Blue Marble

Brrrr: Incredible Photos of the Polar Vortex

| Tue Jan. 7, 2014 3:51 PM EST

UPDATE 4:35pm EST: Scott Harrison gave us the nod to publish his terrific photo of throwing boiling water into minus 14 degree air in the early hours of Monday morning, in Wicker Park, Chicago. If you have polar vortex photos you want to share with us, send us a note on Twitter: @MotherJones.

The polar vortex sweeping across the country has pulled 187 million Americans into the grips of crazy cold weather, snarled travel, forced an early orange harvest, and heated up the climate debate. It is also producing some amazing photography, from professionals and amateurs alike. Here are a few that have come to our attention in the last two days.

Hank Cain, via Shawn Reynolds/Twitter.

This picture was taken by pilot Hank Cain, over a frozen Chicago, and first tweeted by his friend Shawn Reynolds from the Weather Channel. Chicago reported a low of minus 16 degrees on Monday.

Nancy Stone/MCT/ZUMA

Teresa Wooldridge has her work cut out for her, pictured here trying to clear a path on the Northwest Side of Chicago.

@ChicagosMayor, The Office of Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

The office of the Chicago Mayor tweeted this image of steaming rooftops yesterday morning. Four people reportedly died while shoveling snow in the city across the weekend.

NOAA/NASA GOES Project

NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center tweeted this picture showing the extent of the weather event—"a whirling and persistent large area of low pressure"—over the US. The image was captured by satellite Monday morning.

Ernest Coleman/ZUMA

Warmer temperatures in the Ohio River than the surrounding air created this eerie mist outside downtown Cincinnati on Monday. According to the National Weather Service, the city tied its record-low temperature for that date, at minus 7, set in 1924. Desperate times call for desperate measures: maintenance crews are treating roads with beet juice, apparently, because it can help melt ice at temperatures as low as minus 25; it's also said to be better for the environment than regular deicers. Factoid of the day!

@TeriMatthewson/Twitter

"I'd rather have my frozen berries in my smoothie, then on my front lawn," is the caption to this photo taken by Teri Matthewson, from Toronto, of the fruit tree in her front lawn. In Canada, the vortex has earned the nickname "polar pig" in some quarters, for its shape on the metrological map.

And the Chicago Tribune is reporting that 500 passengers were stranded on two trains last night west of the city because of the snow and ice.

Separately, Van Jones, co-host of CNN's Crossfire, this morning tweeted this pic of what he says is inside an Amtrak train:

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Why the Arctic Is Drunk Right Now

| Mon Jan. 6, 2014 1:29 PM EST

UPDATE 1/22/2014: This article was originally written during the first extreme cold snap of 2014, which occurred in early January. But after checking today with Rutgers climate researcher Jennifer Francis, I confirmed that the jet stream is still in the same broad pattern described below, which has again allowed for a southward invasion of frigid Arctic air. When asked whether the Arctic was drunk again, Francis responded, "Yes, still drunk. In fact, it never sobered up after the last binge." Below, with Francis's help, I explain how global warming could be making these loopy jet stream patterns more common, contributing to cold weather in the mid-latitudes even as the Arctic warms. —CM

Perhaps the best analogy yet for the insane cold weather now afflicting the US came from science blogger Greg Laden, who created the viral image above. "Go home, Arctic," it reads. "You're drunk."

When it comes to the reason why the United States is currently experiencing life-threatening cold—with temperatures in the negative-20s in the Upper Midwest, and wind chills much lower than that—that's actually not so far from the truth. "It's basically the jet stream on a drunken path going around the Northern Hemisphere," explains Rutgers University climate scientist Jennifer Francis. In other words, we're experiencing record-breaking cold temperatures because a wavy and elongated jet stream has allowed frigid Arctic air to travel much farther south than usual.

