Tomorrow, Los Angeles voters go to the polls to elect a new Mayor. (At least a few of them, anyway: current estimates predict only 25% turnout, about which more later). In September, New Yorkers will do the same. And depending upon the way things turn out, political and cultural reporters could have a field day.
If Christine Quinn and Wendy Greuel win in their respective cities, we will have female mayors of both cities for the first time. And the press will have a lot of fun with it, because the two women seem to epitomize their cities’ personalities. Quinn is famously nasty and vicious, character traits she is now trying to ameliorate at least publicly. Much less famously, but just as truly, Greuel is quite nice: I’ve known her for nearly 20 years, and you can’t deny that she is personally a very nice person.
And if you think about it, that is true more broadly. If Anthony Weiner runs for NYC mayor, we’ll get another jerk trying to get to Gracie Mansion. Greuel’s rival, Eric Garcetti, whom I’ve also known for a long time, is likewise very friendly and nice. Even the campaign by realistic standards has been pretty tame.
If you think about New York mayors, they are hardly aiming for Mr. Congeniality: Ed Koch, Rudy Giuliani, and even Michael Bloomberg aren’t necessarily the sort of person you’d want to hang out with. But on the left coast, Tom Bradley almost epitomized mellow moderation; Antonio Villaraigosa is probably too personally charming for his own good; Jim Hahn might not have been the sharpest pencil in the cup but is a genuiunely nice guy; even Richard Riordan is pretty friendly and cordial. David Dinkins, of course, was notably polite and courtly — and seemed out of his element because of it.
Why is this? Is it just New York Nasty and Los Angeles Nice? Maybe, but perhaps this is something bigger going on here.
New York mayors wield vast power. They control huge departments, manage an enormous budget, and dominate the city politically. New York City comprises five different county governments and thus contains the counties’ power. The New York mayor’s problem is keeping control over the whole thing, not to mention corralling a notoriously-fractious urban political party (and sometimes more than that if they have the Liberal or Conservative endorsement). The Mayor also plays a major role in appointing the Board of Education. Hizzoner has to knock heads to get anything done.
In Los Angeles, on the other hand, the Mayor is relatively weak. Los Angeles city government is dominated by civil service personnel, whom the Mayor can’t just order around. Before 1992, this was even the case with the Police Department: I distinctly remember my east coast friends saying to me, “If Tom Bradley hates Daryl Gates so much, why doesn’t he just fire him?” Answer: he couldn’t. And he still can’t: the police chief has a five-year term. Even with other departments, the Mayor can’t appoint dozens and dozens of officials: instead, he appoints usually five-member volunteer commissioners, who, because they are volunteers, are usually dominated by professional civil service staff. That is not a recipe for strong executive leadership.
The Los Angeles mayor has no control over the school district or the Board of Education. The Los Angeles City Council only has 15 members, making each councilmember the monarch of his or her district; in New York, there are so many councilmembers that they comparatively little power, although not negligible. The City of Los Angeles has no control over the vastly bigger County of Los Angeles. The Mayor of New York can call up the Brooklyn boroough President to berate and threaten him: in Los Angeles, the only way the City get the County to what it wants is through a lawsuit.
Or persuasion. The Mayor of Los Angeles has to persuade all these other constituencies to do what he or she wants: they can’t bully or force them. Los Angeles elections are nonpartisan, and so the Mayor doesn’t even have a political organization to use. The only way a Los Angeles Mayor will be effective will be through the patient and often-maddening business of assembling political coalitions, community groups, public sector unions, developers, etc. A screamer in Los Angeles City Hall is someone who literally has no chance of success.
No wonder, then, that voters seem so uninterested: it’s not abundantly clear what precisely the Mayor is supposed to do, a condition that the early 20th century Progressives who framed the Los Angeles charter wanted.
