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Matt Kahn's Climatopolis: of golf courses and cemeteries

Golf courses and cemeteries - the two prime wastes of real estate!

Al Czervik said that. And now so does UCLA's Matt Kahn, in a way.

Kahn is an economist I've interviewed a number of times who works at the Institute of the Environment at UCLA. I heard his book was called Climatopolis, and I saw the cover - with its red-orange apocalytic-Red-Dawn effect - and thought I might have a book analog to The Day After Tomorrow on my hands. But no such luck. Kahn's an upbeat guy, so he looks at how people in cities might adapt to a warmer-temperature world - and the results are engaging and thought-provoking.

First, Utah - and specifically Salt Lake City, where they're still printing references to this crazy climate change business - gets top marks for resiliency to a changing climate, for its elevation.

A lack of elevation, you might imagine, will present a challenge. California's thought of that - the state has a climate adaptation plan in the works. And Kahn says so will its residents. Whether you live near the Great Salt Lake or the channelized Los Angeles River, water scarcity is something we'll contend with. Which is where we get back to Rodney Dangerfield in Caddyshack.

Kahn posits west side golf courses will prove less valuable than high-density residences as people seek to live at the more temperate coast. And he talks about flaws in incentives used as policy mechanisms by the DWP by looking within his zip Candy Spelling's mansion, on a larger parcel of land, with a larger water allotment. (Guy knows his name around search engine optimization, I'd guess.) Actually, he kind of mocks them:

This borders on funny. There is serious drought int he West. Higher prices for water could encourage demand-side conservation. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is not doing its part to "solve" the problem. If the everyone to the same tiered pricing schedule, this agency would either collect a lot more revenue from water sales to the rich with large lots, or owners of private "golf courses" (those with big swimming pools and lots of grass) would cut back on their water consumption.

This isn't an argument. it's an observation. The author observes that Antonio Villaraigosa used twice the water that his neighbors did in the year before he moved in the mayor's mansion - and says that shows he's responding to price signals as a rational actor. Kahn says that utilities are trying to get people to use less water...but in a rearrange-the-deck-chairs-on-the-Titanic way, not by doing what he thinks (economics says) will work.

Bottom line, he says discussions about incentives related to climate change are coming, whether we herald their arrival or not. He points out incentives to behavior already exist and are shaping how we deal with climate in the future, whether we notice or not.

What he doesn't see is an apocalyptic future: Kahn has some faith in the nerds to whom he referred in my Proposition 23 story earlier this week. And he looks to examples of the past to see what people have done to adjust to other changes in their natural circumstances. He's not interested in anticipating outbreaks of infectious disease because of some acute or dramatic problem that develops when the climate warms. He's looking at how people could behave in the next 20 to 50 years, mostly without judgment, mostly just explaining how economic principles fit into decisionmaking. There aren't many books that take this tack, and that may be a big reason I found it a fascinating read. After all, Al Czervik knew golf courses were big wastes of real estate. But he still hit the links with an enormous golf bag that included cold beer and hot tunes, said Judge Smails' hat looked like it came with a free bowl of soup. Sometimes people act rationally; sometimes they don't.

Maybe I've sold you on watching Caddyshack again. But since I'm kind of more interested in climate change, I asked Matt Kahn to sell you on reading his book, and that's what the video is:

Matt Kahn gives you a taste of "Climatopolis" from Molly Peterson on Vimeo.