And according to Francis' research—which has drawn increasing attention in the past few years—we're seeing more of just this kind of jet stream behavior, thanks, at least in part, to the rapid warming of the Arctic.*

To understand how it works, it first helps to think of the jet stream as a river of air that flows from west to east in the Northern Hemisphere, bringing with it much of our weather. Its motion—sometimes in a relatively straight path, sometimes in a more loopy one—is driven by a difference in temperatures between the equator and the north pole. Southern temperatures are of course warmer, and because warm air takes up more space than cold air, this leads to taller columns of air in the atmosphere. "If you were sitting on top of a layer of atmosphere and you were in DC, looking northward, it would be like looking down a hill, because it's warmer where you are," explains Francis.

The jet stream then flows "downhill," so to speak, in a northward direction. But it's also bent by the rotation of the Earth, leading to its continual wavy, eastward motion.

As the Arctic rapidly heats up, however, there's less of a temperature difference between the equator and the poles, and the downhill slope in the atmosphere is accordingly less steep. This creates a weaker jet stream, a jet stream that meanders more or, if you prefer the new analogy, staggers around drunkenly. "As the Arctic continues to warm, we expect the jet stream to take these wild swings northward and southward more often," says Francis. "And when it does, that's when we get these particularly wild temperature and precipitation patterns, and they tend to stay in place a long time." (For a more thorough explanation, see here.)

That's not to say the jet stream never staggered around drunkenly in the past. It did. But Francis thinks this is happening more often, and the result is all manner of weather extremes, including both cold snaps and also record heat. (Not every scientist agrees; for the debate over Francis's work, see here.)

Thus, it is not at all nuts to draw a connection between extreme weather, including extreme winter weather, and climate change. In fact, what would be truly stunning would be if the dramatic warming of the Arctic were not affecting the weather.

* This sentence was updated to reflect Francis's view that Arctic warming may not be the sole cause of these jet stream patterns.

Dear Donald Trump: Winter Does Not Disprove Global Warming

| Thu Jan. 2, 2014 6:41 PM EST
A Bostonian trudges by Government Center as Winter Storm Hercules's snows begin.

An intense blizzard, appropriately named Hercules, is about to blanket the Northeast. Antarctic ice locked in a Russian ship containing a team of scientists—en route, no less, to do climate research. Record low temperatures have been seen in parts of the US, and in Winnipeg, temperatures on December 31 were as cold as temperatures on...Mars.

So as is their seasonal wont, here come the climate skeptics. Exhibit A:

And Trump isn't the only one. A similar reaction came from Congressman John Fleming, a Louisiana Republican:

And RedState.com's Erick Erickson also piled on, blending global warming dismissal with religion:

Meanwhile, the front page of the Drudge Report listed a variety of cold weather news items under the heading, "Global Warming Intensifies..."

Drudge Report/Climate Desk

Rush Limbaugh also weighed in, noting that the Green Bay Packers may face San Francisco in subzero temperatures at home this weekend:

LIMBAUGH: I would love to see Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, and Hillary sitting outside on the 50 yard line of Green Bay the whole game, and then afterwards do a presentation for us all on global warming. Sit there the whole game outside.

And last but not least, Fox Business's Stuart Varney used the Antarctic ice story to claim that "we're looking at global cooling, forget this global warming."

All of this is all wrong in ways that have all been explained before. So just a few brief observations:

1. Statements about climate trends must be based on, er, trends. Not individual events or occurrences. Weather is not climate, and anecdotes are not statistics.

2. Global warming is actually expected to increase "heavy precipitation in winter storms," and for the northern hemisphere, there is evidence that these storms are already more frequent and intense, according to the draft US National Climate Assessment.

3. Antarctica is a very cold place. But global warming is affecting it as predicted: Antarctica is losing ice overall, according to the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. However, sea ice is a different matter than land-based or glacial ice. Antarctic sea ice is increasing, and moreover, the reason for this may be climate change! (For more, read here.)

