SANF September 2009 : Page 54

Danger ahead As scientific models predict the Embarcadero will be underwater by 2100, Gavin Newsomis running for governor under the banner of San Francisco’s pioneering attempts to stem the tide. But six months of shadowing themayor’s climate-change czar, Wade Crowfoot, reveals that being truly green is still politically risky. By chriS Smith IllustratIon by andrew archer Such is the current character of San Francisco that it’s possible to construct a social schedule composed almost entirely of “eco-drinks” mixers, a latter-day cultural marker that combines earnest environmental talk, a full bar, and a certain amount of networking and/or cruising, depending on your interests. Sometimes there are DJs spinning house music; sometimes there’s a group circle in which everyone joins hands and declares what he or she is passion - ate about; sometimes people just get drunk. In past years, Gavin Newsom would have been the “get” that event organizers dreamed of. But as the mayor’s gubernatorial campaign picked up speed, the guest of honor, until recently, was more often a 36-year-old, preternaturally affable policy wonk named Wade Crowfoot, the mayor’s director of climate protection initiatives. For six months, I followed Crowfoot around in an effort to appraise his boss’s eco-ambitions and find out what it takes for one city to make a difference on something as epic as global warming. In many ways, Crowfoot was the ideal guy for the job. Despite his young age, he was a consummate city insider, al most laughably well connected, who occupied a coveted space at the nexus of green policy and San Francisco politics. Also, it didn’t hurt that he elicited the same reaction, from members of both sexes, as his boss does. When he arrived for a meeting one day, a woman standing next to me exclaimed, “Ooh, he’s cute.” (Crowfoot is happily—and newly—married.) One recent evening at the Americano, a sleek hotel bar on the Embarcadero that typically draws a bridge and tunnel–ish crowd, Crowfoot gave a speech about the “green wave” headed toward us. As both a politician and an ardent environmentalist, he is comfortable speaking for long stretches in the future tense, and the speech was hopeful—a call to action. “This is our shot,” he said. Afterward, he was mobbed. Some of his suitors, mindful of his proximity to power and glory, were seeking a political hookup. Others were just happy to be there. A young guy with a shaved head waited a solid 20 minutes to thank Crowfoot for speaking at a San Francisco State event more than a year ago. “You inspired me, bro,” the guy said, pump- ing Crowfoot’s hand. As Newsom’s green doppelgänger, Crowfoot was charged with overseeing dozens of envi- ronmental projects, from tidal-power experiments to Sunday car-free mornings to efforts to render office buildings more energy efficient. He has degrees in environmental policy and political science, a résumé bursting with influential employers—among them polling guru 54 San FranciSco september 2009 reporter’snotebook

Reporter's Notebook

Danger ahead<br /> <br /> As scientific models predict the Embarcadero will be underwater by 2100, Gavin Newsom is running for governor under the banner of San Francisco’s pioneering attempts to stem the tide. But six months of shadowing the mayor’s climate-change czar, Wade Crowfoot, reveals that being truly green is still politically risky.<br /> <br /> By chriS Smith IllustratIon by andrew archer<br /> <br /> Such is the current character of San Francisco that it’s possible to construct a social schedule composed almost entirely of “eco-drinks” mixers, a latter-day cultural marker that combines earnest environmental talk, a full bar, and a certain amount of networking and/or cruising, depending on your interests. Sometimes there are Djs spinning house music; sometimes there’s a group circle in which everyone joins hands and declares what he or she is passion - ate about; sometimes people just get drunk.<br /> <br /> In past years, Gavin Newsom would have been the “get” that event organizers dreamed of. But as the mayor’s gubernatorial campaign picked up speed, the guest of honor, until recently, was more often a 36-year-old, preternaturally affable policy wonk named Wade Crowfoot, the mayor’s director of climate protection initiatives. For six months, I followed Crowfoot around in an effort to appraise his boss’s eco-ambitions and find out what it takes for one city to make a difference on something as epic as global warming. In many ways, Crowfoot was the ideal guy for the job. Despite his young age, he was a consummate city insider, al most laughably well connected, who occupied a coveted space at the nexus of green policy and San Francisco politics. Also, it didn’t hurt that he elicited the same reaction, from members of both sexes, as his boss does. When he arrived for a meeting one day, a woman standing next to me exclaimed, “Ooh, he’s cute.” (Crowfoot is happily—and newly—married.)<br /> <br /> One recent evening at the Americano, a sleek hotel bar on the Embarcadero that typically draws a bridge and tunnel–ish crowd, Crowfoot gave a speech about the “green wave” headed toward us. As both a politician and an ardent environmentalist, he is comfortable speaking for long stretches in the future tense, and the speech was hopeful—a call to action. “This is our shot,” he said. Afterward, he was mobbed. Some of his suitors, mindful of his proximity to power and glory, were seeking a political hookup. Others were just happy to be there. A young guy with a shaved head waited a solid 20 minutes to thank Crowfoot for speaking at a San Francisco State event more than a year ago. “You inspired me, bro,” the guy said, pumping Crowfoot’s hand.