by Andrea Germanos, Common Dreams staff writer

As a United Nations agency calls attention to the “unusually early” heatwaves gripping parts of Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and the U.S., a new study brings an ominous warning about more killer heat near certain to come.

In a statement Tuesday, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), citing the recent finding by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), said that the first five months of the year were the warmest on the books.

The agency pointed to several examples, such as the “[e]xtremely high temperatures of around 40°C (104°F) [that] contributed to the severity of the disastrous wildfire in Portugal which has claimed dozens of lives,” and a heatwave that struck Morocco and and brought a record high 42.9°C (109°F) to one part of the country.

Agence France-Presse adds Wednesday that Italy’s “current heatwave could turn out to be the most intense in 15 years,” while “Britain was set to see its first five-day stretch of temperatures over 30°C (86°F) in June since 1995.”

The U.S. Southwest has also been sizzling, as the WMO pointed out. So high were the temperatures in Phoenix on Tuesday—they reached 119°F (48°C) — flights were being cancelled.

And according to a new global analysis, published Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change, deadly heatwaves could be faced by nearly three-quarters of humanity by 2100.

“We are running out of choices for the future,” said lead author Camilo Mora, an associate professor of geography in the College of Social Sciences at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.

As the Associated Press explains, Mora’s “team of researchers examined 1,949 deadly heatwaves from around the world since 1980 to look for trends, define when heat is so severe it kills, and forecast the future.” The data they looked at included the heatwave “in Chicago that killed 740 people in 1995, one in Paris that killed 4,870 people in 2003, and a 2010 heat wave in Moscow that killed 10,860,” NBC News writes.

“We found this very unique threshold of temperature and humidity that allows us to identify why all these people die in all these cities around the world,” Mora explained.

Right now, about one-third of the world’s population is exposed to potentially killer heat for at least 20 days a year.

Even if drastic reductions to greenhouse gas are made, nearly half—48 percent—of the world’s population will face such heat by 2100.

A free and independent press is essential to the health of a functioning democracy

And if they grow unabated? About 74 percent of the population will face potentially deadly heatwaves.

“For heatwaves, our options are now between bad or terrible,” Mora stated.

“An increasing threat to human life from excess heat now seems almost inevitable, but will be greatly aggravated if greenhouse gases are not considerably reduced,” the researchers wrote.

Climate change, Mora adds, “has put humanity on a path that will become increasingly dangerous and difficult to reverse if greenhouse gas emissions are not taken much more seriously.”

And decisions like President Donald Trump’s to pull the United States out of the Paris climate agreement are the opposite of what’s needed, he said.

“Actions like the withdrawal from the Paris agreement is a step in the wrong direction that will inevitably delay fixing a problem for which there is simply no time to waste,” said Mora.

This work appeared as “Deadly Heatwaves Could Threaten Nearly Three-Quarters of World’s Inhabitants” and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License

A perennial OregonPEN favorite analyst returns with another insightful assessment of our predicament (not a problem, as problems have solutions, whereas predicaments only have outcomes) — a predicament we created when we chose to build an entire continent worth of cities, towns, and interstate highways to connect them on the very mistaken notion that a very atypical and favorable set of circumstances — abundant cheap energy and seemingly endless global capacity to absorb and process its combustion byproducts — would endure forever, rather than for just a few decades.

by Gail Tverberg

Falling interest rates have huge power. My background is as an actuary, so I am very much aware of the great power of interest rates. But a lot of people are not aware of this power, including, I suspect, some of the people making today’s decisions to raise interest rates. Similar people want to sell securities now being held by the Federal Reserve and by other central banks. This would further ramp up interest rates. With high interest rates, practically nothing that is bought using credit is affordable. This is frightening.

Another group of people who don’t understand the power of interest rates is the group of people who put together the Peak Oil story. In my opinion, the story of finite resources, including oil, is true. But the way the problem manifests itself is quite different from what Peak Oilers have imagined because the economy is far more complex than the Hubbert Model assumes. One big piece that has been left out of the Hubbert Model is the impact of changing interest rates. When interest rates fall, this tends to allow oil prices to rise, and thus allows increased production. This postpones the Peak Oil crisis, but makes the ultimate crisis worse.

