Has climate change lit a fire under California's professional planners?

The answer, in a word, is yes. Not since the early days of new urbanism 15 years ago have we seen such passion from planners in California about something new. They're talking about it and thinking about it all the time.

Reversing climate change is the latest in a long line of idealistic notions that planners have glommed on to, dating all the way back to garden cities more than a century ago. Since that time, we've seen the planning profession "go passionate" over all kinds of semi-faddish topics, ranging from Jane Jacobs' recipes for urban revitalization during the 1950s to social equity planning during the 1960s to Ian McHarg's "design with nature" philosophy during the 1970s. About once a decade a new idea or philosophy sweeps the profession.

And this particular issue is one that's got huge traction. It's the most important environmental issue in the history of humanity – or, at the very least, most people believe it is the most important environmental issue in the history of humanity. Either way, you would think climate change is a great opportunity for planners to have an impact.

But remember that planning is a profession made up of idealists who work, by and large, as technicians. So, as is often the case, California's planners are teetering on the brink of advocacy but, mostly, not jumping off the cliff. They are hoping that new laws get passed and new practices get put into place that will allow them to attack climate change; and the more aggressive planners are tackling the issue under existing procedures, especially within the context of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

So how much impact, exactly, will California's professional planners have on the climate change debate?

From the 30,000-foot policy level – which, frankly, is where I spend a lot of my time – the answer is probably not much. Planners may be passionate believers but often do not advocates even if their job gives them the leeway to do so. When it comes to lobbying, planners often step back and allow advocates who embody their beliefs, such as environmentalists and affordable housing proponents, to carry the ball. This is partly the nature of their job; and partly the nature of their soul.

Indeed, one of the ironies of the current debate in California over implementing AB 32 – the greenhouse gas emissions reduction law – is this: Local government lobbyists are adamantly resisting strong mandates that will require them to alter their land use policies to comply. But a lot of planners – all the while grumbling publicly about having to take on climate change as an issue – are secretly hoping that their local government employers lose in the Legislature, so that planning departments will be given license to take on the challenge.

That's because professional planners typically have the greatest impact not by advocating for policy change or shaping policy, but down in the trenches where they slog through the plans, the environmental analyses, and the development reviews day after day.

Already, environmental impact reports and other CEQA documents are being supplemented with some kind of "global warming" or "climate change" section. Planners may soon be dragooned into greenhouse gas emissions reductions efforts in a more direct way, depending on what kind of implementing legislation is adopted for AB 32. For example, a bill such as SB 375 – which may yet pass this year – would basically require or induce local governments to engage in smart growth efforts to help meet greenhouse gas reduction targets.

All these efforts to use land-use planning as a means of going after climate change come down to one target very familiar to planners: driving. The main greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide, and carbon dioxide is emitted by motor vehicles when they are running. Although a lot of greenhouse gas emissions reduction will come from cleaner fuels and more energy-efficient vehicles, the general presumption is that California won't be able to hit the AB 32 target without more alternatives to driving, which means more investment in public transit and an aggressive approach to different land-use patterns.

Does this mean that planners – given the chance – will use climate change as just another excuse to promote their ideas of "good planning," which often include less driving and more concentrated development in communities?

Sure. Just as they have used lots of other trends and challenges over the last half-century to try to accomplish the same goals. Planners have attempted to leverage concerns about sprawl, vanishing farmland, traffic congestion, endangered species, a lack of water, even previous problems with air pollutants into changes in the pattern of urban growth, usually with middling success at best.

But that doesn't mean the problems of urban development aren't real, and that the planners' preferred approaches aren't part of the solution. In the case of climate change, it's worth noting that a technological fix probably won't be enough. In California, a 40-year effort to reduce tailpipe emissions of carbon monoxide have been wildly successful in one sense because emissions from each tailpipe are a tiny fraction of what they were during the 1960s. Overall, however, the result has been a wash – more tailpipes and more driving have offset the decrease in emissions in each tailpipe. Clearly, something else has to give. The truth is that the solution to most major environmental problems involves less driving.

Planners may or may not be able to use emissions reduction to drive land use change. But they're certainly going to be confronted with the consequences of global warming – and soon. Rising sea level and a dramatic decrease in the Sierra snow pack appear to be happening much faster than we anticipated only a couple years ago. The latest science says the Arctic could be ice-free within seven years. That means – especially in a coastal state like California – adapting to climate change will be an issue by the time the projects that are currently going through the entitlement process will be built. All of a sudden, this stuff is not abstract.

Adaptation will inevitably involve large-scale engineering solutions – dikes and breakwaters in the ocean, more reservoirs inland, and so forth. But there will have to be land-use solutions too. Should more coastal development be permitted? How do you handle more growth if there are likely to be more droughts? These are questions that planners are well-equipped to deal with, especially California planners, with their CEQA-driven orientation toward impacts and mitigations.

An old joke about planners is that if they believe passionately in something they're not likely to lie down in front of a bulldozer, but they are more than willing to spend all week figuring out whether you have complied with the code or your project may create a significant impact. This may make planners seem like little more than bureaucratic cogs — which is at least partly true — but is not the worst thing in the world. It is likely the way planners will embrace the issue of climate change, and it just might make a difference.