Berkeley parks

UC Berkeley students are now considered pollutants under California environmental law

College students are an environmental burden.

That’s essentially what Alameda County Superior Court Judge Brad Seligman ruled this week when he froze enrollment increases at UC Berkeley in response to a lawsuit filed by a local group. NIMBY called Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods. The judge found that the university failed to consider the impact of increased enrollment – ​​including late-night parties and crowded parks – in its plans to add more student and faculty housing, in violation of the California Environmental Quality Act, known as CEQA.

Thousands of otherwise qualified students will be denied admission to UC Berkeley if the ruling stands, the latest evidence that the state’s environmental law has irrevocably broken away from a 21st-century understanding of what which constitutes environmental damage in the era of global warming.

Something has to give.

Humanity’s understanding of the nature of our environment has changed since the CEQA was signed into law by Governor Ronald Reagan in the 1970s. California’s communities and wild lands still need to be protected from the harms of localized pollution – the primary purpose of the original law. But climate science has since revealed the role that local planning decisions collectively play in the wider ecological health of the planet.

Party noise can be distracting, but it’s not an environmental hazard on the same level as climate emissions.

As Chris Elmendorf, a UC Davis law professor and CEQA critic, said in an interview, “More people living in Berkeley is a boon for the environment, because if they can’t live in Berkeley , where will they live instead?

Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods has an answer: Its president, Phillip Bokovoy, wants the university to accommodate growth on a satellite campus miles from Richmond. And while that would indeed mitigate localized environmental impacts in Berkeley, it would create even more extreme environmental impacts in a neighboring community – a community that lacks public transit and other sustainable infrastructure like Berkeley.

This apparently doesn’t bother Bokovoy, who seems to see changing the existing quality of life in his town as the overriding concern.

“We will end up like Bangkok, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur – dense Asian cities where there is no transport network”, he said UC Berkeley plans in August. “Nobody talks about that.”

Nor should they be.

Aside from the uncomfortable racial undertones of Bokovoy’s commentary, and the fact that these three cities arguably have better public transport networks than the Bay Area, what about our understanding of climate science in the 21st century suggesting that pushing development to the margins constitutes meaningful environmental protection?

“It’s fine to treat ‘induced population growth’ as ​​an environmental issue if the project is a wilderness development near Tahoe,” Elmendorf says. “But it’s ridiculous to treat it as a problem – a problem to be mitigated and avoided where possible – in an urbanized area like Berkeley.”

CEQA fails to differentiate between dense, climate-friendly urban development in a place like Berkeley and sprawl – essentially treating all development as a similar environmental nuisance. And despite the almost daily introduction of new evidence of CEQA’s failure to fit in with contemporary scientific priorities of environmental damage, efforts to reform the law are now vying with Proposition 13 for the title of “third rail” of the California politics.

State Senator Scott Wiener has teased a legislative response to Berkeley’s student housing decision. We wish him success.

But while a likely CEQA to help UC Berkeley resolve its current dilemma is a necessary short-term fix, Californians can’t continue to indulge in the broader failures of an environmental law that permeates holiday noise. of the same or greater gravity than greenhouse gases. emissions. Our state needs and deserves strong laws that protect residents and the natural environment from pollution and bad actors. But absurd rules invite absurd planning. And that’s what we get.

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