The new crisis can be expected to be “Peak Economy” instead of Peak Oil. Peak Economy is likely to have a far different shape than Peak Oil–a much sharper downturn. It is likely to affect many aspects of the economy at once. The financial system will be especially affected. We will have gluts of all energy products, because no energy product will be affordable to consumers at a price that is profitable to producers. Grid electricity is likely to fail at essentially the same time as other parts of the system.

Interest rates are very important in determining when we hit “Peak Economy.” As I will explain in this article, falling interest rates between 1981 and 2014 are one of the things that allowed Peak Oil to be postponed for many years.

Figure 1. 10-year Treasury Interest Rates. Chart prepared by St. Louis Fed.

These falling interest rates allowed oil prices to be much higher than they otherwise would have been, and thus allowed far more oil to be extracted than would otherwise have been the case.

Since mid 2014, the big change that has taken place was the elimination of Quantitative Easing (QE) by the US. This change had the effect of disrupting the “carry trade” in US dollars (borrowing in US dollars and purchasing investments, often debt with a slightly higher yield, in another currency).

Figure 2. At this point, oil prices are both too high for many would-be consumers and too low for producers.

As a result, the US dollar rose, relative to other currencies. This tended to send oil prices to a level that is too low for oil producers to make an adequate profit (Figure 2). In addition, governments of oil exporting countries (such as Venezuela, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia) cannot collect adequate taxes. This kind of problem does not lead to immediate collapse. Instead, it “sets the wheels in motion,” leading to collapse. This is a major reason why “Peak Economy” seems to be ahead, even if no one attempts to raise interest rates.

The problem is not yet very visible, because oil prices that are too low for producers are favorable for importers of oil, such as the US and Europe. Our economy actually functions better with these low oil prices. Unfortunately, this situation is not sustainable. In fact, rising interest rates are likely to make the situation much worse, quickly.

In this post, I will explain more details relating to these problems.

Low interest rates are extremely beneficial to the economy; high interest rates are a huge problem.

Low interest rates allow consumers to purchase high-priced goods with affordable monthly payments. With low interest rates, consumers can afford to buy more consumer goods (such as homes and cars) than they could otherwise. Thus, low interest rates tend to lead to high demand for commodities of all kinds, thus raising the price of commodities, such as oil.

Low interest rates are also good for businesses and governments. Their borrowing costs are favorable. Because consumers are doing well, business revenues and tax revenues tend to grow at a brisk pace. It becomes easier to afford new factories, roads, and schools.

While low interest rates are good, a reduction in interest rates is even better.

A reduction in interest rates tends to make asset prices rise. The reason this happens is because if someone already owns an asset (examples: a home, factory, a business, shares of stock) and interest rates fall, that asset suddenly becomes more affordable to other people, so the price of that asset rises because of increased demand. For example, if the monthly mortgage payment for a house suddenly drops from $600 per month to $500 per month because of a reduction in interest rates, many more potential homeowners can afford to buy the house. The price of the house may be bid up to a new higher level–perhaps to a price level where the monthly payment is $550 per month–higher than previously, but still below the old payment amount.

Furthermore, if interest rates fall, owners of homes that have risen in value can refinance their mortgages and obtain the new lower interest rate. Often, they can withdraw the “excess equity” and spend it on something else, such as a new car or home improvements. This extra spending tends to stimulate the economy, and thus tends to raise commodity prices. Suddenly, investments in oil fields that previously looked too expensive to extract, and mines with ores of very low grade, start looking profitable. Businesses hire workers to staff the investments that are now profitable, stimulating the economy.

Businesses receive other benefits, as well, when interest rates fall. Their borrowing cost on new loans falls, making new investment more affordable. Demand for their products tends to rise. The additional demand that results from lower interest rates allows economies of scale to work their magic, and thus allows profits to rise.