The political scientist Kenneth Waltz, who died last week at the age of 88, made a similar point about the personalities of Presidents and Prime Ministers. A President has to try to use the power of the bully pulpit and his dominance over the executive branch to get things done. A Prime Minister, on the other hand, has to use persuasion to maintain his party coalition — if he doesn’t, he’ll get kicked out by his own caucus. I think that that works here.
Whether Garcetti or Greuel wins tomorrow, the next Los Angeles mayor will be a pretty nice person. Whether Quinn or Weiner or someone else wins in New York, the next New York mayor will probably be something of a jerk. But the political structure will have as much to do with this as any tired cultural stereotypes.
And what does this have to with environmental law? Well, aside from the important functions that cities play in environmental policy, it also points to the way in which structural forces can help determine the behavior of political and bureaucratic actors. You can look at ideology, or interest groups, or history, or a variety of other things, but one of the best ways to try to predict and explain behavior is to examine structural incentives. As Terry Moe wrote in a classic essay more than 20 years ago, bureaucratic structure not only represents a fierce battleground for interests, but once it is in place, it conditions what those bureaucracies do. City Hall needs that analysis as much as OSHA or the EPA.
There are uncertainties about climate science such as tipping points and feedback effects. But these pale in comparison to the biggest source of uncertainties: people. Here are some of the major things we don’t know and really can’t know about future society:
- Will economic growth continue, and if so, how quickly and how uniformly? Richer societies can adapt more easily to climate change, and in a world of high growth we may have less reason for additional investments to aid future generations. Economic models largely assume that the economic growth of the past two centuries will continue for at least the next century or two. But we obviously can’t know this for sure.
- Is the world heading toward a peaceful, democratic future, or one characterized by wars, revolutions, and dictatorships? Our chances of coping with climate disruption (not to mention having high growth) are a lot better in the first scenario. The great human disasters of the last century were due to failures of governance — think of the millions killed in World War II or the Great Leap Forward.
- Will climate change interfere with economic growth or political progress? Will climate change disrupt economic growth? Will climate disruptions cause international instability? Those could be far more costly to society than the physical impacts of climate change.
- Will we choose to decarbonize the global economy? Along with the pathway for economic growth, the extent of our determination to control emissions will determine future atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. That’s a key uncertainty about future climate impacts.
It’s no news that human behavior is hard to predict. That’s just a fact of life. But in the case of climate change, the problem is especially severe because we’re dealing with human nature on a global scale and far into the future. The best-case scenario is one of growing prosperity, peace, and freedom — but we can’t assume that’s the future we’ll actually encounter.
Cross-posted on CPRBlog.
People on both sides of the political spectrum agree that the boundaries of federal jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act are murky, to say the least. But efforts by EPA and the Corps of Engineers to clarify those boundaries have been tied up in the White House for more than a year, with no explanation and to no apparent useful purpose. The President is fond of telling that nation that it should place more trust in government. No wonder he’s not convincing his political opponents — he doesn’t appear to believe the message himself. The White House Office of Management and Budget has become a black hole not just for new regulations, but even for attempts to clarify existing law. It simply swallows proposals, leaving them forever in limbo, and forever subject to continued politicking. The Clean Water Act jurisdiction guidance surely isn’t perfect, but that shouldn’t be the test. EPA should be allowed to issue its guidance, and to correct it when and if experience shows that to be necessary.
Ecology Law Quarterly is always worth a read, even if the electronic version lacks the beautiful Ansel Adams cover pictures. The latest issue has just been posted. Here are links to the articles:
And Ecology Law Currents has a new offering as well: R. Trent Taylor, The Obsolescence of Environmental Common Law.
With all the attention being paid to proposals to reform the California Environmental Quality Act in the state legislature, there is another landmark California environmental law that the legislature and Governor Brown are thinking of changing. In 1986, the voters of California enacted Proposition 65. The law requires notification to consumers and the public about possible exposures to carcinogenic substances in consumer products and in public spaces (such as hotels, restaurants, and airports).
