Altering mortgages to account for climate change threats

A new Federal Reserve report considers how the consequences of climate change might affect mortgages:

The housing market doesn’t yet factor in the risk of climate change, which is already affecting many areas of the U.S., including flood-prone coastal communities, agricultural regions and parts of the country vulnerable to wildfires. In California, for instance, 50,000 homeowners can’t get property or casualty insurance because of the increased risk to their homes.

Yet for now, no mortgage lender, portfolio manager or buyer of mortgages takes into account climate-induced floods, except to determine if a house sits in a 100-year floodplain at the time the mortgage is issued, said Michael Berman, a former official with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and former chairman of the Mortgage Bankers Association.

Once lenders and housing investors do start pricing in such risks, “There may be a threat to the availability of the 30-year mortgage in various vulnerable and highly exposed areas,” Berman wrote in a recent San Francisco Fed report. He predicts lenders could “blue-line” entire regions where flood risks are high — a reference to redlining, the practice of refusing mortgages to minorities…

Said Cleetus: “My biggest fear, honestly, is that the markets will get out ahead of our policies, and we see a situation where property values do start to decline, and small communities that rely on a lot of property tax revenue won’t be able to deal with it.”

It will be interesting to see who (1) pursues this as a competitive advantage and (2) how federal policy plays into this. In a quest to get ahead of the rest of the market, could someone come up with a unique mortgage for areas with more climate change risk? Discussions about whether federal money should be used in places prone to natural disasters has been going for decades (see Hurricane Sandy or discussions about resilient cities).

Much of the article focuses on how the lack of mortgages in certain areas would lead to decreased property values and then a downward spirals as communities would not be able to generate as much tax revenue. This could also work the other way: imagine communities where only the really wealthy can live because they do not need traditional mortgages. They could come in and gobble up real estate with lowered values. Either way, the result could be increased inequality in affected areas.

Mapping vehicle emissions in the Chicago metropolitan region

The New York Times maps and discusses vehicle emissions across American metropolitan areas:

ChicagoVehicleEmissionsMap

Even as the United States has reduced carbon dioxide emissions from its electric grid, largely by switching from coal power to less-polluting natural gas, emissions from transportation have remained stubbornly high.

The bulk of those emissions, nearly 60 percent, come from the country’s 250 million passenger cars, S.U.V.s and pickup trucks, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Freight trucks contribute an additional 23 percent…

Suburban driving, including commuting, has been a major contributor to the expanding carbon footprint of urban areas, Dr. Gately said.

But, he added, “Even in the densest cities, the vast majority of trips still happen in a motor vehicle.” These trips include work commutes, school drop-offs and millions of other daily errands as well as freight deliveries and other business traffic, each of which contribute to planetary warming.

The United States has organized much of its society around driving. Plus, many Americans like driving or the benefits they believe driving offers. It will be hard to enact quick large-scale changes to this though smaller efforts (such as fleets of electric vehicles or denser suburban areas) could add up to change over time.

The data from the Chicago area is interesting. Like most metro areas, the emissions are centered on major highways with some of the areas with most emissions being the Kennedy Expressway, the Dan Ryan Expressway, I-88 at I-294, and I-88 at I-355 (these are likely areas with high levels of congestion and gridlock). From the maps, it is hard to know how much of the emissions come from freight trucks but I would imagine the proportion could be high in the Chicago area given its central location, highways, and intermodal facilities. Chicago ranks 5th in total emissions – behind New York, Los Angeles, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Houston – and the per-person emissions ranks on the low end of metropolitan areas. Although the region is the third largest metropolitan region in the United States, it does have more mass transit than a number of other regions.

Will there be more lawn mowing or less lawn mowing with climate change?

If the climate is changing with some places predicted to receive more rain and some to receive less rain, how will this affect lawn mowing in the United States? A few quick thoughts:

1. If droughts (such as a few years back in California) and high temperatures are more common in certain places, more people could seek alternatives to lawns (looking for less water use or greywater use plus painting lawns or replacing them). Less lawn mowing!

2. If rain is more common elsewhere, this could lead to lusher lawns, the dream of many suburban property owners. More lawn mowing!

3. Producers of grass seed, lawn mowers, and others would have to adjust. This is a sizable industry that could pursue a variety of paths. Still sell the perfect lawn concept in wetter parts of the country while also selling lawn alternatives in drier regions? Selling hardier and less water dependent seeds in drier areas? I assume they already have plans. Perhaps more lawn mowing if people still want lawns and the right products are available?

4. This could affect how Americans regard the lawn. While the nicely kept green grass lawn seems fairly widespread, perhaps it will be a strong norm in some regions with significant variation elsewhere. How much this could affect other areas of homeownership and suburban life is hard to foresee. A wash for overall lawn mowing?

5. The doomsday scenario: perhaps other problems become so pressing that few care about lawn mowing. For example, why mow the lawn when food supplies are limited?

