California's transportation infrastructure and land-use policies are creating a system where too many people are commuting by car too frequently. (Mike Koozmin/S.F. Examiner file photo)

If you want to address climate change, clean up the air

Like climate change itself, recent environmental news from throughout the country can feel overwhelming and scary.

As leaders from around the world announced new commitments to address climate change at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, people in the path of Hurricane Florence were evacuating their homes. A series of natural gas explosions in Massachusetts, killed one teenager, injured at least 23 people and forced thousands out of their homes. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump’s administration proposed eliminating regulations that prevent natural gas leaks during drilling.

But it does not need to be overwhelming. Climate change, from a city perspective, can be boiled down to air pollution. California’s poor land-use policies and transportation infrastructure is creating a system where too many people are commuting by car too much. It’s also making children, and other vulnerable people, sick. If we address air quality and the disproportionate effect it has on vulnerable communities through better housing and transportation policies, we can also meaningfully respond to climate change.

“Today we have nine out of 10 people breathing bad air,” Christiana Figueres, vice chair of the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy, told an audience on the first day of the summit. “By the time we get to the point where 10 out of 10 people are breathing good air, we will have addressed the roots of climate change.”

While California officials have incentivized electric vehicles and renewable energy, poor land-use policies and transportation infrastructure continue to contribute to air pollution.

Most of San Francisco is zoned for either single-family homes or two-unit buildings, according to a Medium post by state Sen. Scott Wiener, author of the dead, but not forgotten, housing bill, Senate Bill 827. The situation is similar in Los Angeles, Palo Alto and other California cities. Low-density zoning has contributed to the housing crisis, urban sprawl and longer commutes.

“If we are serious about reducing and ultimately eliminating carbon emission in an effort to save our planet — as I know we are — then we must address the unsustainable land use patterns that force people to drive everywhere and that turn short commutes into extremely long commutes,” Wiener wrote.

While land patterns may force some people to drive, Californians also love their cars. The ease, freedom and pure enjoyment of driving keeps cars on the road and has contributed to the popularity of services such as Uber and Lyft. Until other — more sustainable — mobility options can compete with personal rides, air pollution and traffic will continue to be a problem.

California officials are trying to improve transit options. In April 2017, California passed SB 1, which funds transportation improvements, including mass transit expansion, through increases in the state’s gasoline and diesel taxes. The bill could save drivers a total of $29.1 billion per year in lost time and wasted fuel, according to a recent report by TRIP, a Washington, DC-based research organization, as well as alleviate traffic and air pollution.

But Trump supporters in California sponsored Proposition 6 on the November ballot to repeal the legislation.

Unless traffic is reduced through housing or transportation policies, air pollution will continue to threaten communities on the eastern side of San Francisco near the highways. Nadine Burke Harris, a doctor, and the founder and CEO of the Center for Youth Wellness, treats children in the eastern neighborhood of Bayview-Hunters Point.

When combined with adversity and stress, air pollution can result in a “double whammy” on children’s long-term health, according to Burke Harris. Air pollution can increase the risk of respiratory problems, like asthma, and adversity and stress can affect the structure and function of children’s developing brains and dramatically increase the risk of cancer and Alzheimer’s.

“Climate change isn’t an equal opportunity killer,” Burke Harris said at a panel on children’s health during the summit.

While the Global Climate Action Summit showcased incredible resolve toward addressing climate change, the urgency for even more action is abundantly clear. People are already losing their lives and livelihoods.

San Franciscans should support Wiener’s efforts to reintroduce SB 827, which would authorize dense housing near public transit, and vote no on Prop. 6.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. Check her OVERSET FOLLOWS:out at

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