Companies that have large portfolios of investments, such as insurance companies and pension funds, find that the values of their assets (stocks, bonds, and other investments) rise when interest rates fall. Thus, their balance sheets look better. (Of course, the low interest payments when interest rates are low provide a different problem for these companies. Here, we are talking about the impact of falling interest rates.)

Of course, the reverse of all of these things is also true. It is truly bad news when interest rates rise!

Wages Depend on Interest Rates and Debt Growth

When interest rates fall, debt levels tend to rise. This happens because expensive goods such as homes, cars, and factories become more affordable, so customers can buy more of them. Thus, falling interest rates are very closely associated with rising debt levels.

We find that when we look at debt levels, rising debt levels seem to be highly correlated with rising US per capita wages, (especially up until China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, and globalization took off). “Per capita wages” are calculated by dividing total wages and salaries by total population. Per capita wages thus reflect the impact of both (a) changes in the wages of individual workers and (b) changes in workforce participation. Using this measure “makes sense,” if we think of the total population as being supported by the wages of the working population, either directly or indirectly (such as through taxes).

Figure 3. Growth in US Wages vs. Growth in Non-Financial Debt. Wages from US Bureau of Economics “Wages and Salaries.” Non-Financial Debt is discontinued series from St. Louis Federal Reserve. (Note chart does not show a value for 2016.) Both sets of numbers have been adjusted for growth in US population and for growth in CPI Urban.

What does oil price depend upon?

Oil price depends upon the amount customers can afford to pay for oil and the finished products it produces. The amount customers can afford, in turn, depends very much on interest rates, since these influence both wages and monthly payments on loans. If the price that a significant share of consumers can afford is below the selling price of oil, we get an oil glut, as we have today.

It is important to note that oil and other energy products are important in determining the cost of finished products, such as cars, homes, and factories. Thus, high prices on energy products tend to ripple through the economy in many different ways. Many people consider only the change in the cost of filling a car’s gasoline tank; this approach gives a misleading impression of the impact of oil prices.

Affordability is also affected by growing wage disparity. Growing wage disparity tends to occur because of growing complexity and specialization. Globalization also contributes to wage disparity. These are other problems we encounter as we approach energy limits. Demand for commodities is to a significant extent determined by the wages of non-elite workers because there are so many of them. High wage workers tend to influence commodity prices less because their purchases are skewed toward a greater share of services, and toward the purchase of financial assets.

Because interest rates, debt, wages, and oil prices (and, in fact, commodity prices of all kinds) are linked, the system is much more complex than what most early modelers assumed was the case.

Hubbert’s Theory Underlies Many Mainstream Energy Beliefs 

Today’s mainstream beliefs about our energy problems seem to be strongly influenced by Peak Oil theory. Peak Oil theory, in turn, is based on an analysis by geophysicist M. King Hubbert. This view does not consider interest rates, debt, or prices.

In this view, the amount of any exhaustible resource that we can extract depends on the resources in the ground, plus the technology we have to extract these resources. In general, Hubbert expected an approximately symmetric curve of extraction, as illustrated in Figure 4. The peak is expected when about 50% of the resource is extracted. Hubbert believed that improved technology might allow more exhaustible resources to be extracted after peak, making the actual extraction pattern somewhat asymmetric, with a larger share of a resource, such as oil, being extracted after peak.

With this theory, we can expect to extract a considerable amount of resources in the future, even if the energy supply of a particular type starts to fall, because it is “past peak.” With the relatively slow decline rate shown in Figure 4, it should be possible to “stretch” supplies for some years, especially if technology continues to improve.

At some point, the standard view is that we will “run out” of energy supplies if we don’t make substitutions or conserve the use of these nonrenewable resources. Thus, an increase in efficiency is viewed as one part of the solution. Another part of the solution is viewed as substitution, such as with wind and solar energy.

