Nudges on the House Floor

Two things I’d hoped to write about this quarter are HB 2412 (the “Buy Clean Washington Act”) and Thaler and Sunstein’s “Nudges.” I watched the hearings and read the bill and substitute for HB 2412, and wonder how Nudges might have come into play, both in conversation on the House Floor, and in the bill’s revision (which included dramatic shifts from the original language).

As an overview, HB 2412 is not so much about buying clean things from Washington, but about accounting for clean projects in Washington. HB 2412 initially required all WA State Public Infrastructure Projects to account for the emissions embodied in some materials used for their construction (e.g. wood, concrete, steel) and to select only materials whose emissions are below recommended levels for their category. This is important because embodied emissions have as much impact on our ability to reach climate change goals as operational energy. Even if we approach net-zero operations, at current rates of construction, embodied emissions from new construction materials will likely prevent reversal of climate change.

The primary obstacle to this bill is tied to status-quo bias. Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), the process for emissions accounting, takes a level of initiative that many materials manufacturers have yet to demonstrate. HB 2412 requires that state infrastructure projects use only materials that have gone this process, and lobbyists showed up in force. To qualify their products, manufacturers would have to hire a verified 3rd party to calculate the emissions embodied in each of their products, establishing Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) labels for each. Meanwhile, someone working for the State would need to be aware of Product Category Rules (PCR’s) for each material they elect to use, so that they could select products whose EPD’s comply with the maximum allowed PCR allowable for that material type. The learning curve for LCA is steeper and more time-intensive to engage than an acronym-filled paragraph, and in reality, many manufacturers just don’t want to do it.

Anchoring and availability heuristics contributed to the idea that EPD acquisition is burdensome.  At HB 2412’s initial hearing, a National Ready-mix Concrete Association lobbyist claimed that there were “just too many” different mixes that there is “no way” to keep track of them. This generalization was later contradicted by an architect who testified that their firm had elected to use only products with EPD’s on one single project, and as a result, dozens of materials manufacturers established EPD’s to make their products eligible for use. While it is fully possible for companies to participate in an LCA process when incentivized to do so, the idea that calculation is “too hard” seemed easier for many Representatives to accept. Availability heuristics may have influenced industry-sympathetic Representatives to avoid the risk of placing unnecessary burden on WA businesses.

The conversation above veiled underlying obstacles to EPD-based materials vetting, including the need for manufacturers to better track and standardize their products in the first place so that those products could be evaluated, and the need for manufacturers to improve their manufacturing efficiency to reduce ecological impacts. These topics were avoided by both sides. I suspect that those sponsoring the bill may have let this avoidance happen, leveraging anchoring and availability heuristics in their favor to present the bill as one that will help WA business. Statements were made to the effect of: “Washington has the cleanest companies around; they should be rewarded for this effort, yet instead our public infrastructure projects are importing materials from China.” In reality, some products coming from China will remain quite competitive if EPD’s are established, because opportunity for efficiency gain in some materials is highest in production, rather than in shipping. This means that WA companies will have to improve their production efficiency to be competitive in addition to undergoing LCA, but this was not discussed.

The representative heuristic both hampered HB 2412 and allowed the substitute bill to pass. Those who disagree with projections about climate change and feel that environmental concerns are hypothetical were not convinced. Those same parties, however, were willing believe that a sustainability bill would favor WA business, based on projections about the green market being “hot” and the idea that US manufacturers are just more “innovative.” Ultimately, those some Representatives who were not convinced about climate change were convinced that Washington’s companies might benefit from sustainability incentives. The bill’s sponsors seemed aware of this “in,” as the eventual substitute bill was stricken of all language related to climate change;  this was replaced with language about helping WA business.

Herd mentality was harder for sponsors to garner; all parties needed more information before anyone would get on the bandwagon. Those already concerned about climate change needed to understand the relevance of embodied carbon, and those concerned about Washington business needed to see that potential for regional profits and benefits to worker health. All wanted to see the bill working in California, as well as case studies here, before getting on board, and the substitute bill was reduced to apply to a few test-projects. After changes in language and scope, accompanied by a robust bipartisan conversation, the substitute bill “be substituted” and “do pass” (why do they still use this kind of language?). Although the HB 2412 has since been tabled, I was impressed to see educated dialogue from many perspectives around this initiative. Hopefully the nudges above will apply in a more informed way the next time such a proposal comes around.