At the time of its enactment, some legal scholars and environmentalists hailed it because of two main features: First, Prop 65 is primarily an informational statute. It doesn’t prohibit exposures to carcinogenic substances in most circumstances, so long as notice is provided. Second, Prop 65 flips the burden of proof. For chemicals listed under the act as potentially carcinogenic, the statute requires the defendant who wishes to avoid providing a warning to demonstrate that any exposure is below the safe limit. This reverses the usual burden of proof in U.S. toxic substance regulation where the burden is on regulatory agencies or plaintiffs to show that a chemical is toxic at a given level of exposure.
Proposition 65 produced some dramatic examples of major corporations changing the composition of their products to reduce exposure to carcinogens in order to avoid having to label the product as potentially toxic. This was seen as evidence of the power and promise of the informational, burden-switching approach in the statute.
But like any human endeavor, Proposition 65 is not perfect. In part due to a proliferation of lawsuits by plaintiffs’ attorneys in the state Read more…
Here on Legal Planet, we talk a lot about climate skeptics/deniers, and we’re highly critical of them (for good reason!). A lot of those climate skeptics/deniers are conservatives.
But there’s no monopoly on scientific ignorance on one end of the political spectrum. An example of that is close to home here at UC Berkeley.
In 1991, a deadly firestorm raced through the Oakland/Berkeley hills, killing 25 people and destroying thousands of homes. A key factor in the blaze were the groves of eucalyptus trees growing in the area. Eucalpytus, which is native to Australia (not California) is an extremely flammable tree species, and native Californian plants are generally unable to grow and reproduce successfully in eucalyptus groves (in part because eucalyptus trees acidify the soil). UC Berkeley is applying to receive federal funds to eliminate tens of thousands of these trees in order to reduce fire risk and help restore native plants and ecosystems to campus. One would think that this would receive universal support. One would think, but this is Berkeley, where conspiracy theories sprout profligately from the soil like mushrooms after spring rains…
It turns out that a few folks are outraged about this. Some have simply latched onto the fact that the university is “clearcutting” trees as the basis for condemning the proposal – as if logging or clearcutting were inherently evil. Others object to the “xenophobia” inherent in eliminating non-native trees in favor of native ones (see the comments following the article). Still others have concerns about herbicide use – which is a reasonable concern, though it appears that the university is taking a lot of steps to make sure the usage is appropriate and the harms are limited. And finally, a few seem to believe that anything that involves herbicide use must be part of a giant conspiracy by giant chemical companies to destroy the planet (again, see some of the comments after the original news article).
Let me be clear here. Cutting down eucalyptus trees to reduce fire risk and restore native plants and ecosystems is generally an environmentally sensible thing to do. It will help native plants and animals do better. And it will keep people safer. Those who argue otherwise are ignoring a lot of fairly clear ecological evidence, primarily because of other prior commitments they have (such as, logging is bad, or chemicals are bad). Sounds a little like climate skeptics/deniers to me.
What causes certain political figures either to deny the potential for climate change, or deny that human activity is a major cause? That question came to mind while reviewing a new report issued by Ceres entitled Benchmarking Air Emissions for the 100 Largest Electric Power Producers in the United States. The report does an impressive job of documenting the extent to which greenhouse gas emissions resulting from electric power production are concentrated in a limited number of states and overwhelmingly result from the use of coal. But the numbers also make one wonder — how might a state’s reliance on carbon-heavy electric power influence the public opinions of public officials?
Here is an entirely unscientific way to look at the issue. The Ceres report offers the graph on the left as a way of ranking the states on the basis of over-all carbon dioxide releases resulting from electric power generation (the worst offenders are on top). These numbers are from 2011. Right after the 2010 election, Think Progress compiled a list of the members of Congress who (says Think Progress) contested the notion of anthropogenic climate change. Comparing the two, I asked how many of the senators identified as climate change deniers come from the top 50% of the worst-polluting states. Read more…