Finally, just one last thing. When it's winter on Earth, it's also summer on Earth...somewhere else. Thus, allow us to counter anecdotal evidence about cold weather with more anecdotal evidence: It's blazing hot in Australia, with temperatures, in some regions, set to possibly soar above 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the coming days.

California Is Giving Tesla Another Huge Tax Break. Good Move.

| Fri Dec. 20, 2013 9:16 PM EST

This story originally appear on Slate and is reproduced here as part of the ClimateDesk collaboration.

This is going to drive the Tesla-haters crazy. The luxury electric-car maker is getting a huge new tax break from California, SFGate reports. The state will let it off the hook for sales and use taxes on some $415 million in new equipment it's purchasing in order to expand production of the Model S at its Bay Area factory. That amounts to a $34.7 million tax break to produce more of a vehicle whose sticker price starts above $70,000.

Tax breaks for the rich! Corporate giveaways! The working people forced to pay for tech titans' fancy rides!  

Well, sort of. But as SFGate's David R. Baker explains:

California is one of the few states to tax the purchase of manufacturing equipment, a policy that California business associations have spent years trying to change. But the state does grant exemptions for clean-tech companies as a way to encourage the industry's growth. The exemptions are issued by the California Alternative Energy and Advanced Transportation Financing Authority, chaired by State Treasurer Bill Lockyer.

So, in fact, it isn't Tesla per se that's getting special treatment from the state. It's the clean-tech industry in general, which California is very keen to promote for two reasons. One, it wants to establish itself as a leader in a sector that it believes will be a big driver of its economy in the decades to come. And two, it's one of the few states in the country that's actually, genuinely serious about reducing its greenhouse-gas emissions. Promoting clean energy is a crucial part of its strategy.

More broadly, whatever sense a tax on the purchase of manufacturing equipment might once have made for California, it's patently counterproductive in the context of clean-tech startups in the 21st century. Add to that some of the highest income and sales taxes in the nation, and it's no wonder California is worried about companies like Tesla picking up stakes and heading elsewhere. Businessweek notes that new manufacturing jobs in the state have risen less than 1 percent since 2010, compared with nearly 5 percent nationally. Gov. Jerry Brown has been chipping away at the tax already, and Tesla is just the latest example.

Nor is the deal likely to burden the state's taxpayers. Tesla's Model S is in huge demand, and the company has been scrambling since its launch to ramp up production. SFGate reports the new equipment will help Tesla boost production by some 35,000 vehicles a year from its current annual rate of 21,000. State analysts predict the added jobs and vehicle sales are expected to bring in more money to the state than the tax break will take away.

For all that, I think some criticism might still be justified if Tesla in the end simply remains a producer of luxury cars for the wealthiest consumers. But the company has insisted from the outset that its ultimate goal is to produce an all-electric car that middle-class buyers can afford. A Tesla spokeswoman told me last week the company is still on track to release its third-generation vehicle by 2016 or 2017. The price is widely expected to be about half that of the Model S—not cheap, but certainly headed in the right direction.

Meanwhile, the success of the Model S has kickstarted the industry as a whole and made California the epicenter of the electric-car world. That's thanks in part to a similar tax break the state gave the company several years ago to manufacture its cars there in the first place. I'd say there are worse ways for a state to spend a few tens of millions. But if you're still convinced that tax breaks to big manufacturers are unfair and wrong, you might want to train your ire on a state a little further north, which just offered an all-time record $8.7 billion in tax breaks to a company that manufactures perhaps the least-green transportation technology of all. The worst part: Boeing might just move out anyway.

Science Says: Cocktails Could Protect You From Getting Sick

| Thu Dec. 19, 2013 7:00 AM EST
Science!

With the onslaught of holiday parties upon us, a bad case of the sniffles could threaten your merrymaking. Luckily science has swooped in with the jolliest solution of all: You can boost your immune system, a new study claims, by drinking that spiked eggnog.