In the mainstream view, the major influence on commodity prices is scarcity, not affordability. The expectation is that scarcity will cause oil prices will rise; as a result, expensive substitutes will become cost competitive. The higher prices will also encourage more conservation and more high-cost technologies. In theory, these can keep the economy operating for a very long time. The very inadequate models that economists have developed have encouraged these views.

The Usual Energy Model Is Overly Simple

Hubbert assumed that the amount of oil extracted would depend only upon the amount of resources available and available technologies. In fact, the amount of oil extracted depends on price, in part because price determines which technologies can be used. It also governs whether oil can be extracted in areas that are inherently expensive–for example, deep under the sea, or heavily polluted with some other material that must be removed at significant cost. Because of this, if oil prices are high, new technologies can be brought into play, and resources that are expensive to reach can be pursued.

If oil prices are lower than really needed, for example in the $40 to $80 per barrel range, the situation is more complex. The problem is that taxes on oil are important, especially for oil exporters. In this range, many producers can continue to produce, but their governments collect inadequate taxes. Their governments find it necessary to borrow money to maintain programs upon which the populations of the countries depend. Governments with inadequate tax revenue tend to get into more conflicts with other countries, such as is happening today with other Middle Eastern countries fighting with Qatar.

The situation of inadequate tax revenue is inherently unstable. It can eventually be expected to lead to the collapse of oil exporting countries.

Factors Underlying the Rise and Fall of Historical Oil Prices

The fundamental problem regarding the cost of resource extraction is that we tend to extract the cheapest-to-extract resources first. Thus, the cost of extracting many types of resources, including oil, tends to rise over time. Wages grow much more slowly.

Figure 5. Average per capita wages computed by dividing total “Wages and Salaries” as reported by US BEA by total US population, and adjusting to 2016 price level using CPI-Urban. Average inflation adjusted oil price is based primarily on Brent oil historical oil price as reported by BP, also adjusted by CPI-urban to 2016 price level.

This mismatch between wages and oil price tends to cause increasing affordability problems over time, even as we switch to cheaper fuels and increased efficiency. Part of the reason why affordability problems get worse has to do with our inability to keep reducing interest rates; at some point, they reach an irreducible minimum. Also, as I mentioned previously, there is a growing wage disparity problem caused by growing complexity and globalization. Those with low wages find themselves increasingly unable to afford goods such as homes and cars that require oil products in their construction and use.

Looking at Figure 5, we see two major price “humps.” The first of these is in the 1970-1998 period, and the second is in the 1999 to present period. In the first of these two periods, we often hear that the run up in oil prices was the result of an oil supply problem. This occurred because the US oil supply peaked in 1970, and the Arabs made the situation worse with an oil embargo.

In fact, I think that at least half of the problem in the 1970-1981 period may have been that wages were growing rapidly during this period. The rapid run up in wages allowed oil prices to increase in response to a fairly small oil shortage. Thus, the run up in prices was caused to a significant extent by greater demand, made possible by greater affordability. Note that timing of wage increases is slightly ahead of the timing of increases in CPI Urban. This suggests that wage growth tends to cause price inflation. It seems likely that globalization reduces the influence of US wages on oil prices, and thus on price inflation, in recent years.

Figure 6. Growth in US wages versus increase in CPI Urban. Wages are total “Wages and Salaries” from US Bureau of Economic Analysis. CPI-Urban is from US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The large increases in wage payments shown in Figure 6 were made possible by growing total population, by rapidly growing productivity, and by an increasing share of women being added to the workforce. Figure 6 shows that the big increases in wages stopped after interest rates were raised to a very high level in 1981.

Economists hope that rising oil prices will bring about new supply, substitution, and greater efficiency. In the 1970s and 1980s, oil prices did seem to come back down for precisely these reasons. I explain the situation in more detail in the Appendix. Rising inflation rates and interest rates were a problem during this period for insurance companies. One insurance company I worked for went bankrupt; another almost did.

