Nobody in their right mind can downplay the unfolding disaster of the climate emergency now that global evidence has, unfortunately, become overwhelming. But there’s still plenty of room for debate about how we should react.
A perfect example occurred at the Concord City Council last week on issues of vastly different scale. The setting was a pair of public hearings: one on the proposed expansion of the highway that divides Concord in two, the other on Beaver Meadow golf course’s wish to buy a dozen used golf carts.
The connection between the proposed widening of I-93 and climate change is obvious but the connection with golfers zipping around the back 9 might not be, so let’s start with Beaver Meadow.
According to a report given to the council by Deputy City Manager Brian LeBrun, the city-owned golf course has 60 electric golf carts on a 3-year lease. They are used by daily golfers and also for group golf outings that are used as fund-raisers for many non-profits.
Changes in habits produced by the pandemic has brought out more golfers and there are times that the course runs short of carts, especially when 100 or more people come to an outing. This cuts into a non-profit’s ability to raise money and the golf course’s ability to make income.
But the boost in golfers and constraints on production caused by the global pandemic have made it impossible to lease the 10 to 14 new carts that Beaver Meadow needs, LeBrun wrote. Instead, he asked permission to spend $45,000 from the Golf Fund to buy used ones.
The problem? They will all be gasoline-powered. Apparently the boom in interest that means you have to wait six months for an electric car has resulted in shortages of electric golf carts, too.
“Electric’s not available. We buy electric if we can buy electric,” City Manager Thomas Aspell told the council when people asked about this.
Small gasoline engines are terrible for the environment, generating vastly more greenhouse gas and other pollutants per pound than your car engine. Bringing a dozen of these stinkpots into Concord, a city which has loudly proclaimed its desire to cut all emissions, stuck in the craw of some folks.
“We’re professing to have a goal to be carbon-neutral and here we are buying gas golf carts,” said Roland Berube, who arrived for the hearing on I-93 and knew nothing in advance about the golf course. “OK, it’s convenient; we can easily get gas golf carts now … But if we’re really serious about our goal to be carbon neutral I think we should be putting more effort into attempting to be carbon-neutral.”
He agreed that a dozen gas-powered carts would be less than a drop in the bucket of Concord’s emissions – more like a molecule in the bucket. “But we have to start somewhere. … We’re not meeting a need that’s critical, it’s more of a nice-to-have. … Are we really committed to preserving the world our children are going to end up with, or did we vote for that goal just to have a piece of paper we can wave around?”
As a side note, I agree with him and would go further: Electrifying all the city’s gas-powered landscaping equipment used by Parks and Recreation and other departments, including the massive riding mowers that spent the summer giving buzz cuts to Beaver Meadow greens, would be a useful way to back up Concord’s noble climate sentiments. Plus, they’re a whole lot quieter.
In the city council’s discussion about the carts a couple councilors echoed concerns from Berube and another speaker, as well as bringing up the recurring Concord question of public golf vs. public swimming, but the group eventually voted to allow the purchase. The benefit to non-profits and the Beaver Meadow’s bottom line outweighed the drawbacks for the global environment.
That same weighting shows up in the question of whether to spend boatloads of federal money to widen I-93 through Concord and tweak the first exit on I-89.
I have argued, as did several speakers at last week’s public hearing, that we shouldn’t spend a quarter-billion dollars to lay down 23 acres of pavement merely to make it slightly more convenient for people in cars to go hither and thither. That is yesterday’s approach to shaping our world. If we want to have livable tomorrows, we can’t keep doing it.
Instead, we should spend the money on different ways to get around, including changing the city so getting around inside your own personal machine isn’t always the default.
On the other hand, highway traffic is horrible through Concord on many afternoons and it takes forever to get through those clumped-up stoplights around Exit 14 and it’s nerve-wracking trying to merge at the crazy Bow interchange on I-89. Many people argue that improving those problems is worth the relatively small addition to global climate pollution that the expansion would entail.
I suspect those people will win in the end. Giving top priority to auto movement has been America’s habit for a century, ever since Dwight Eisenhower’s 1919 cross-country trip laid the intellectual groundwork for what became the interstate highway system.
The accelerating decay of the climate should be enough to change that thinking but it isn’t. Why not? Because deep down, most of us still think that the destruction of the ecosystem isn’t really going to affect us, at least not enough to require big changes in our lives.
“Us” includes me. I realize that floods, droughts, storms, sea level rise and ocean acidification are altering the globe at alarming speed and yet I still drive m y greenhouse-gas car to get some screws at the hardware store because walking 40 minutes each way is a real pain. It doesn’t make that much of a difference and I needed the screws and it’s cold outside, I mumble before changing the subject.
Increasingly, the climate emergency is a subject that we can’t change. But that doesn’t make it any easier to decide what we should do now.