The moderate drinkers demonstrated an enhanced immune response—better even than the teetotaling control group.

A team of researchers from Oregon Health & Science University trained 12 rhesus macaques—chosen for the similarity between their immune system and ours—to drink a 4 percent ethanol cocktail. They vaccinated the monkeys against small pox and divided them into two groups: one that had access to the cocktails and one to sugar water. (Both groups were also given food and regular water.)

Over the course of the 14-month study, the researchers found that the monkeys in the booze cage drank varying amounts—some got stewed all day, clocking blood ethanol concentrations higher than 0.08, while others kept their intake moderate, between 0.02 and 0.04. "Like humans," lead author Ilhem Messaoudi said, "rhesus macaques showed highly variable drinking behavior."

After drinking for seven months, the macaques received another booster shot, and their reactions were remarkably different. The immune systems of the bad monkeys that drank too much failed to produce the antibodies the body usually makes in response to a vaccine. The moderate drinkers, on the other hand, demonstrated an enhanced immune response—better even than the teetotaling control group. The researchers can't yet fully explain the results, but one possible explanation is that modest amounts of alcohol stimulate the immune system.

The benefits of moderate drinking are well documented, from reduced risk of Alzheimer's to improved cardiovascular function. But while a glass or two of wine with dinner might promote health, the researchers emphasized that excessive alcohol consumption is deleterious to immune function, no matter how merry one may feel.

5 Surprising Things We Feed Cows

| Thu Dec. 19, 2013 7:00 AM EST

In addition to the old standbys of corn, soy, hay (and, uh, drugs), "there's a lot of stuff which the general public might not think of as feeds which are actually quite common," says Cory Parsons, a livestock nutrition expert at Oregon State University. For example:

Sawdust: Decades ago, when Bob Batey, an eastern Iowa entrepreneur, observed cows gobbling up sawdust hosed down from his paper mill, he had an idea: Why not make the stuff into a commercial cattle feed? Sawdust is made largely of cellulose, a carbohydrate, but it's bound together with a compound called lignin, which makes it hard to digest. To strip the lignin, Batey soaked some of the stuff in nitric acid, and voilà! The cows were ready to chow down. "They like it," he says. "It's good for them. It's economical. And it's green." 

But it was only after a 2012 drought laid waste to local hay and grass that Batey put his idea into action. He teamed up with local feed producers to devise a mix of sawdust, corn, vitamins, and minerals. While ranchers have not yet widely adopted the sawdust feed, Byron Leu, a regional beef specialist at Iowa State University, said with corn prices high, the stuff could catch on "pretty fast." The Iowa City Gazette noted that in tests, the cows ate the stuff "like candy." Speaking of which…

Candy, wrapper and all: Ranchers report feeding their beef steers and dairy cows a variety of bulk candy, including gummy worms, marshmallowshard candysprinkles, chocolatecandy corn, and hot chocolate mix. Candy provides sugar that cows would usually get from corn, giving them more energy and making them fatter. When corn prices skyrocketed, the practice became popular: In fall 2012, one candy supplier who sells farmers and ranchers "salvage" chocolate—that's imperfect and broken chocolates—said the price of the stuff had recently doubled.

In some cases, ranchers found, the candy feed comes wrapped. Asked if he was concerned about his cattle eating plastic, one animal nutrition expert in Tennessee said he was not worried. "I think it would pass through just like excess fiber would."

Chicken shit: What's not to love about the fecal waste of America's 36-million-plus broiler chickens? It's plentiful and cheap. But according to a recent OnEarth story by Brad Jacobson, the problem may be less the poop itself than the smorgasbord of other substances it frequently comes with, including feathers, heavy metals, bacteria, antibiotics, and bits of rodents. Jacobson also notes that the practice could promote the spread of mad cow disease. 