This question came to me after several stretches this year where rain and humidity constant for a few weeks. This required more mowing then and we have not experienced the typical July/August browning of the lawn because of the rainy spells.

Limiting cooling and heating emissions from the largest city buildings

New York City has plans to limit emissions from its skyscrapers:

Point is, 70 percent of NYC emissions come from heating and cooling a million buildings—and a third of that carbon comes from just 50,000 buildings of 25,000 square feet or more. Blame the skyscrapers. Trump Tower is apparently a representative of the 2 percent of very, very bad emitters, for what it’s worth. So one of the new bills tells the owners of those big buildings they have to cut their emissions by 40 percent in 2030, and 80 percent by 2050. That’s a lot. “We have to pay attention. The water is speaking to us. In the last century New York Harbor is up one foot,” says John Mandyck, CEO of the Urban Green Council, which helped design the bill. “There’s no question that this bill sets tough, tough carbon limits. It’s not going to be easy. That’s a reflection of the fact that climate change is a tough issue.”

As to how those buildings get there, their owners have a few paths. They can buy green power, which is really more hopeful than realistic at this point; 70 percent of New York City’s power comes from carbon-emitting fossil fuels. But ideally this option will incentivize a market for wind turbines and hydro power, and in fact another bill in the omnibus aims to pave the way for green rooftops with solar panels. Also the building can work with the city to figure out what kinds of improvements would get emissions down—new boilers, better insulation, new windows, all kinds of new investments that would, not coincidentally, translate to thousands of construction and building-trade jobs in the city. Ey, these boilers ain’t gonna install themselves, knowwutImean?

And in an approach out of Kim Stanley Robinson’s post-climate-flood novel New York 2140 (or maybe the Crimson Permanent Assurance) individual buildings would be able to trade carbon credits. “That’s a real breakthrough policy tool. It’s never been done at this scale at a city level,” Mandyck says. “It’s a flexible tool especially for building owners that own portfolios.” So those folks could trade credits among their own buildings, or form alliances and breakaway archipelagos of skyscraping carbon trade routes.

I would guess that few residents would think about buildings as large sources of carbon. This could be for a variety of reasons: building occupants may rarely notice when the heating or cooling is on (though they may be aware of the temperature); carbon reduction efforts have targeted other sources, such as vehicles; and the percent of carbon emissions in New York in buildings may reflect both the number of large buildings and a region unusually dependent on mass transit.

All that said, it will be interesting to watch how these efforts to alter buildings go. The article says little about how building owners have responded. For many, New York will still be a desirable enough market that leaving over these changes i unlikely. Would it make any property owner or potential owner refocus their attention elsewhere? And buying green power or buying and trading credits could prove popular compared to actually making significant changes to buildings which could be costly and require a lot of time and effort. Finally, could alterations remake or restyle some large buildings and introduce a different aesthetic to one of the most important skylines in the world? Images of future cities tend to show more curvy skyscrapers covered in greenery instead of the glass and steel that dominate New York and other American cities. I’m sure there would be ways to make changes that would not just reduce emissions but also push a new look.

A crowdfunded way to study other researchers in Antarctica

A sociologist is utilizing crowdfunding to go to Antarctica for research:

So far Haeffner has reached about 12 percent of her overall goal. She has raised enough through GoFundMe, a crowdfunding website, to pay the initial deposit of the expedition…

Most of the researchers on the trip will be polar scientists who study ice cores, penguins and climate change. But because Heaffner is a sociologist, she will be studying the other researchers and how they work together.

“I want to collect more data from researchers in different disciplines of what they see are the barriers,” Heaffner said. “Where do they see that social science can play a role in their science and how we can think of other different research questions together to tackle climate change?”

Two quick thoughts:

  1. This sort of research is common within sociology: how do small groups and/or academic disciplines understand their own activities? As we all know from participating in all sorts of social groups, it is easy to simply be within groups and not think much about how they operate. However, bringing in an outsider who can observe and ask good questions could lead to insights that would help the group (particularly task-oriented ones like a team of researchers) move forward.
  2. The main purpose of this article is to point out the use of crowdfunding for research funding. Haeffner is asking for $4,500 and you can read about her goals and donate here. She isn’t asking for a lot of money but she also isn’t promising Kickstarter type returns to those who donate though contributions could be viewed as leading to important research on a current topic. In the long run, I wonder if receiving funding through such sources would be viewed by scientists as more or less freeing.

Miami fights climate change with fees derived from new waterfront condos

Miami can could lose big with the consequences of climate change but in order to fight the consequences, the city needs to approve more oceanfront development:

The more developers build here, the more taxes and fees the city collects to fund a $300-million storm water project to defend the shore against the rising sea. Approval of these luxury homes on what environmentalists warn is global warming quicksand amounts to a high-stakes bet that Miami Beach can, essentially, out-build climate change and protect its $27 billion worth of real estate.