Opinions & the Hype-Cycle

Last Saturday I submitted my third op-ed to the Seattle Times, and received a response:

“Thank you for offering this for our consideration. As you probably know, we get dozens of submissions a week and can only print a fraction of them. Respectfully, I am going to pass on this one. Another option to consider would be to condense this to a 200-word Letter to the Editor and then send it to:….”

Even getting a response is a good sign, so, for the third time, I trimmed my point to 200 words and re-submitted it as a letter to the editor. Whether it gets published or not, I’ve learned valuable things from this process: About the news, the energy that it takes to engage with policy and current events, and even about my own public-opinion writing style.

The Seattle Times is both a fantastic and frustrating resource. I appreciate their coverage on the current legislative session, and that they tie legislation to regional impacts. Our State is engaged with timely and relevant issues, and has robust debate this session around things like Carbon tax, habitat protection, and gun reform. The Times’s comment section is even engaged and informed (mostly), demonstrating that the news is not just a channel. It is also a research source, outlet for expression, and a community.

Something that frustrates me about the Times is the speed at which topics change. A cycle of issues are hyped and then tabled until something brings them up again. Engaging this is like a game of whack-a-mole. I never know how long current topics will be featured or what will show up next. This rotation is challenging to engage as a writer, as responses need to be informed and nimble. Each op-ed took me at least a day to research and write. This was a huge, yet addictive, time investment. The fact that they didn’t print my submissions required me to be persistent, which made my learning process richer.

I learned that public-opinion writing is, for me, different from my actual “opinion.” In class or in-person groups, I feel free to take a stance and express strong opinions, because I know that my ideas are a part of a conversation that I can continue to engage. As a group facilitator, or public writer, I tend to filter my ideas. In the case of writing for the Times, I felt compelled to respond with systems-oriented perspectives. In part, this is because the Times already has a progressive liberal bent, and (with some exceptions) tends to publish pieces that catch attention or examine initiatives as though they could be unilateral successes or failures. Strategic combinations of initiatives are largely missing from the news.

After this month, I’ll continue to read the Seattle Times, but may not submit op-eds unless I really have something to add. While I’ve gained respect for the Times as a source of information, I worry that the news, and our legislature itself, may be handicapped by the hype of being pulled in so many directions at once, as well as the format of bills, which often have to operate as standalone measures. I wish that government and news sources could explore an issue or problem, consider its context and stakeholders, and look for sets of interventions that respond to the reality of our interconnected system.

Knowledge is power. It is important to be connected to the pulse of what’s going on in our region, however, the way we use knowledge matters just as much as having it, and I hope for opportunities to move beyond reaction and thinking-forward as I continue to learn and as I carry out my life’s work.

Costing Carbon & Measuring Success

A Feb 5th editorial in the Seattle Times, Lawmakers should push forward on carbon-tax plan, described a mindful effort by legislators to establish responsible accounting methods for carbon impacts through SB 6203’s proposed tax. The article also addresses concerns of some who say that a carbon tax “won’t work.” On Feb 22, a substitute version of this bill was passed and sent back to committee, which is where it sits today.

After years of speculation on similar proposals that failed to pass, I wonder: How can we project the potential ‘success’ of any carbon tax?

From my perspective, if the 2018 session can pass an equitable carbon tax supported by our Legislature and Gov. Inslee, who supports the current initiative, that alone will be a major success. In the long-term, however, the efficacy of a carbon tax can’t be assessed solely in its ability to reduce emissions. The tax is not a magic bullet, but an effort to measure and ameliorate the impacts of industry, inefficient operational energy use, and new construction.

In Jay Talton’s article The cost of carbon: Pay now or pay later, he writes: “doing nothing will cost more than doing something.” We continue to build at an unprecedented rate, and emissions levels are a complex symptom of many factors. Whether gross emissions rise, level-out, or decrease, a carbon tax will be successful if it assigns value to natural resources and creates a funding stream to reduce the burden of emissions on the ecology that we share.

