Most Palo Altans don't need to be convinced that climate change is real, human-caused and a major threat. The planet is already experiencing such symptoms as extreme weather events, and without major changes, sea-level rise will flood areas around the Bay and California will suffer permanent drought.
We all know that, but the challenge is so big that it's easy to feel helpless.
The commitments made at the recent Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris are a major step forward. However, scientists agree that the voluntary commitments made there are no more than half of what will be needed to achieve the goal of limiting the average global temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) this century, the threshold at which many of the worst effects of climate change may be avoided.
The test will come in living up to the Paris commitments and increasing them at every opportunity. Governor Jerry Brown, who attended the conference, said it well: This is a historic turning point in the quest to combat one of the biggest threats facing humanity. Activists, business leaders and subnational leaders now need to redouble their efforts and push for increasingly aggressive action.
Congress is paralyzed, but states and local governments (subnational leaders) are taking action. Palo Alto is a leader, having among other things achieved carbon-neutral electricity. However, while that is a good first step, we still need to deal with natural gas and transportation, with the latter constituting nearly 60 percent of the city's greenhouse gas emissions.
Perhaps the biggest and most important step you can take today to reduce your emissions from transportation is to drive an electric vehicle. It is true that electric vehicles are only as environmentally friendly as the electricity that recharges them; China, for example is still heavily reliant on electricity generated by coal. But that's the beauty of our situation in Palo Alto, where our electricity is already carbon-neutral.
The importance of this step was highlighted in a Nov. 24 article by Matt Richtel in the New York Times, which quoted Mary Nichols, chair of the State Air Resources Board, as follows: "California has 150,000 electric cars, but that figure needs to grow tenfold in the next decade. ... Without the cars, simply put, we can't make it."
The cost of doing so is greatly reduced by the combined state rebate of $2,500 and federal tax credit of $7,500. With them, an exhaustive analysis by city utilities concluded, buying an EV is a "cost-effective alternative to buying an equivalently sized gasoline vehicle." (See driverclean.ca.gov.)
People hesitate out of concern for the limited range of EVs. However, charging stations are steadily becoming more numerous, and battery capacities are growing -- increasing the range.
Acquisition of an EV already includes a portable charger that can be plugged into any home socket. That provides only a "trickle" charge, but that's often enough to support local driving and recharging overnight.
In the case of multi-family apartments, however, outlets are often not available, and absentee owners may not be inclined to provide them, so the city may need to offer incentives. It will also be important to encourage companies to install chargers and outlets, so that people can recharge at work.
In the meantime, if a family owns both an EV and one gasoline-powered vehicle, they can preserve the latter for long-distance trips and use the EV for local errands, at one-quarter of the cost of fueling a gas-powered car. Maintenance costs are ridiculously low. (Another article in the Times noted that EVs require so little maintenance that some dealers, concerned about losing profits on service, don't like to sell them.)
So to repeat, here's an answer for those of us who wonder what we as individuals can do about an issue as big as climate change: Buy or lease an EV! They have a lot of advantages:
You'll have the satisfaction of knowing that the electricity you use is carbon-neutral.
By doing so, you'll be taking an important personal initiative to deal with climate change.
You'll no longer be fattening the wallets of the Exxon/Shells of the world.
The HOV sticker is invaluable in today's traffic.
Avoiding trips to the gas station saves precious time.
Last but in no way least, EVs are smooth and fun to drive.
You can learn even more about the benefits of EVs at plugincars.com.
The city could also do a lot more to promote EVs. It's not practical for the city to subsidize them. However, it can do more to use its various public communications to correct misconceptions about them and educate the public about their advantages. For example, it has hosted one "ride and drive" event, where interested people could learn about and test drive various makes of EV, but it could certainly do more.
Palo Alto is a relatively small city, so it would be easy to feel that changes here would be too minor to have any significant impact. However, we really are a model that others emulate, so changes here have an impact far beyond our borders.
Taking all that into account, the climate activist group Carbon-Free Palo Alto is advocating a goal of having an EV in every Palo Alto household within the next eight years. That literal goal may be unrealistic, but as with our goal of "zero waste or damn close," it's worth shooting for. We already have more Priuses and Teslas than most if not all other cities.
Let's show the rest of the world that Palo Alto means business when it comes to climate change -- get a cool, clean EV!
Walt Hays is a member of Carbon-Free Palo Alto, chaired the Green Ribbon Task Force that led to the city's first Climate Action Plan, and can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.