Ground limestone: Strange as feeding rocks to cows may sound, limestone can be found in cattle troughs all over the United States. The stuff is a cheap source of calcium, and it also seems to promote growth. As one study put it, cows that ate limestone late in life "tended to have more desirable carcasses" than cows that didn't. 

Crab guts: For ranchers and feedlots near the coast, the guts and other undesirable parts of fish, crabs, shrimp, and crawfish can be an abundant source of cheap protein. Ground up into a tasty meal, seafood byproducts can be mixed into other feeds. Fish-meal cattle feed isn't a new idea; Marco Polo observed in his diary that cows ate it "without any sign of dislike." 

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The Big Sur Fire Is Just the Latest Sign of Longer Fire Seasons

| Wed Dec. 18, 2013 6:27 PM EST
A park ranger directs traffic along Highway 1 as fire burns nearby.

The fire currently burning in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, California, isn't particularly large: As of the latest Forest Service report, it has burned 769 acres and is 20 percent contained.

Nor is it particularly damaging: So far, 22 buildings or structures have been destroyed by the fire. (One was the fire chief's home.) Compare that with the 2003 Cedar Fire in San Diego county, which destroyed 2,820 structures.

However, it is markedly unseasonal: The California wildfire season was pronounced over on October 31, 2013. But of course, it isn't over.

In general, western wildfire seasons are getting longer. Thomas Tidwell, chief of the US Forest Service, said so directly in recent congressional testimony, noting that "the length of the fire season has increased by over two months since the 1970s."

And of course, it doesn't help that the Big Sur area is currently experiencing drought conditions.

It is also worth pointing out that for the state of California, seven of its 10 largest fires have occurred since the year 2000, including this year's Rim Fire, the third largest in state history.

Here's a helpful infographic from the Union of Concerned Scientists, showing just how much fire seasons are lengthening:

And here's a Climate Desk video on how global warming is making wildfires worse:

Global Warming As Haiku

| Wed Dec. 18, 2013 7:00 AM EST

Recently at the annual American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco, a number of climate researchers and communications specialists sounded off about the problems involved in conveying climate science information to the public. Naomi Oreskes, the Harvard science historian, noted one of the many challenges: There's a huge gap between how grave the climate issue actually is, and how clinical and detached climate scientists seem to sound when they discuss it.

"Our tone doesn't match our words," Oreskes said. As a result, climate communications often lack emotional authenticity.

But not every scientist fails to communicate effectively (or, seems to emulate Spock when doing so). And now one climate expert, Gregory C. Johnson, has done something truly innovative when it comes to sharing global warming information in an understandable, and even moving, way.

Sightline.org has published 19 illustrated haiku by Johnson (see one example above) that attempt to distill the message of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's recent Summary for Policymakers. The "SPM," as it's known, is a highly technical and difficult document; Johnson, as a lead author, understands it far better than most mortals. However, he has replaced its wonkery with a series of brief poems, each accompanied by a watercolor illustration.

The haiku are given simple titles that reflect parts of the report: "History, Water," "Models," "Change Drivers." Many of the haiku are, of course, about what will come: "The Future." Like this one:

Gregory C. Johnson/Sightline.org

You can see the entire set of Johnson's haiku on the Sightline Institute's blog. In light of the snafus and misinformation attending the rollout of the IPCC's Summary for Policymakers in September, as well as the long history of IPCC communications problems, they're quite a welcome change. To Dr. Johnson, then, we offer a haiku of our own:

Thank you, scientist:
Not for your facts or data
But for what they mean.

We’re Still Losing Ice at the Poles

| Tue Dec. 17, 2013 7:00 AM EST
Arctic sea ice reached its minimum extent in Sep. 2013, two days earlier than usual. The orange line is the median minimum extent from 1981 - 2010; note how much lower the ice was this year.

This story first appeared on Slate and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

One of the key indicators and consequences of global warming is ice loss at the Earth's poles. As the planet warms, on average and over time, every summer more ice melts. It refreezes in the winter, but again as temperatures rise, in general we'll see less ice at any given time as compared to the year before.