SB 6203 may or may not help our state meet emissions reduction goals, incentivize efficiency, or drive market innovation on its own. However, the proposed tax has plenty of potential to do these things alongside a body of new and existing initiatives. Carbon tax: Taking the lead and other recent news pieces recognize this potential, calling for complementary policies and a holistic approach alongside a carbon tax.

In the past decade, our state has taken incredible strides in setting best-practice ecology accounting precedents: Washington industry has increased recycling capacity. Products with Environmental Product Declarations are increasing exponentially (EPD’s are a way of accounting for emissions of their product’s life cycles and supply chains). Our region has been globally recognized for initiatives like Seattle’s Sustainable Buildings and Sites policy and Living Building Pilot project.  A network of public and private ecological restoration efforts continually steward our magnificent waterways, forests, and wildlife corridors.

No initiative stands alone, and these examples demonstrate that our state is capable of collaborative action. A carbon tax, alongside improvements to existing programs and emerging bipartisan efforts like HB 2412 and HB 2407 (which address embodied carbon in public and infrastructure projects), will increase Washington’s capacity to reduce operational and embodied emissions while developing a robust and flexible set of tools to address climate change. This multifaceted capacity is a true measure of success.

*I submitted a 240-word version of the above opinion to the Seattle Times last week. Since they didn’t publish it, I’ve updated and shared it here. While it is hard to get opinions published, it has been valuable to practice writing letters, and to research upcoming bills in conjunction with our class’s readings!

Rise with the Tide

“The Economics of Urban Grain,” an interview with Liz Dunn, is an intriguing juxtaposition to Glaeser’s “What’s So Great About Skyscrapers?” Glaeser’s article challenged some of my assumptions about height and density, yet the piece illustrates a particular history of building vertically that seems to serve his own perspective. I find myself more in line with Dunn’s observations, which also place value on a bigger picture and specific perspective, yet consider the value of things like of embodied carbon and energy used by new construction and the value of granularity. At the end of the day, I appreciate that each Dunn, Glaeser, and Hurd and Hurd (in “The Carbon Effcient City” Chapters 5-7) underscores a need to consider both qualitative and quantitative impacts alongside systems oriented implications in any design.

While I’ve been a long-time advocate of justice issues, a major breakthrough for me came in 2012, when I began to learn about “regenerative design” and the work of the International Living Futures Institute.  These were game-changers for me. In art school I was taught about the ancient debate between quality of materials vs accessibility / affordability for the masses. This dichotomy was reinforced in urban community activism, where I often found it difficult to convince peers of the value of things like organic food and locally-produced goods (not just local shops, but paying for a specific person’s actual time and the real cost of materials). The primary challenge here is definitely related to causality and correlation. Some fellow activists associated quality, and quality’s often high prices, with an elite class.  They expressed that if “we” (activists, designers, etc.)  were working alongside a others who were struggling to get by, that we should be living at a similar level of access. There was also a projection of locally made and organic goods and sustainable materials/stems as being bourgeois and hipster, which were (rightfully) perceived as gentrifying forces.

The problem for me with the above associations is the underlying reality that “all ships must rise with the tide.” How are we to get out of cycles of oppression by purchasing food, goods, and building materials from the same entities that contribute to inequity in production and employee treatment, and to other deeply unhealthy outcomes (physical outcomes from food, worker conditions, and off gassing or poison from materials)? Even in small student groups, is still a challenge advocate for things like Living Buildings and high quality local production in the face of urgent issues like a housing crisis. In light of this, I greatly appreciate the perspectives in this week’s readings, which affirm making long-term and systems oriented choices alongside our work toward equitable change.

Increment, Innovation, Investment, & Conflation

“Affordability in cities” is a long-term and ever-evolving topic of interest for me. However, my ideas of housing, home, and affordability diverge from cultural norms. In the seven years prior to moving to WA, I lived in co-housing experiments in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia, PA, which at that time had more abandoned houses than homeless people. Alongside 4-9 housemates, I limited my workload and income to prioritize positive engagement with the neighborhood. We kept rent low by capitalizing on creativity.

