(Climate) Change We Can Believe In

When we  moved into our Westwood house  three years ago, the first thing we did was rip out the grass and plant some nice native stuff that requires little water.  Few of our green grass loving neighbors have admired our “Berkeley touch”.   In my Climatopolis work on climate change adaptation, I have argued that we will need to take such actions and more to get ready for climate change.  But, this article  highlights an alternative way to adapt.  “This is a demonstration plot showcasing a mix of native grass species, and it is part of researchers’ efforts to find a lawn that will require less water, and less mowing than conventional Texas lawns.”  Anticipating that climate conditions are changing, our nerds have the right incentives to tinker and discover.  Some of them will succeed and their ideas will diffuse widely (think of multiple Zucks of climate change adaptation).  

Returning to Westwood for a moment, we have new neighbors located .8 miles from us.  At 1% property taxes a year, she will be paying roughly 1.2 million a year for trash collection and access to the great LAUSD public schools.  Not a bad deal!

Author: Matthew E. Kahn

Professor of Economics at UCLA.

19 thoughts on “(Climate) Change We Can Believe In”

  1. conventional Texas lawns.

    There was quite a scary story in The New York Times a couple months ago about lawn watering in Midland, Texas. Scary because of just how blinkered these lawn-obsessed people of Texas are. At the time, it hadn’t rained in the area for six months, including the whole winter, and reservoirs were at something like 10% of capacity. The response: a voluntary (no penalties for violators) limitation on watering lawns – to “just” three days a week. Four days a week for football fields, because you mustn’t interfere with the local civic religion. The municipality hoped to reduce water consumption by all of 10%; as most goals are aspirational, we can assume their expectation was for a lesser reduction. That’s the magnitude of response they offer when they’re just about completely dried out.

  2. “Scary because of just how blinkered these lawn-obsessed people of Texas are.”

    What’s irrational about having a nice lawn if the water is cheap. What’s irrational is expecting people to use a cheap resource sparingly.

  3. It’s a problem: we want water to be cheap so people can maintain hygiene (and, of course, drink), but those are far from the only uses of water. And people are making rational decisions when their social status depends on a green lawn, their water bill is low or manageable, and the civic leaders don’t seem to care. But my whole point was that none of those are necessary: the civic leaders could care, and their water bills could rise. Their neighbors could realize that a lush green lawn is a sign of ostentatious wastefulness, not a thing of beauty.

  4. Civic leaders do care. Underpricing government own/controlled resources is another way of buying votes and garnering campaign contributions. And pricing those resources at anywhere market value is a good way to loose the next election.

  5. What he said: Things delivered by government are usually priced rationally, but the rationality has to do with the political interests of the incumbent politicians, and nothing else. That’s the huge challenge for any system of government, creating a system of incentives that force politicians to do the right thing out of a motive to do the politically successful thing. Something the market manages automatically, by allowing people to refuse to purchase a product if they don’t think it’s a good deal.

    The second being, keeping them from altering that system of incentives…

  6. Brett, if you think the market does a good job of pricing things like water or pollution – things that change over very long timescales, that have significant externalities, and where the market incentive is often to use up everything you can as quickly as possible, because your peers are doing so anyway – if you think the market does a good job with resources of that sort, you just haven’t been paying attention.

  7. Brett, it’s market failures that have resulted in the institutional arrangements known in our political system as “common carriers” and “utilities.” I won’t attempt to instruct you, or anyone, in the basics of that very fundamental policy approach. Suffice to say that such market-failing necessities as stormwater control, bridges, turnpikes, mills, houses of accommodation, waterways, and wells have been regulated and managed as public or quasi-public utilities for a very, very, very long time in our Anglo-Saxon political history and within the framework of our Anglo-Saxon legal system.

    A true conservative ought to at least understand the basics of *why we do that* and accept that system and want to protect it from radical proposals for change, based on idealistic notions of how the market “ought” to behave.