The situation for the two poles is different. In the north the Arctic ice floats on the ocean, and on the south the Antarctic ice is over land and sea. This means that they way they melt—how quickly, how much, even where specifically in those regions—are different. Still, the fact is the ice at both poles is melting. We've known this for quite some time.

And some new data show it's even worse than we thought.
 

Bad News, Australis Edition

ice loss in Antarctica
Ice loss in Antarctica; blue shows where ice is thinning, red where it's growing. Note the imbalance. CPOM / ESA

Measurements of Antarctic ice made by the European Space Agency's CryoSat satellite show that it's losing about 150 cubic kilometers (36 cubic miles) of ice on average every year just from the West Antarctica ice sheet alone. This is notably more than what had been previously estimated, and is likely to be more accurate due to the satellite's better coverage and use of radar to measure ice thickness.

The bulk of this loss is from melting glaciers, with their runoff flowing into the sea. This in turn is raising the sea level by about 0.3 millimeters per year (again, just from the West Antarctic ice sheet alone). It's unclear if this increase in ice loss is due to faster thinning of the ice, or due to better coverage of the satellite in regions otherwise difficult to access. Either way, the ice is melting more rapidly than previously thought.

This amount of loss is staggering; it's equivalent to about a hundred billion tons. That's equivalent in volume to a mountain about four kilometers (2.5 miles) high, roughly the size of a medium-size mountain in the Rockies.

I'll note that some people who deny global warming like to talk about ice in Antarctica increasing, not decreasing. This is at best misleading; the sea ice fluctuates every year, and has grown marginally recently, but this is tiny compared to the loss of land ice. Overall, Antarctica is losing ice, rapidly, with more melting every year.

 

Bad News, Borealis Edition

Maps of ice loss in the Arctic show it dwindling over time. A fair question to ask is, when will we see an ice-free summer there?

This question isn't all that easy to answer; it depends on past measurements as well as models of how the ice melts. Most conservative models estimate it will happen before the end of this century, but how long before? Some say it may be 50 years or more, some much sooner.

In the Guardian, Nafeez Ahmed reports on a study funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and undertaken by scientists with the U.S. Navy has shown that the Arctic could see its first nearly ice-free summer in just three years, in 2016. These results actually came out last year, and are based on ice loss from a few years back, using a relatively straightforward extrapolation.

In the paper, the scientists claim that ice loss is underestimated by most models because they don't include feedback mechanisms; that is, processes in the system that amplify other processes. For example, as water warms it cannot hold as much dissolved carbon dioxide. That CO2 is released in the air, accelerating the warming process because it's a greenhouse gas.

I'm not sure how much stock to put in a prediction of an ice-free Arctic in just a few years, but that day is clearly coming, and soon. Looking at the sea ice extent (essentially, how much area is covered by ice) over the past few years, we've lost about 2 million square kilometers over 15 years.* The extent is at roughly 10 million sq. km now, so extrapolating we have 75 years left. I'll note that's very rough, and I'd consider that only a decent upper limit to how long it will take. With feedback processes, that's likely to be a severe overestimate.

Arctic ice loss from 1978 throught the end of 2013. Note the trend. NSIDC
 

To give you a more visceral sense of just how much trouble we're in, Andy Robinson, who created a video earlier this year showing the ice loss, has updated it with data including this year's minimum:

Note that this is volume of ice, not extent, which is a better measure of real loss. Extent fluctuates more, and doesn't include the thickness of the ice; you can get very thin ice in the winter adding to the extent but not really adding to the total amount of ice. Plus, thin ice melts more readily in the summer.

And, of course, this puts lie to the whole idea that sea ice in the Arctic is "recovering", which we knew was more hot air from the deniers all along anyway.


Double Pole Loss, What Does It Mean?

So, we're losing ice, and fast. But what does it mean?