The move makes budgetary sense in a state with no income tax: Much of South Florida’s public infrastructure is supported by property taxes…

By 2020, Miami Beach plans to complete 80 new storm pumps that will collect and banish up to 14,000 gallons of seawater per minute back into Biscayne Bay. Construction started in February. The goal is to reduce sunny day flooding — which frequently invades streets at high tide whether or not it is raining — and prepare the community for future ocean swell…

The $300 million project is ambitious for a city with a $502 million annual budget. A new stormwater utility fee on homeowners, hotels and stores helped Miami Beach save enough money to borrow the first $100 million.

The project started before planners worked out all the funding. It’s unclear how the city will raise the rest. “We don’t have time for analysis-paralysis,” said Levine. We are going to have to get creative.”

It is hard for cities to turn down development when the luxury market is hot. Not only does an overheated housing market attract new residents, a hip reputation, and the interest of developers, it can also generate money for the city through taxes, fees, and increased spending.

Yet, development isn’t simply a game where more equals better. Whether the consequences are flooding or gentrification or a lack of affordable housing, cities tend to approve such projects that bring in money and growth. But, this ignores the bigger picture and the broader consequences that could affect everyone. The money may be pouring in now but what happens if this leads to flooding and a hampered tourist and investor economy for decades to come? What if avoiding the question of affordable housing contributes to other social problems or causes needed workers and citizens to move to other communities? As urban sociologists have asked for decades, who wins when big development takes place? Usually not the normal citizens. Instead, the growth machines – the powerful businesspeople and politicians – tend to profit.

Of course, funding to combat future problems is not easy to obtain. No state income tax in Florida helps contribute to hot housing markets. Should the federal government help pay to alleviate climate change? Should there be state or federal policies that do not allow building such expensive developments right on properties near the ocean (similar questions are raised about floodplains around major rivers)? Cities and other governments have a long way to go in order to figure out this issue.

Thinking about Weber as climate change may be the latest issue to join the culture wars

Michael Gerson discusses why climate change has become one of the hot-button issues in the culture wars:

What explains the recent, bench-clearing climate brawl? A scientific debate has been sucked into a broader national argument about the role of government. Many political liberals have seized on climate disruption as an excuse for policies they supported long before climate science became compelling — greater federal regulation and mandated lifestyle changes. Conservatives have also tended to equate climate science with liberal policies and therefore reject both.

The result is a contest of questioned motives. In the conservative view, the real liberal goal is to undermine free markets and national sovereignty (through international environmental agreements). In the liberal view, the real conservative goal is to conduct a war on science and defend fossil fuel interests. On the margin of each movement, the critique is accurate, supplying partisans with plenty of ammunition.

No cause has been more effectively sabotaged by its political advocates. Climate scientists, in my experience, are generally careful, well-intentioned and confused to be at the center of a global controversy. Investigations of hacked e-mails have revealed evidence of frustration — and perhaps of fudging but not of fraud. It is their political defenders who often discredit their work through hyperbole and arrogance. As environmental writer Michael Shellenberger points out, “The rise in the number of Americans telling pollsters that news of global warming was being exaggerated began virtually concurrently with the release of Al Gore’s movie, ‘An Inconvenient Truth.’”

The resistance of many conservatives to arguments about climate disruption is magnified by class and religion. Tea Party types are predisposed to question self-important elites. Evangelicals have long been suspicious of secular science, which has traditionally been suspicious of religious influence. Among some groups, skepticism about global warming has become a symbol of social identity — the cultural equivalent of a gun rack or an ichthus.

If Gerson is correct, the battle over climate change is simply a proxy battle. In fact, then we could probably assume that other issues will come along that will also become part of the culture wars. The fervor over the climate change issue will lessen at some point and another concern will become a flashpoint.

All of this seems related to what I had one of my classes recently read: Weber’s take on “value-free” or “value-neutral” sociology. This could help explain a few things:

1. Distrust of elites, particularly academics, is part of the issue. One way to fight elites/academics is to simply suggest that they are biased. Weber suggests all scientists have some biases. However, there are ways to do science, such as subjecting your work to others with a scientific mindset, to minimize these biases. As I recently argued, just because one scientist may have committed fraud or because some scientists have clear aims does not mean that all science is suspect.

2. Weber suggests that scientists need to be clear when they are speaking as scientists looking at facts and individuals proposing courses of action. Mixing facts and ideals or policies can lead to issues. In this particular situation, I would guess conservatives think the scientists are not just exploring the scientific facts but are also pushing “an agenda.” Indeed, Gerson ends this piece by suggesting we need to put “some distance between science and ideology.” Of course, plenty of scientists are religious but the (perceived) mixing of facts and goals can be problematic.

3. In writing his piece, Weber was trying to set guidelines for a journal where people of a scientific mindset could debate sociology and facts. It is interesting that Gerson notes that opposition to secular science is now part of the subcultural identity of some religious groups, making it more difficult to have conversations because attacking/defending one’s identity is contentious. If one doesn’t want to debate facts, how can one have a conversation about science?