<br /> <br /> As Newsom’s green doppelgänger, Crowfoot was charged with overseeing dozens of environmental projects, from tidal-power experiments to Sunday car-free mornings to efforts to render office buildings more energy efficient. He has degrees in environmental policy and political science, a résumé bursting with influential employers—among them polling guru David Binder and the urban-research think tank SPUR—and a 10-year history in city politics. When I first met Crowfoot (who is of English ancestry, despite his Native American–sounding name), he showed me a two-and-a-half-page list of projects he was working on. His brief was to stitch these disparate strands into a coherent whole and, in the process, make San Francisco a carbon-neutral model for other cities.<br /> <br /> It’s a compelling vision. As in Copenhagen, people would ride bikes, walk, or take public transit, slashing the roughly half of our carbon emissions that comes from vehicles. Neighborhoods would be Manhattandense, with most people working either in the city or near BART and Caltrain stations on the Peninsula or in the East Bay. Our homes and offices—which currently account for 35 percent of our carbon footprint—would be vastly more energy efficient, regulated by smart meters we’d control by cell phone and powered by a mix of, say, solar, wind, and hydropower. And we’d recycle or compost almost everything, whittling down the 18 percent of our emissions that now come from waste (for example, recycling your water bottle offsets the emissions generated by its manufacture).<br /> <br /> San Francisco can certainly point to some unvarnished successes in service of this green future: the enactment of some of the nation’s strictest greenbuilding standards, for instance, which mandate stringent water and energy conservation in new buildings; the steady increase in San Francisco’s highest-in-thenation recycling rate, now 72 percent (compared with Seattle’s 50 percent); and a new financing program that promises to finally make solar power and energyefficiency retrofits affordable. As of yet, there’s no reliable national system for measuring communitywide emissions, but San Francisco can justifiably claim that when it comes to reducing greenhouse gases, no major American city is doing better.<br /> <br /> But all that really means is that we’re failing less badly than anybody else. In 2004, Newsom’s first year as mayor, San Franciso adopted the ambitious Climate Action Plan, which calls for a 20 percent reduction in carbon emissions below 1990 levels by 2012. Five years later, we’re closer to 7 percent below, and there’s no way we’re going to hit that 2012 target. The goals set by state policymakers—80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050— read like pure fantasy, bedtime stories for climate scientists.<br /> <br /> It hasn’t been hard to find people who are skeptical of the mayor’s efforts. Says John Rizzo, political chair of the Sierra Club’s local chapter, “They’ve done a few things here, a few things there, but it’s mostly media events and photo ops.” Much of the city’s deep-green left has seen Crowfoot himself in that light, too. When Newsom appointed the green czar last year, supervisor Ross Mirkarimi worried that Crowfoot’s hiring was “a case where eco-chic has gone out of control,” noting that the city already had dozens of employees working on climate change. Then–Board of Supervisors president Aaron Peskin called Crowfoot and other new hires “goldplated political hacks.” It didn’t help that New som Raided the budget of the Municipal Transportation Agency (which runs Muni) to pay 60 percent of Crowfoot’s $160,720 salary.<br /> <br /> This woofing was a typical San Francisco combination of politics, principle, and personality. Peskin, for example, is one of Newsom’s oldest and most vocal foes. In a Shakespearean twist, Crowfoot began his city hall career as an aide to Peskin before crossing over to Newsom’s camp. After Crowfoot took the climate-change job, the two got into a heated discussion at Tommaso’s, in North Beach. Crowfoot said that Peskin threatened his job; Peskin said there was some spirited back-and-forth but denied making any threats. When I asked Crowfoot about it, he said that Peskin’s behavior disappointed him. Peskin, who says Crowfoot became an unblushing cheerleader for his boss, stands by his initial charge: Accepting the position, he told me, “was disgusting and awful, and Crowfoot should have been ashamed.” But the criticisms also point to some ground truths.<br /> <br /> San Francisco, despite good intentions, some serious policy experts in key positions, and a mayor who seems to genuinely care about the issue—doubters should watch Newsom’s overstuffed YouTube address on the environment from last year—has mostly been punching blindly at the climate problem. Of course, progress on such intractable issues always moves at a glacial pace.