Points of Interest #002

Not Seeing the Forest for the Smoke

Its Wednesday, September 9th and the West Coast is on fire. I have friends sending me pictures of fast growing fires near them, schools cancelled, and a recurring blackout from high winds kept me indoors and out of work all day yesterday.

This newsletter won’t adequately capture my sense of dread from the orange ashen sky out my window, but its a topical distraction. Before anything else, I hope you are safe.

I’ve been thinking about fire management, sprawl, and air conditioning. They all intertwine with our development patterns whose effects were feeling acutely, but whose negative externalities we’re addressing very slowly…

and sometimes not at all.

🌳 Best Time to Burn a Tree

In America, it was about 100-200 years ago. Modern fire management largely threw out a millenia’s worth of native American knowledge when the West was “won”. Our aggressive work to limit fires over the last century has resulted in a massive buildup of underbrush in fire prone areas, or as the fires like to call it Fuel.

Massive firefighting efforts also meant the risk of building suburbs in fire prone areas didn’t seem risky in past decades, but the climate has turned historically dry, fuel has built up, and now the new fuel for fires has taken over: wood frame construction homes that burn hotter and more intensely than underbrush ever did.

Now that wildfire risk to millions of homes is greater than ever the incentives to build housing elsewhere haven’t kept up with reality. California’s most expensive metros are also largely the most fire-safe and are less susceptible to heatwaves, but the state balks at building more housing in these areas.

Questions I’m thinking about:

  • If the housing and climate emergency doesn’t of 2020 doesn’t make California put a check on its single family home sprawl, what will?

  • How much longer can California stay a place you move for the lifestyle when the summers largely give way to smoke?

🌞 Sun Belt Tightening

For the last 50 years the majority of population growth in the US has happened in the West and in the Sun Belt. With a combination of mostly cheap housing, good jobs, and often times both its been a moving destination for young families, retirees, and everyone in between.

I’m a reductionist when it comes to economics, so when I tell you that I think these places prospered because of housing policy you’ll hopefully understand.

Economic mobility in the US has been declining for a long time and at its heart is an issue of housing. Many places have affordable homes: Kansas, Wisconsin, West Virginia. But those place also lack economic opportunity. Where the cheap housing and opportunity intersect you have leverage for people who want better outcomes for themselves and their families.

Sun birds arbitrage their retirements by fleeing to cheap Tuscon homes, young professionals arbitrage their career and family prospects by moving to Atlanta, though increasingly Millenials don’t move at all. Housing is now so expensive its no longer likely that moving to many places for work won’t destroy you financially.

Career maker cities of the past century like NYC and SF only pencil out for the already wealthy or those in the narrowing number of “right” industries like Finance or Tech. Both of these hubs vehemently refuse to build housing, so that leaves the upstarts: Las Vegas, Austin, Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Phoenix, Tampa, Orlando.

These places still build housing at high rates, though in the most sprawling way imaginable, and your odds of having an affordable home with a decent career are still high. They also happen to be at risk of floods, extreme heat, Drought, wildfires, tropical storms, and hurricanes. A risk that won’t subside in the coming century.

So the places of highest opportunity also have some of the greatest climate risks, all while growing with some of the worst sprawl in the country. But taxes are low!

Some questions I have…

  • Will the climate risks of the sunbelt slow down growth, or is it simply unstoppable in the face the high cost of thriving everywhere else in America?

  • Is there any set of conditions that can set off growth like we’ve seen in the Sunbelt somewhere else in the US? (a mini population boom in North Dakota comes to mind)

  • How many of you would move to the sunbelt either for housing or jobs?

💨 The Air Pros and Cons

The mighty AC unit has basically underwritten the entire history of the sunbelt.

In most of the major economic hubs that comprise it air conditioning is NOT optional and if it fails in summer its a health crisis. Its also one of the main reasons, along with larger homes, that electricity consumption is much higher there than elsewhere.

At first pass this seems like a recipe for making bad things even worse, but the sunbelt happens to overlap nicely with some of the best land in country for renewable power. Power that continues to get cheaper to build and operate every year.

There is an opportunity to turn the baking and oppressive heat and sun to the regions advantage, but the growth in AC usage is going to be profound.

In Los Angeles County, rising temperatures combined with population growth could crank up electricity demand during peak summertime hours as much as 51% by 2060 under a high-emissions scenario, according to a 2019 Applied Energy study by researchers at Arizona State and the University of California, Los Angeles.

We can’t unbuild in the sunbelt, though climate migration will certainly grow more common, so we have to make do with what we have.

Electrification of cars, replacement of the power grid with renewables, and making air conditioners more efficient are probably the most important challenges of the coming decades. The built environment, economy, and emissions of the sunbelt means we can’t afford to nail any less than all three.

In the meantime I’m just trying not to cry over how much house I can afford in Tucson compared to Portland.

Some questions I have…

  • How much of the world is going to see AC as a necessity where it wasn’t before? Heatwaves have gotten far deadlier from Europe, the middle east, to Australia.

  • How much does using my own air conditioner increase my carbon emissions? I can probably crunch those numbers…

That’s a wrap

Today’s topics are not the most upbeat, but its hard to think of much else as the smoke envelops my apartment and fires threaten friends homes and livelihoods… so as the adage goes: write what you know?

Got an answer to one of my question? Want me to dive deeper into a topic? Let me know.

Till next time ✌️,

Jóhann