Suburban Sprawl is not Climate-Smart

Almost ten years ago, Yolo County (where Winters is located) came out with a preliminary study identifying major sources of carbon pollution here. Compared to other counties surrounding us, we don’t actually have much. There is very little industry here, and the cities are fairly small by Sacramento and Bay Area standards. Still, rather than focus on the rapidly developing commuter suburbs of Davis, Woodland and West Sacramento, the study focused almost entirely on agriculture as a polluter.
Like most farmers, I thought the idea that agriculture — which has been shrinking in California for decades — might be considered the biggest target for reduction of carbon pollution to be completely absurd. It seemed like a clear political decision to pin the problem on anyone other than the obvious culprit — suburban developers paving over farmland.
Most farmers I know are not skeptical about climate change. We are witnessing it every day and taking the hit in our bank accounts. However, we are in general skeptical that humans — specifically politicians — are capable of taking action that will actually slow it down much less reverse it. And we are worried that in the process, we will become collateral damage. After all, it is politically much easier to assign blame to a minority population than to the majority.
So it was a relief to see that the California Air Resources board has recently identified commuter miles as the single biggest threat to California’s mandated requirement to reduce carbon pollution statewide. Despite efforts to encourage electric vehicles, pollution from cars remains the single biggest source of carbon emissions. And it’s growing.
Everyone knows that California has an affordable housing crisis. But the solution to it cannot be to continue to build new single family housing on productive farmland hours away from urban centers.
Assemblymember Scott Weiner introduced a bill last year to encourage affordable housing through a variety of reforms — chief among them prohibiting cities and towns from using zoning that prevents building apartments. The bill failed under massive opposition from wealthy suburbs and real estate developers.
Weiner has a new ally in Governor Newsom, and has introduced a re-written bill that addresses some of the complaints about his last one. But the bill is still going to face an uphill battle, as the interests that oppose it are extremely powerful in our state. So I was glad to see he is now including farmland preservation as one potential benefit. He is going to need all the allies he can get.
At some point in the near future, climate-change induced weather events will make agriculture increasingly untenable as a business. Consider what is happening right now in areas of the Midwest that are experiencing historic flooding. While it makes sense to focus on reducing carbon pollution in an effort to slow climate change, policymakers will also need to be prepared to step in to save large sectors of agriculture from being wiped out completely by extreme weather. That will be a huge shift from existing government farm policy in the U.S., and I don’t see anyone offering big solutions yet.
But a statewide effort in California to stop paving over farmland with suburbs would be a good start.


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