We have not been able to achieve the same new supply–substitution–efficiency result in the 1999 to 2016 period, partly because whatever easy efficiency and substitution changes could inexpensively be made were made earlier, and partly because we are reaching diminishing returns with respect to extracting energy products, especially oil. Also, the wage disparity of workers is growing. Growing wage disparity makes debt growth increasingly ineffective in raising wages. Instead of debt growth funding more wages and more affordable goods for the working poor, the additional debt seems to go to the already rich.

The decreases in interest rates since 1981 have given the economy an almost continuous upward lift. This long-term decrease tends to get overlooked because it has gone on for such a long time. The major exception to the long-term decrease in interest rates since 1981 was the big increase by the Federal Reserve in target interest rates in the 2004-2006 period (shown indirectly in Figure 7).

Figure 7. Three-month treasury rates. Graph prepared by the St. Louis Fed.

The problem started when Alan Greenspan dropped target interest rates very low in the 2001-2004 period to stimulate the economy, and then raised them in the 2004-2006 period to cut back growth (Figure 7). This seems to have been one of the major causes of the Great Recession. The other major cause of the Great Recession was fact that oil prices rose far more rapidly than wages during the 2003-2008 period. More information is  provided in the Appendix.

Where We Are Now

We have many leaders who do not seem to understand what our real problems are, and how successful programs have been to date in keeping the system from crashing. Way too much of their understanding has come from traditional models regarding “land, labor and capital,” “supply and demand,” and “higher prices bring substitution.” These models are not suitable for understanding how the economy, as a self-organized networked system, really works.

These leaders seem to believe that QE worldwide is no longer working well enough, so it should be removed. In addition, securities currently held by central banks should be sold. Also, the growth in debt should be slowed, because it is getting too high. Whether or not debt is too high, this strategy will lead to “Peak Economy.” As I explained in an earlier post, debt is what pulls an economy forward. It is the promise (which may or may not actually be kept) of future goods and services. These goods will be made with energy resources and other resources that we may or may not actually have in the future. Once we pare back our expectations, the system is likely to spiral downward.

It is not entirely clear the extent to which interest rates have already started to influence the economy. Long term interest rates, such as 10 year Treasuries, have not yet changed in yield (Exhibit 1). But short-term interest rates clearly have increased (Figure 7). An increase from 0% to 1% is a huge increase, if someone is using very short-term interest rates to fund highly levered [sic – leveraged] investments.

Worldwide, the International Institute of Finance reported an increase in debt of $70 trillion, to $215 trillion between 2006 and 2016. This sounds like a huge increase, but it only amounts to a 4.0% increase per year during that period. It is doubtful this is enough to support the GDP growth the world needs, plus the increase in commodity prices demanded by diminishing returns.

There is evidence the economy is already headed downward. A recent report indicates that in the US, the smallest increase in consumer credit in 6 years took place in April 2017.

Another worrying area is auto loans. This is an area where interest rates have already begun to increase a bit, making monthly payments on cars higher.

Figure 8. Finance rate on 48-month new car loans through February 2017. Chart by St. Louis Fed.

The average finance rate in February 2017 was 4.52%, compared to an average finance rate of 4.00% in November 2015 (the low point). We don’t yet have information on what the increase would be to May 2017. A person would expect that if finance rates are following the interest rates on short to medium term US government securities, the finance rate would continue to rise. This interest rate rise would be one of the things that discounts provided by auto dealers would act to offset.

Because of the higher cost to the buyer of rising auto financing rates, a person would expect such a rise to adversely affect new auto sales. Higher interest rates would also affect lease prices and auto resale prices. We don’t yet know the extent to which higher interest rates are currently affecting auto sales, but the kinds of changes we are seeing are precisely the kinds of changes we would expect to see from higher interest rates. We have had a long history of falling interest rates (plus longer maturities) helping to prop up auto sales. Simply getting to the end of this cycle could be part of the problem.

Peak Economy is likely not very far away. We do not need to encourage it, by raising interest rates and selling securities held by the Federal Reserve. We badly need more people to understand the connection between interest rates and oil prices, and how important it is that interest rates not rise–in fact, more QE would be better.

