varma. Varma understands the problem of climate change very well. He was the only person to bring up the impact of diet and consumerism on climate. He is passionate about walkable communities and practices what he preaches. He falls short on the policy side, though. He acknowledges that ten years “isn’t much time” to hit the 80% reduction, and seems eager to make cars more expensive, but it’s not clear how he would do that equitably, and then he falls back to touting mixed-use development. He also doesn’t seem to know that Palo Alto has already passed an ordinance requiring new development to be all-electric. But I think Varma will be an effective candidate on climate if elected.

Ed Lauing. Like Varma, Lauing practices what he preaches, biking everywhere and keeping the heat down in winter to use less gas. To reduce transmission emissions, he wants to first try to get people out of their cars by promoting telecommuting and making biking safer and more fun. Then he will electrify “what’s left”. Lauing is aware of the city’s work on how to approach 80x30, and the range of options from strict and impactful to relaxed but lower impact. His preference is to start with the moderate approaches the city has outlined, like requiring electrification on home sale, and see how far that gets us before considering tougher measures. His passion is tempered by pragmatism.

Steven Lee. Lee is almost the opposite of Lauing in that regard. He is extremely passionate about climate change and gives a very pointed answer to the question of whether mandates are needed. He does not agree with city staff’s recommendation to back off on climate actions because of the pandemic, and he is not afraid to take aggressive measures like rolling out mandates or taxing carbon-emitting activities. But it wasn’t clear in this forum that he has a good understanding of what the city has done to date, what has failed and why, or how to be more successful the next time around, particularly given he endorses such aggressive policies. Lee’s main policy interest seems to be around housing, which is only one part of this issue. If his governing expertise can catch up with his passion, he will be effective as a council member on climate.

Greer Stone. Stone’s father was a ranger in Yosemite, and he seems to have a genuine love of the environment and interest in addressing climate change. His ideas around transportation focused primarily on inbound commuters, which represent the majority of our transportation emissions. He wants to see more ride sharing and more effective transit, as well as meaningful efforts by local businesses to reduce vehicle miles, with consequences if they don’t hit their goals. He has a nuanced view on housing, expressing interest in workforce housing while at the same time cautioning that since only 25% of Palo Alto workers have jobs in Palo Alto, more general local housing may not get people out of cars. He lacks familiarity with our reach codes (like Varma, he didn’t seem to know that we already require new construction to be fully electric), and like Lee his main policy interest seems to be around housing. But I think he will help our city achieve its climate goals if elected.

Rebecca Eisenberg. Eisenberg has been a vegetarian for most of her life, drives an older EV, and seems interested in addressing climate change, particularly for the social justice impacts. However, I didn’t get a clear sense of her priorities outside of wanting to tax businesses and make them pay their “fair share”. How would she get people out of cars? How would she support EVs? How would she reduce home energy use? She thinks we can do much better than the 80x30 goal, but doesn’t seem to have a clear idea of what’s already been done or what the difficulties have been. Eisenberg has a lot of energy, but her knowledge of and attention to climate change did not stand out.

Greg Tanaka. Tanaka loves to bike, and he sees bikes and e-bikes as an important way to get people out of cars, touting e-bike subsidies as a way to make the green transition available to lower-income households. Although many of the candidates are regular bikers, Tanaka relies on biking the most to address vehicle emissions. He also supports several more expensive policies, such as underground housing and parking and free Uber/Lyft rides. He is enthusiastic about climate offsets, and expresses concern that green policies make development more expensive. He is opposed to mandates. It was very hard to discern real priorities from the long list of things that Tanaka expressed enthusiasm about. I got the sense he was trying to say things that people like to hear, but without a real framework, without a sense of priorities or how to accomplish meaningful emissions reductions. This does not bode well for his leading a course correction on our 80x30 progress.

Raven Malone. When asked to list the main policies she would advocate for in the next two years to reduce emissions, Malone suggested working with school kids and sponsoring contests. She added that rebates on things like thermostats and discounts on EV registration would be helpful. She doesn’t seem to understand how policies are crafted or what will move the needle, and her only additional suggestion outside of affordable housing was to improve bike safety. From this I can’t help but conclude that she has little interest in designing effective policies to achieve our climate goals. Her overriding interest seems to be in creating more affordable housing in Palo Alto. That is an important and challenging goal, but I cannot recommend her as someone who will help the city make progress on climate change.

Cari Templeton. Templeton, like Tanaka and Malone, shies away from using mandates to help achieve the city’s goals. In general, she has few concrete proposals. For example, she cautions that some people can’t bike and expresses interest in shuttles for families with kids, but doesn’t seem to acknowledge the time commitment that taking that type of transit would entail for busy families. Her answers were generally non-committal, expressing interest primarily in lightweight initiatives like shared streets. She seems to believe that she will come up with policies by listening to people, but apparently she hasn’t done that enough at this point. Nor has she acquired much familiarity with existing climate initiatives. I cannot recommend Templeton as an effective council member on the topics discussed in this forum.

Notes and References
0. Thank you to 350 Silicon Valley and others who organized this forum, and to Reverend Kaloma Smith for moderating it. You elicited a good amount of information from nine(!) candidates in a relatively short period of time. Special thanks to the audience member who posed, and those who voted for, the question about mandates.

1. I want to thank all of the candidates who participated. It is no easy feat to answer difficult questions in 90 seconds or so. I also want to acknowledge that my opinions are largely based on the discussion captured in this forum. Certainly someone(s) may have had an off night and there may be things I misunderstood. The nine candidates who participated all care to some degree about climate change, and that is a good thing.

2. Several questions in the forum were directed at housing and zoning. Although co-locating housing with offices is just one of many ways to reduce emissions, increasing Palo Alto’s housing stock is a topic of considerable interest to many of the event's sponsors and candidates and so a good deal of time was devoted to discussing this. Given this was a forum on climate change, I wish there had been more discussion about the role of dense housing in an emissions-reductions portfolio; the relative challenges with cost, scale, and timelines; the demographic targets for relocation; and more generally what is needed for this to lead to a sizable emissions reduction in the next ten years or twenty years. For example, what would it take to get the commuters living in homes in the East Bay or as far as Tracy to live in small apartments in Palo Alto instead? Who are we moving, from where, to what? I was also disappointed there wasn’t a parallel discussion around encouraging businesses to expand where there is ample housing as opposed to choosing sites that prevent many of their employees from living near work.

3. Palo Alto has a goal to reduce its emissions by 80% from a 1990 baseline by 2030. You can read more about our progress on that in an earlier blog post.

4. Ironically, the candidates unanimously agreed to require electrification when gas appliances fail, which is an example of a mandate. But that was a yes/no question, so I am not sure what to make of the inconsistencies. I am giving more weight to their longer answers.

Current Climate Data (September 2020)
Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard (updated annually)

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