Why Does Larry Summers Want to Accelerate Climate Change?

Even conservative corporate consultants know that building highways instead of transit could have devastating climate impacts. Why doesn’t Larry Summers?

I’ve never been a huge fan of Greenpeace: although I like much of the work they do, it has always seemed to me that they are more interested in headlines than the slogging work it takes to promote sustainability.

But they had a great idea a few days ago: commission the respected private corporate consulting firm ICF, which no one would ever condemn as a bunch of tree-huggers, to analyze the stimulus proposals for greenhouse gas impacts. In particular, analyze the transportation provisions. What they found was frightening:

Transportation Funding

ICF analyzed the potential impact of $30 billion slated for highway construction under the provision entitled Modernize Roads, Bridges, Transit and Waterways.

Spending all the stimulus money on new highways would have roughly 10-50 times the annual carbon impact of the same money spent on public transportation (light rail) or the repair of existing roads.

In the worse case scenario, new highways would generate over 250 million tons of net additional CO2 emissions over the lifetime of the road. In contrast, public transit projects of the same capacity would generate only 4 million tons of net carbon dioxide over its lifetime. After construction phase related emissions, public transit saves up to 15 million tons over its lifetime.

Maybe Summers sees no reason to protect transit: after all, transit operators did not defraud the United States government of millions of dollars and violate the basic ethical standards in managing Russia’s transition to a “market economy.”

Read Greenpeace’s fact sheet here.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.