<br /> <br /> And there’s only so much any city can do: The greatest emissions reductions, experts agree, can come only from state or national actions. But critics charge that the city expends too much effort on slight, headline-grabbing initiatives and early-stage experiments and not enough on the substantive—and often controversial —measures that would guarantee real carbon reductions.<br /> <br /> While reporting this piece, I kept coming across a map of San Francisco that illustrates those climatescience models that predict how the city will look in<br /> <br /> 2100. It was right there in research papers and on office walls: Not only will the Embarcadero be underwater, but so will much of Mission Bay, Hunters Point, SoMa, and many other neighborhoods. Some of global warming’s effects are irreversible, so this may happen no matter what we do. But it’s certain to happen if we don’t get more serious.<br /> <br /> As currently constituted, declaring yourself green is politically safe, a platform without any real downside, like calling for better schools or fewer homicides. Post- Obama, the issue doesn’t even have that earnest, Don Quixote stink that used to follow Al Gore around. In June, I caught Newsom’s appearance on Current TV, Gore’s San Francisco–based station, for a friendly Q&A. A webcam questioner asked him what environmental measure he thought he could “entirely transform” by the end of his time as governor. I wondered what Newsom would say: Retrofit the state’s building stock? Push for a statewide zero-waste rule? After hemming and haw ing for a second, he opted for the carbon equivalent of a moon shot: “Electrify our vehicle fleet.<br /> <br /> It’s transformative.”<br /> <br /> That, at bottom, is exactly what’s so appealing—and so frustrating—about Newsom the environmental leader: He’s got big, creative ideas, but he embraces the weighty, the wafer-thin, and the totally unknown in equal measure.<br /> <br /> It fell to Crowfoot, then, to do something useful with Newsom’s eco-crushes. (“Smart grids in Boulder.<br /> <br /> Let’s discuss,” read one early-morning text from Newsom’s BlackBerry. A pilot project is under discussion.)<br /> <br /> Crowfoot is an immensely likable guy, a fluent speaker of the governmental Esperanto in which all business is conducted (“going forward,” “drilling down”), but he can still call you “dude” without sounding weird. And if he had doubts about Newsom’s approach, he never let them show.<br /> <br /> In February, before Newsom began his statewide run, I attended a futurist version of the hoary groundbreaking ceremony outside city hall, joining a scrum of green advocates and PR types to watch him unveil the new charging stations for plug-in hybrid cars. While Crowfoot looked on approvingly, Newsom gave a speech that was simultaneously triumphant (“I’m so proud”) and armored against critics (“We’re not doing enough”), a style typical of the way in which both men talk. (Crowfoot, once answering a question about solar power’s potential in foggy San Francisco: “As the mayor likes to say, ‘If it can work in Berlin, it can work here.’ That said, we’re nowhere near where we want to be yet.”) Then the crowd followed Newsom over to a Prius parked at a charger, which looked like a smaller version of the obelisk in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and someone handed him a key card and a garden-variety orange utility cord. The big plug-in was anticlimactic; it didn’t make a sound.<br /> <br /> Electric vehicles, or Evs, are hardly the first unproven green technology Newsom has fallen for. “Remember four years ago, when we were showcasing that hydrogen car and we drank from the tailpipe?” he said, getting a few laughs from the crowd. “We said, ‘This is the fu ture!’” But now, he insisted, Evs would be the “big game-changer,” and San Francisco would be the na scent industry’s national hub. Still, there are questions: Will people buy them? Will enough charging infrastructure get built? And what use will they be if the electricity comes from “dirty” sources, such as coal- fired power plants?<br /> <br /> Crowfoot was aware that Newsom’s strategy could be a bit scattershot. But he saw it as a strength, a manifestation of the fact that pioneers rarely have detailed maps. “It’s like this laboratory,” he told me in a rush of words—his normal mode of communication—as we chatted at his desk in the airless city hall office he shared with half a dozen other Newsom staffers (the room is called the Bullpen, an idea borrowed from New York mayor Michael Bloomberg). “We’re moving in every direction as fast as we can and trying to assess in real time what’s working and what’s not.” Besides, he said, the welter of programs is aimed at making San Francisco an eco-model for other cities.<br /> <br /> Although it sounds self-serving, the claim that a city can be an influential environmental leader is one I heard again and again from climate-change experts.<br /> <br /> “Early adopters are vital,” said Derek Walker, the director of the California Climate Initiative at the Environmental Defense Fund, citing San Francisco’s recycling program as a franchise that other cities can adopt.