Opinion: No gas stations? Is this the future?

The story of climate change is one of gloom and doom. We hear forecasts about melting icebergs, rising ocean levels, disappearing islands, inundated coastal areas, endless drought in some areas, and overflowing rivers in others. Science tells us that these events will occur, many of them by 2050, all of them by the end of the century. But we can delay or prevent them by adhering to a number of international agreements, particularly those limiting the emission of greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide.

Early success

Some people question whether we can ever effect the change that is required to limit or, perhaps, put an end to the emission of greenhouse gases. In fact, we’ve already demonstrated our ability to make needed changes to the atmosphere.

In 1974, scientists at UC Irvine discovered that the ozone layer, which protects us from harmful ultraviolet rays, was threatened by the accumulation of chlorine monoxide in the earth’s upper atmosphere. Chlorine monoxide is a byproduct of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which were used as propellants in spray cans. They were also a byproduct of refrigerants, industrial solvents, and plastic foams.

As predicted, the continued use of CFCs produced a huge hole in the ozone layer over the south pole, where atmospheric conditions caused them to collect. In 1987, the U.S. and other industrial countries signed the Montreal Protocol, agreeing to halt the use of the destructive chemical. Still, by 2000, the hole had grown to 7.6 million square miles as CO2 that was in the air gradually worked its way to the polar collection point. But, since then, it has been shrinking, and in 2017 it was 3.9 million square miles less than it was at the turn of the century. And it is still shrinking.

Carbon dioxide

The story of the ozone layer proves that we can change environmental outcomes with cooperative and concerted effort. While a number of sources of environmental degradation are cited in documents like the Kyoto Protocols (1997) and the Paris Agreements (2015), the biggest challenge seems to be containing and then decreasing the production of carbon dioxide (CO2). A typical internal-combustion-driven automobile emits about 4.6 metric tons of CO2 per year. According to USA Facts, the transportation sector of the economy is responsible for 28.2 percent of all U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions.

By contrast, all-electric automobiles emit no CO2, however the gas is produced to manufacture the vehicles and the batteries that they require. But new technologies are developing and being put into use to limit or contain carbon dioxide. In 2018, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) determined that, to escape the worst consequences of global warming, we will have to decrease our production of greenhouse gases (particularly CO2 and methane) by 45 percent from its current level by 2030 and virtually eliminate them by 2050.

The Petaluma solution

About halfway between San Francisco and Santa Rosa, there is the city of Petaluma, about the same size as Madera in population, but its average household income is $118,520. The median value of a house there is $633,900, and the poverty rate is only 6.7 percent. All figures are significantly better than those for Madera or most Central Valley communities. And perhaps that gives the people more latitude for making dramatic changes.

Yet, like Madera, Petaluma is facing a “water emergency,” having experienced all four of the state’s severe droughts during the past two decades. In the last seven years, it has also experienced five of the 13 most destructive wildfires in California’s history. But, while Petaluma struggled with those problems, it became the nation’s first city to ban the construction of new gas stations and pumps.

This unprecedented action started back in 2013 when Safeway Stores proposed a 16-pump discount gas station outside one on its stores, a pattern that has been popular at Costco. Almost immediately, the Coalition Opposing New Gas Stations (CONGAS) pointed out that Safeway was close to a school. One of the thousands of quirks in California law is that you can’t build a school near a gas station, but there is nothing in the law to prevent a gas station from being built near a school.

So, local officials passed a temporary moratorium on new gas stations. This gave environmental groups time to study the situation and build a case against the Safeway proposal.

It was found that Petaluma had 16 gas stations, more than one per square mile. Petaluma also had other transportation options, including biking and walking because of its flat topography. Writing for Treehugger, Josh Marcus cites the following statement from city councilwoman D’Lynda Fischer, “We had essentially a saturation.” She added, “It was a combination of the political shift on the council and the work of the community with our climate goals that led to the ordinance that we passed.”

Wildfire as a catalyst

In assessing Petaluma’s “climate crisis,” Mayor Teresa Barret said, “The fires have just been a game-changer.” Because wildfires destroyed trees and their root systems that hold back water, rain caused floods in the city in areas that had never experienced them before. Local leaders believe that the climate crisis is impossible to ignore because of a “near-constant state of record-breaking, global warming-inflected fire, rain, and drought.”

Woody Hastings, a local activist, said, “What in the hell does a climate emergency mean if it doesn’t mean you’re going to stop digging the hole that you’re in. It means stop building new gas stations, new fossil fuel infrastructure.”

Infrastructure and regional planning are essential parts of the climate agenda. According to the Sonoma County Regional Climate Protection Authority, transportation accounts for roughly 60 percent of the county’s greenhouse gas emissions. So, a general plan developed by Petaluma factors in climate change at every step.

Josh Marcus writes, “The city has a history of taking big stances on planning. In the 1970s its mayor took a case all the way to the US Supreme Court in a fight over limiting sprawl, and in 1998, Petaluma became one of the first cities to adopt an urban growth boundary.” Such actions may be harbingers of our future.

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Jim Glynn is Professor Emeritus of Sociology. He may be contacted at j_glynn@att.net.