  8. Westwood? That is LA right? If I recall correctly that is a semiarid region that imports most if not all its water from far away places. This isn’t even about climate change, really. Even if there were no climate change SoCal isn’t getting any wetter, but it is getting bigger.

    I read that people revolted when Pasadena tried to install water meters. We have water meters here on the shores of the 4th largest body of fresh water in the world. Sometimes I can’t wait for that earthquake…

  9. The rate-setting function can easily take care of the dual need to serve basic household needs (washing, bathing) at a modest price while also favoring reductions in unnecessary usage (lawn watering). It’s a matter of pricing the first X,000 gallons per utility customer at one rate, and additional gallons at a higher rate.

    The differential pricing system is rational, in that it accurately represents the vastly higher capital cost of accommodating the capacity demand for extreme situations (building a zillion-gallon reservoir rather than a quillion-gallon reservoir; and planning for a lawn-watering level of abundance in a 100-year drought event, vs. a 10-year drought event).

    The main obstacle to tiered pricing in many cases is not political, but that the billing software the water utility uses isn’t designed for a tiered rate structure and would take time/money to overhaul …

  10. ^^”The main obstacle to tiered pricing in many cases is not political, but that the billing software the water utility uses isn’t designed for a tiered rate structure and would take time/money to overhaul ”

    Yeah Betsy, it’s waaaay too much to expect the water utility to make a software change. It would cost soooooooo much, be sooooooooo complicated and soooooooo costly…..it’s hardly ever political….!

    It’s a wonder to me how they get my bill delivered every month on time.

  11. I could name a case study or two, if you like. But feel free to enjoy your witty rhetorical flourishes.

  12. I can see this quickly becoming a political issue — you’ll be able to figure out people’s affiliations by what they plant. And city councils will be clogged with proposals to make xeriscaping either mandatory or unlawfull depending on the venue. (I think it was ann arbor where I first heard of a rule limiting grassy-plant height to 18 inches.)

  13. Betsy,

    I’d be interested in your case studies. Speaking without flourishes, I will say that it seems incredible to me that altering the billing software to incorporate tiered pricing is much of a task. It’s been a while since I was a programmer, so maybe I don’t understand the problem, but this change strikes me as maybe a day’s work, if you include testing and implementation.

    Tell me why it’s hard.

  14. Benny Lava I have no idea what you are talking about.

    Pasadena does, indeed, have water meter. It also has a DWP that asks people to conserve water in various ways (some not optional, as in mandatory limits on water use during dry years), and a populace that appears to be complying.
    Of course, in Pasadena like the rest of America, you’d save VASTLY more water by not having children than by all this dicking around at the margins with low-flush toilets, low-flow shower-heads, and choice of lawn plants. But, oh no, we are not supposed to discuss that — better to simply pretend that birth is green and that magical thinking and the appropriate sacrifices to the environment gods will change the laws of nature.

  15. you’d save VASTLY more water by not having children than by all this dicking around at the margins with low-flush toilets, low-flow shower-heads, and choice of lawn plants.

    Word. I = P x A x T

  16. Maynard, one major saving the planet is so it will be there for future generations of humanity.

  17. I hope there is a understanding that it is not only a green lawn that is important to the people of Midland.
    We have also been facing several fires, just by the flicking of a cigarette. I had much rather know my lightly green
    grass kept my house from burning down. Yes there is waste of water from faulty sprinkler systems to swimming pool use. I can still fill a swimming pool on my days to water. Hard decision as to what I want a green lawn or swimming pool filled. The city has decided to fine people up to $2000.00 for not following all the rules. Which I understand is for better control of this situation. But where is this money going? It certainly is not going to buy us more water. What is really sad the water is not worth drinking and most residents in this and surrounding communities buy their drinking water and never complain as their water bills continue to climb. This is a drought and all should have the understanding of saving water in every area. Cut down those hour showers to 15 minutes. Make sure your washing a full load of clothes not two or three items.

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