<br /> <br /> It’s especially important, said Jared Blumenfeld, the Director of Newsom’s Department of the Environment, in light of Washington’s abdication of responsibility during the Bush years. He defended the city’s fledgling tidaland wave-power experiments as “very basic research that the federal government should have been doing but didn’t.” Still, a recent study by SPUR, which credited San Francisco’s work on composting, green buildings, and biking, suggested that many of the more adventurous projects weren’t cost-effective and probably didn’t make sense. “To the extent that beautiful, spinning wind turbines in the Civic Center bring renewable-energy business to the city, that’s great,” Laura Tam, SPUR’s sustainable development policy director and coauthor of the report, told me. “But as a city policy, it’s not making much of a difference.” When I called Crowfoot to talk about the SPUR report, his tone seemed stripped of its usual breeziness.<br /> <br /> “All of these initiatives have so many moving parts, as you know,” he said. Point well taken: I’d spent months following him to meetings, and I’d seen how difficult and inordinately time-consuming climate-change projects can be, involving not only policy arcana but also planning codes, bureaucratic turf wars, and the often uncoordinated edicts of federal, state, and local laws.<br /> <br /> The next morning, after rereading the report, Crowfoot sent me a dense email listing a few more ways in which the city’s work matches up with SPUR recommendations.<br /> <br /> He insisted that he and his boss were already out on a political limb. “We consider ourselves to be big risk takers,” he said, conceding that while “there are areas in which we’d like to move faster, we’re operating with a healthy level of impatience.” indeed, if the hoi polloi were in the streets with pitchforks, demanding energy-efficiency retrofits and congestion pricing, that would be one thing. But canvas grocery bags and Prius envy notwithstanding, San Franciscans aren’t nearly as green as they’d like to think they are. Even the relatively easy fixes haven’t happened without nasty fights. The bike plan, for instance, which will almost double the number of lanes, was delayed for years by a lawsuit calling for an environmental assessment that many thought was a waste of time. (The plan would worsen air pollution, the key plaintiff dubiously argued in public meetings, because cars would spend more time idling to make room for bikes.) Last year, the furor over something as innocuous as mandatory recycling and composting hit the Chronicle’s front page, followed by a know-nothing outcry (“Trash police!” SFGate commenters screeched) that skunked Newsom’s original plan. When a revamped version finally moved forward this past summer, most of my neighbors greeted the arrival of green plastic compost bins as if the mayor had decreed that we all had to start drinking from the toilet.<br /> <br /> And I live in one of the city’s most progressive districts.<br /> <br /> So, we might not be that different from the rest of the country: Only 30 percent of Americans surveyed in a recent Pew poll ranked climate change as the country’s top priority, below “moral decline” and “trade policy.”<br /> <br /> No wonder green politicians worry that nobody’s got their backs. Blumenfeld freely concedes that we’re not moving fast enough. Then, switching from the language of science to that of politics, he adds, “But we’re at risk of losing the public if we move too fast.” With the righteous exception of gay marriage, Newsom hasn’t often demonstrated a willingness to risk his reputation on dangerous ideas (indeed, gay marriage isn’t even dangerous locally). “Newsom has always loved his newfangled toys, whether it’s his iPod, Twitter, or the electric car,” Peskin told me. The former supervisor, who now chairs the San Francisco Democratic Party, hastens to add that he doesn’t think Newsom’s record on green issues is all bad, only that the mayor’s political will is lacking. “If you really believe this stuff is important, you just do it,” he says. “There’ll be some kicking and screaming, sure, but if you really want to lead, you need to push the envelope.” SPUR suggests, for example, that the most effective way for San Francisco to reduce emissions is for it to become denser. Newsom’s team deserves credit for encouraging residential construction, whether it’s SoMa towers or the thousands of condos slated for Treasure Island and the Hunters Point Shipyard—but his administration, like those before it, hasn’t created enough cheaper homes that could draw people who would otherwise buy in the sprawling, energy-efficient suburbs. On building codes, too, last year’s justly celebrated regulations were greener than anyone expected, but they apply only to the 1 percent of buildings that are constructed or massively renovated in the city each year.<br /> <br /> Crowfoot began laying the groundwork on retrofitting requirements for the other 99 percent of buildings— replacing boilers, improving insulation, and upgrading HVAC systems could cut 15 percent from each building’s energy usage—but because of their financial toll on balking building owners, they aren’t likely to be implemented for years.<br /> <br /> It’s a similar story with efforts to unclog our roads.<br /> <br /> In its report, SPUR estimates that congestion pricing— charging people to drive in certain places or at certain hours, à la Stockholm and London—could cut more than 5 percent off San Francisco’s carbon total, knock cars off our streets, and generate money (the Stockholm program turns a profit of $70 million a year) to help fix Muni. Initially, the mayor was wildly supportive of the idea, declaring it “the single greatest step we can take to protect our environment and improve our quality of life.” But he backpedaled late last year. Partly, Crowfoot said, they were concerned about the impact of the plan on poor and working-class neighborhoods that aren’t well served by public transportation, like Hunters Point.