First, again, it's a clear indicator of the reality of global warming. Second, melting ice means rising sea levels. That means loss of land area, more flooding, and bigger storm surges from hurricanes (like with supertyphoon Haiyan in November).

There's another potential issue, too: This melting ice can indirectly cause weirder weather. As the ice melts, more ocean surface is exposed to the Sun, warming it further. Moreover, as more fresh water is dumped into the salty ocean from the polar ice, the currents in that water change, bringing with them different temperatures to different places. The flow of the jet stream over the pole depends on temperature, and that can change as the temperature changes. You see bigger dips in the stream, bringing cold weather south, and warm weather north. This can also create what are called blocking patterns; high pressure systems that block the normal movement of air, creating stagnant conditions over a region. Alaska's heat wave over the summer was one from one such blocking pattern, as was Greenland's last year. A vicious cold snap in the US in March 2013 was also due to such an event.

Unfortunately, from what I can tell, it's not clear what exactly will happen as more ice is lost at the poles; but it's a safe bet we'll get more extreme weather as it occurs. And it's also a safe bet these changes won't be beneficial. They're happening too quickly. Plants, animals, humans: We can't adapt quickly enough to our rapidly fluctuating environment.

That's what worries me. Not so much cripplingly hot summers or more severe winters—as bad as those will be—but also the changes in rainfall, flooding, fires, and more. Our ability to feed ourselves depends very strongly on the weather, and that weather is changing. The house odds are getting worse, and the stakes are very high indeed.

Pushing Poor People to the Suburbs Is Bad for the Environment

| Mon Dec. 16, 2013 5:47 PM EST

This story first appeared on the Grist website and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

In recent years, an overhyped counterrevolution has emerged in America. Millennials from the suburbs and their empty-nester parents have been flocking to certain desirable urban neighborhoods. This has led to a lot of chin-pulling about "demographic inversion,"wherein the cities become richer and whiter and the suburbs more non-white and poor. Skeptics note that suburbs are in the aggregate still richer and whiter than central cities and most middle-class families still settle in suburbia.

This sociological debate misses the important environmental question: What will we have achieved if we simply change the demographic complexion of who lives in walkable urban areas and who doesn't? The answer is nothing. For the urbanist movement to be worthy of its name, the end result has to be that a higher percentage of Americans are actually living in central cities, and that the residents of both cities and suburbs represent the full spectrum of American life.

The evidence suggests that a combination of bad public policies is instead causing poor residents to be priced out of the most popular cities by well-heeled newcomers. Consider Annie Lowrey's report on low-income renters in Tuesday's New York Times. They are being squeezed by an economy where all the gains accrue to the top and new housing is built at the high end. Gentrification also brings wealthier renters into poor urban neighborhoods, bidding up the price of existing housing. Writes Lowrey:

The number of renters with very low incomes—less than 30 percent of the local median income, or about $19,000 nationally—surged by 3 million to 11.8 million between 2001 and 2011, according to a report released Monday by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard. But the number of affordable rentals available to those households held steady at about 7 million. And by 2011, about 2.6 million of those rentals were occupied by higher-income households.…

Many of the worst shortages are in major cities with healthy local economies, like Seattle, San Francisco, New York and Washington.

Coincidentally, the Times is also running a moving, deeply reported five-part series this week on the life of Dasani, a homeless girl living in a shelter in Brooklyn. Her family lost their housing subsidy in 2010, when the New York state program was canceled for lack of funds. Dasani, her parents, and her seven siblings now crowd into one room in a squalid, vermin-infested building next to the Walt Whitman Houses, a vast public housing project in the swiftly gentrifying Fort Greene neighborhood.