Eventually, I was able to buy my own home as well as the abandoned one next door, continuing to share the space and costs with friends. We shared quality of life through a high level of engagement with one another and our community. However, the neighborhood as a whole suffered, and continues to suffer, due not to lack of housing, but to dislocation of jobs, lack of investment, systematic oppression, and bias/misinformation re: addiction and homelessness. One mile to the south, the city is experiencing a level of gentrification and transformation that rivals urban renewal, but the buildings needn’t be razed. Urban infill and newcomers out price renters without demolishing the brick and mortar fabric that gives the neighborhood “character.”

Here in Seattle we see the impacts of rapid and exponential inflation. Yes, lack of housing is a problem, yet I believe that it is a systemic symptom bigger than a supply and demand equation. The analyses from readings this week examine angles which extend beyond the “build more, and things will level out” mantra. For example: I certainly relate to Hurd & Hurd’s revaluing of scale and patterns of use. (In moving to Seattle, I downsized from a 1920’s row house to a 1980’s sailboat home, which as taught me a lot about need, use, and scale.) Sucher’s points about the scalability of the triplex as a clear way to add 30,000 + units to our city are well-written and clear, and Dougherty’s essay is spot-on in noting the oddity of associating increased housing costs with recovery while these same increases create a situation where the much of the populace cannot afford to buy a home.

Despite good suggestions, disconnect remains between many approaches and solutions to housing. Perhaps because I’ve learned that a mortgage can be cheaper than rent, and have lived in and cared for existing infrastructure, my confidence in the rental market and redevelopment is reduced.  Aren’t these setups respectively doomed to keep renters renting and exponentially increase embodied carbon spent on new buildings? It seems to me that calls to move away from the “American Dream” of home-ownership are suspect of propaganda, conflating the need to re-imagine single family housing with models that promote rental of housing. In Norway, Sweden, Finland, and other countries, home or condo ownership is a norm, rather than a dream. In Philly’s yet-to-be redeveloped neighborhoods, getting a fixed-rate mortgage with FHA’s 3.5% down would be  quite achievable dream for most families with a nudge of assistance. More radically, if more priority were given to co-housing, land trusts, condos, and other alternative ownership models, perhaps we could focus more on innovation through incremental investment, and less on solving the very problems that our solutions continually support.

Story and Statistic

Societal shifts, such as the move from rural to urban living within the time-frame of an average lifespan, demonstrate that humans have potential to impact great change in a short amount of time, often before fully understanding the impacts of that change.

Last spring, I participated in the McKinley Futures Studio at UW, which projected visions of the city of Seattle one hundred years into the future. During a review of our work, a discussion began about  technology and VR. Instead of imagining a dystopian future, one of the reviewers noted that humans evolve more slowly than we innovate. He posited that society will retain an essence of “humanity” as we know it, regardless of what options we may invent to shift our interpretations of reality in the future.

This is relevant to our readings this week, particularly in thinking about “frameworks” and “goals/paradigms.” I’ve studied these concepts previously through systems-thinking, but had not considered these as two categories for points of leverage. My impression is that “frameworks” need to operate in conjunction with “goals/paradigms” to gain traction. While there is great need for innovation in measurement, standard, and policy, this innovation must co-evolve with societal values to have the greatest impact.

Increasing public interest in climate change is a great example of this. Now that measurements have been developed to convey information about shifting temperatures and emissions levels, standards are better able to offer paths forward. However, the power of goal/paradigm must join with this framework-based approach to garner popular support, which in turn influences business and policy. The story of hotel chains moving from their own standards to LEED because of customer familiarity (Carbon Efficient City 22) is one example of popular understanding working alongside measurement to influence greater change.

Currently, the work of documentarians like James Balog (Chasing Ice), Paul Nicklen and Cristina Mittermeier (Sea Legacy), and even companies like Patagonia (Damnation) are joining the conversation with scientists, researchers, and standards-developers like USGBC and ILFI. Together, these groups change frameworks in measurable ways, define paths forward, influence markets, and propose policy change. These actors demonstrate the power of framework and paradigm to affect systems by helping society identify with the impacts of our actions so that we can advocate for better paths forward.