<br /> <br /> But it’s hard to imagine the mayor wasn’t also aware of the business community’s opposition, especially since the Chamber of Commerce had just run a scathing editorial against congestion pricing.<br /> <br /> When I asked Crowfoot about it, he said congestion pricing was still being studied, but “with the current economic conditions, we’ve made the decision that it’s not the time.” Instead, he explained, the city was rolling out a mostly federally funded (and less controversial) 18-month pilot project, Sfpark, in which a quarter of the city’s parking spaces will be fitted with sensors that allow the price to change in accordance with demand.<br /> <br /> Appallingly, each parking space generates more than seven miles of circling each day, according to one study, and variable meter pricing would eliminate trolling for spots. SPUR says Sfpark would be cost-effective but not as environmentally strong as congestion pricing, which would reduce carbon emissions by 60 percent more.<br /> <br /> The day after he officially entered the governor’s race this past spring, Newsom flew to San Diego, where he visited the headquarters of a company that produces fuel from green algae. Before touring the facility, he waxed rhapsodic: “There is no better and more fertile place in the United States for green tech to take shape and these green-collar jobs to take shape than in California.” “He’s got a good rap,” says Barbara O’Connor, dir ec tor of Sacramento State’s Institute for the Study of Politics and Media, who notes that the green-jobs message fits the Obama-esque image the mayor is trying to cul tivate. “But the question is, how will it play in Bakersfield?” The answer is, not so well. That night in San Diego, most local newscasts gave Newsom’s green-jobs pitch short shrift, focusing instead on gay marriage. Three used some variant of the word controversial in their reports, and one even headlined its story “Newsom Defends Miss California” because Newsom had noted, in response to a question, that he respected Carrie Prejean, the briefly famous beauty queen, for speaking her mind on gay marriage. If Newsom does get himself elected next year, he’ll have to deal with a budgeting system worthy of a failed state, a straight party-line split in the Legislature on carbon emissions, and the unenviable job of actually trying to meet the wildly ambitious targets put in place during Arnold Schwarzenegger’s reign (the 80 percent emissions-reduction). In other words, Newsom will need to confront even bigger oxen-goring issues. “That’s really when the rubber will hit the road,” says Louise Bedsworth, a research fellow at San Francisco’s Public Policy Institute of California. Imagine, for example, how tough it would be to mandate building retrofits statewide or to get people in Southern California out of their cars.<br /> <br /> In late July, Crowfoot announced that he was leaving city hall to become the Environmental Defense Fund’s (EDF’s) West Coast legislative and political director, a job the national nonprofit created especially for him.<br /> <br /> I wondered if he had lost faith in Newsom’s environmental agenda, or if the two men had had a fallingout.<br /> <br /> Nothing could be further from the truth, Crowfoot told me from his new office, near the Embarcadero.<br /> <br /> “I’m saying this with every shred of my integrity,” he insisted. “There was nothing like that.” (It wasn’t the money, either: The salaries are comparable, he says.)<br /> <br /> He conceded, though, that the timing of the announcement—two key Newsom campaign staffers and the city’s budget director also announced, within 48 hours of each other, that they were leaving—was less than ideal, inasmuch as it fed the idea that the Newsom campaign is headed for the rocks and his people are abandoning him. (As we went to press, an online green-industry newsletter reported another potential departure: It said that Blumenfeld, of the Department of the Environment, is in the running for a job at the Environmental Protection Agency.) In fact, Crowfoot said, the EDF offer came out of the blue and had nothing to do with Newsom’s gubernatorial bid. All polling aside, the mayor’s prospects might actually be better than they were six months ago, when Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was still considering a run and it seemed much more likely that the ever popular Dianne Feinstein, who repre sented a sort of political sword of Dam ocles for all the other candidates, would also enter the fray.<br /> <br /> So, given how much Crowfoot loved being San Francisco’s green czar, why, exactly, did he decide to leave?<br /> <br /> In a nutshell: His territory will encompass not just San Francisco, but also a huge chunk of the western United States. “I can make a bigger impact with this job,” he said sunnily, looking ahead to all the emissions reductions to come. After all, he added, no matter how ambitious or forward-thinking a city might be, it’s still just a city. “We can create a model in San Francisco, but it’s only 47 square miles.”

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