From a housing perspective, three things stand out about Dasani's family:

  • They would rather live in the projects than in a shelter. Public housing projects are supposedly a discredited form of big-government liberalism, and the federal government no longer appropriates much money at all for their construction. But in New York City, there are 167,353 families on the waiting list for public housing. (New York also has 123,533 families on the waiting list for Section 8 housing vouchers.)
  • Their homelessness is the direct result of being ejected from Advantage, a government rental assistance program. "By August 2010, bedbugs had infested the family's house, just as their rent subsidy once again expired," writes the Times' Andrea Elliot. "The city's shelters were filling with former Advantage recipients—families who had been homeless before taking the rent subsidy, only to become homeless again."
  • Their dream is to move to the Poconos because they could never afford an apartment in New York. The Poconos region in Pennsylvania has long been a rural area best known in New York City as a relatively cheap vacation spot. Now it is filling up with working-class New Yorkers priced out of the five boroughs. In other words, it's the exurbs.

Living in the Poconos, where driving is a necessity and a commute to New York takes 90 minutes, is not environmentally efficient. If the wealthy in-migration to New York City forces an equal out-migration, there has been no environmental gain.

To provide affordable apartments in thriving inner cities and their inner-ring suburbs, we need to adopt both the conservative free-market and liberal big-government approaches to expanding housing supply. Zoning restrictions on density must be lifted, so that developers can increase supply to meet demand. But we must also realize that the market isn't providing housing at the price points low-income families need. As Roger K. Lewis notes in The Washington Post, "there is not a single state in the United States where a person working full time and earning minimum wage can afford to rent, at fair-market value, a two-bedroom apartment or home."

Slate's Matthew Yglesias makes the point about zoning in reference to Lowrey's article. Lowrey illustrates her story with a 54-year-old nanny facing skyrocketing rents in Columbia Heights, a neighborhood of Washington, D.C., that was predominantly low-income just a decade ago and is now heavily gentrified. Yglesias writes:

[T]here are two questions unanswered… With demand surging, why doesn't construction surge enough to keep vacancy rates roughly stable. The other: If builders are always aiming at that high end, why are they building in Columbia Heights rather than in the traditionally fancier and more expensive neighborhoods west of Rock Creek Park.

The answers are "zoning" and "zoning."…

[Y]ou have a twofold limitation on supply. On the one hand, the total number of new units is capped so people only want to build luxury. On the other hand, new construction in the fancy neighborhoods is absolutely prohibited.

For example, you might walk up Connecticut Avenue just west of Rock Creek Park in D.C.'s tony Cleveland Park neighborhood and think it is fully built up because there are no empty lots. But why are all the buildings merely six or 10 stories tall? Why not 40, when the prices indicate that the demand is there? This is why D.C. must eliminate its building height restriction. But it's also a matter of local zoning ordinances. The side streets in Cleveland Park are dominated by low-density single-family homes. If the market could support replacing them with apartment buildings, why shouldn't developers be allowed to do that? D.C.'s density is only about one-third that of New York's, and its population is only about three-quarters as high as its peak 50 years ago. So clearly there is room for more development, as there is in other expensive cities such as San Francisco and Boston.

At the same time, it makes no sense to assume the market will provide the poor with housing any more than it will provide them with health insurance. It's true that massive, isolated housing projects have often bred social ills. But as the demand to live in New York's projects demonstrates, it is better than forcing people to live in homeless shelters or more than an hour's drive from the city where their jobs and social networks are located. The projects in New York are so destigmatized that developers are going to build market-rate housing right in their footprint. And housing projects no longer all look like vertical prisons. Innovative design can make subsidized housing green, human-scaled, attractive, and integrated into the streetscape.

Since even some conservatives agree with liberals that Section 8 vouchers, which allow low-income renters to find apartments on the market, are both the most efficient means of providing affordable housing and the best approach to encourage economic integration, we should appropriate more money for them.

Too often, after years of neglect, depopulation, crime, and disinvestment, cities have viewed recruiting richer residents as the essence of successful renewal. But a revival of urban America as a whole means that more people, from all walks of life, should be able to live safely, affordably, and comfortably in our cities.