Appendix – More Detail on Changes Affecting Oil Prices

(a) Between 1973 and 1981. Our oil problems started when US oil production began to decline in 1970, and Arab countries took advantage of our problems with an oil embargo. We immediately started work on extracting oil from other locations that we knew had oil available (Alaska, North Sea, and Mexico). Also, Japan was already making smaller cars. We started building smaller, more fuel-efficient cars in the US, too. We also began to substitute other fuels for oil in home heating and in the making of electricity.

(b) Between 1981 and 1998. In 1981, Paul Volker decided to force oil prices down by raising target interest rates to a very high level. He knew that such a high interest rate would lead to recession, which would reduce demand and thus prices. Also, earlier efforts at new oil supply and demand reduction approaches began to be effective. The new oil supply was somewhat higher priced than the pre-1970 oil. Falling interest rates made it possible for consumers to tolerate the somewhat higher oil prices required by the new higher priced oil.

(c) Between 1999 and 2008. Oil prices rose rapidly during this period, in large part because of rising demand. Globalization added huge demand for oil. Also, Alan Greenspan reduced target interest rates at about the time of the 2001 recession. (Target interest rates affect 3-month interest rates, shown in Figure 7.) At the same time, banks were encouraged to be more lenient in lending standards, and to offer loans based on the very favorable short-term interest rates available at that time. This combination of factors led to rapidly rising housing debt and much refinancing activity. All of this activity also added to oil demand.

Fortunately, these demand increases coincided with an increase in the cost of oil extraction. The world’s supply of “conventional oil” was becoming limited in supply, and began to decline in 2005. The higher demand raised prices, thus encouraging producers to pursue more expensive unconventional oil production.

(d) The 2008 Crash occurred after the Federal Reserve raised target interest rates in the 2004-2006 period, in an attempt to damp down rising food and energy prices. This interest rate rise made home buying more expensive. Oil prices were also increasing in the 2002-2008 period. The combination of rising interest rates and rising oil prices reduced demand for new homes and cars. Home prices fell, debt levels fell, and oil prices fell. Many people blamed the problems on loose mortgage underwriting standards, but the basic issue was falling affordability of oil, as oil prices rose and as higher interest rates took away the huge boost the economy previously had received. See my article, Oil Supply Limits and the Continuing Financial Crisis.

(e) 2009-2011 ramp up in prices was enabled by QE. This QE brought a broad range of interest rates to very low levels.

(f) 2011-2014. Oil prices gradually slid downward, because there was no longer enough upward “push” created by QE, since interest rates were no longer falling very much.

(g) Mid to late 2014 to Present. The US removed its QE, leading to a sharp reduction in carry trade in US dollars. Many currencies fell relative to the US dollar, making oil products less affordable in these currencies. As a result, oil prices fell to a level far below that needed by oil producers, especially oil exporters.

First published as “Falling Interest Rates have Postponed Peak Oil” at OurFiniteWorld.com, and republished with kind permission of the author, Gail (“Gail the Actuary”) Tverberg.

by Richard Heinberg

In the Museletter this month, two essays. First: Might peak coal improve our chances of avoiding the worst climate change impacts? And what are the implications for economic growth? Second: What are the implications of Donald Trump’s announcement that he’ll renege on the U.S. commitment to the Paris climate agreement?

Coal Is a Dinosaur and so is the growth economy

In a recent paper, Justin Ritchie, a Ph.D. candidate in resources and the environment at the University of British Columbia, and his co-author, UBC professor Hadi Dowlatabadi, pointed out that global estimates of the amounts of coal that are economically and technologically recoverable have fallen by two-thirds since the 1990s. This observation also formed the substance of my 2009 book, Blackout: Coal, Climate and the Last Energy Crisis, so it’s nice to see the point taken up by others. However, Ritchie and Dowlatabadi go a step further and think through the implications of the ongoing coal reserves downgrades for climate modeling.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has for years produced computer-generated models of several possible trajectories for future greenhouse gas emissions through the remainder of the century. These “representative concentration pathways,” or RCPs, include an extreme high emissions case, RCP 8.5, that is commonly referred to as “business as usual.” In this scenario, “coal use in particular increases almost 10 fold by 2100” according to IPCC authors.

