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Per Capita Davis: Put it on the table and put a price on it

By From page A4 | March 20, 2014

A headline in the news recently read: “Lack of water will raise Roseville rates.”

The headline says Roseville, but it could be Anytown, USA. The point is that people are going to have to pay more for water and, as a result, will use less of it. This type of rate hike is commonplace in times of drought. It’s just a fact that people pay more attention and are willing to change their behavior when “please be more efficient” turns into “you’ll have to pay more if you aren’t more efficient.” Apparently, in Roseville a “price signal” will replace the request for a voluntary 20-percent reduction that has not made a dent in water consumption.

Which is why it’s such a brain-numbing mystery when science says putting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere will cause dire environmental and economic consequences but many political pundits assert that a tax on carbon is “off the table” as a policy to reduce carbon emissions. It’s probably not so far off the mark to say that some folks who are virulently anti-tax are opposed to even admitting that climate change is a real and present danger because doing so would make it hard to oppose a tax on carbon. It also may be why at least some of these deniers have successfully turned the “cap and trade” free market approach to controlling greenhouse gas emissions into “cap and tax.” People (voters) seem to respond to the “watch your wallet” approach to belittling government programs, no matter how sound, cost-effective and important to the future they might be.

It’s the apparent surrender implicit in the phrase “it’s off the table” that surprises me. I’ve worked enough in a political environment to know that judgments have to be made but I also know that change doesn’t happen by itself, that it takes political courage to develop a consensus around what might at the moment appear to be an unpopular policy but which is critical to the future. Along these lines, I was impressed by the members of the congress who pulled an all-nighter, with speech after speech from member after member on the importance of climate change as an issue in upcoming elections.

Thus far, those who, for whatever reason, deny that climate change is happening and humans are the cause of it have been successful in creating doubt in the public’s mind, thusly creating the political climate (so to speak) where sensible policies are “off the table.” Notwithstanding this political “wisdom” there are several efforts underway to put climate change “on the table” and make climate change an issue in upcoming elections. People like Tom Steyer, principal backer of California’s Prop 39 that directs a half a billion dollars a year to efforts in California schools to reduce energy consumption are committing substantial sums to make sure climate change is one of the issues candidates discuss.

Hopefully, over time, these discussions will bear fruit. I mean, really, we as citizens are being asked to not flush our toilets (“if it’s yellow, it’s mellow”) to conserve water but we can’t ask greenhouse gas emitters to pay for their greenhouse gas emissions?

Speaking of water, did you know that keeping the average lawn green and lush requires almost 25,000 gallons of water a year and an estimated 40 percent of this is lost to evaporation? Let’s see, 40 percent of 25,000 is about 10,000 gallons a year. At 1.6 gallons a flush, it would require 6,250 flushes, about 20 per day, to lose an equivalent amount of water, yet most articles about what homeowners can do to conserve water start off talking about the toilet.

And, it turns out, counterintuitively to me at least, according to a team of drought experts the average swimming pool (uncovered, no leaks) actually uses only about 80 percent of what it takes to water an average lawn over the course of a year. If you throw in conscientious use of a pool cover, evaporation from the backyard pool can actually be reduced by up to 90 percent. Of course, it’s not all about water. A lawn doesn’t need to be heated in the winter.

An interesting sidebar: Consider the different meanings the word “table” can have for policy makers. There is, as above, the phrase “off the table” which means the issue in question is deemed to not have enough support to even spend time talking about it. In this instance, apparently, governing bodies are so busy with important matters they can’t waste time talking about things they determine are doomed to fail (sarcasm intended) no matter how important these issues might be. Also in the halls of the various legislatures is the term “tabling” a bill. Originally meant to indicate putting a bill on a table as a first step towards discussion and a decision, in the U.S. it has come to mean ending discussion. On the table or off the table — both end in the same place — little gets done.

— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis, an admitted water waster and actively engaged in a serious attempt to reduce household water usage by a minimum of 20 percent, primarily through altering water used for landscaping. This column appears the first and third Thursday of each month. Please send comments to [email protected]

John Mott-Smith

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