IPCC_RCP

At the 2015 American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco, at a session co-organized by Post Carbon Institute and other organizations, PCI Fellow David Hughes gave a presentation in which he showed that actual recoverable fossil fuel reserves are consistent only with low-emissions RCP scenarios. The new paper from Ritchie and Dowlatabadi reaffirms much of Hughes’s argument (though Hughes looked more broadly at reserves of all fossil fuels, plus uranium).

What does this downgrading of likely carbon emissions mean for climate change modelers, climate activists, policy makers, and concerned citizens? According to Ritchie, the implication is clearly not as simple as “don’t worry, fossil fuel depletion will solve climate change for us.” Instead, “The same finding that shrinks CO2 emissions may also lower the cost of dealing with global warming, making the Paris Agreement that addresses climate change easier to achieve,” as a Bloomberg article on Ritchie’s paper puts it. That’s because costs of climate action are typically measured against the economic growth presumed to occur if the world continues burning coal and other fossil fuels at ever-increasing rates extrapolated from recent decades. If those extrapolations are unrealistic (too high), then keeping emissions within a two-degree Celsius limit will be easier and cheaper.

Ironically, Ritchie’s and Hughes’s questioning of likely future carbon emissions (no official change has filtered through the IPCC apparatus as of yet) occurs just as Donald Trump undertakes telegenic coal advocacy and abandons the Paris climate accord. In view of the reality that America’s best coal has already been dug and burned, the notion that the industry can somehow be revived at our president’s whim would be laughable—except that the sad joke is on the hundreds of thousands of coal country voters who fell for Trump’s fake promises.

Why has the world dragged its feet in adopting more realistic fossil fuel resource estimates? Pushback from the fossil fuel industry is certainly understandable: coal, oil, and gas companies—whether traded on stock markets or government owned—derive market value from their assets, which consist of future production potentials. Lower reserves estimates translate to lower asset valuations. The motives of climate scientists and activists in overestimating burnable carbon reserves are harder to divine; one can only guess that they accept at face value the numbers from the fossil fuel industries, and then pad those numbers further out of caution (more on this in a moment). In any case, more realistic fossil fuel reserves estimates should help us come to terms with reality in several ways—not only with regard to climate modeling, but economic expectations and political prospects as well.

Every few years, the IPCC issues a major new “assessment” crammed with data and models, aimed at informing policy makers. Unfortunately, these assessments are also filled with what Oliver Gedens has called “magical thinking.” For example, the most recent IPCC assessment (its fifth, released in 2014) described a series of computer-generated models of energy and emissions pathways that would keep the world below two degrees C. Eighty percent of these rely on negative emissions technologies, of which the primary one is Bio Energy with Carbon Capture and Sequestration (BECCS). The idea with BECCS is to grow enormous amounts of biomass, burn it, then capture the carbon and bury it. In order to capture and bury enough carbon to make enough of a difference, lots of biomass would be needed; by Gedens’s calculations an area larger than the size of India would have to be planted in fast-growing crops destined to be combusted. The carbon dioxide that’s captured would have to be compressed and moved through thousands of miles of pipelines to old, depleted oil and gas wells to be buried forever, requiring an infrastructure comparable to that of the current global oil industry. The costs would be enormous, as would be the risks.

Again, unrealistic assumptions about fossil fuel reserves, and therefore emissions, lead to unrealistic (i.e., implausibly expensive and risky) methods for keeping those emissions down. The only realistic solution to our climate crisis is not to put so much carbon in the atmosphere in the first place. But that path runs counter to expectations about economic growth—which requires energy. And that is almost surely at the root of the IPCC’s assumptions about future fossil fuel consumption (regardless of whether those fossil fuels are actually available to be consumed).

So far humanity has increased the global atmospheric CO2 concentration from 280 parts per million to over 400 ppm—an already dangerous level. David Hughes figures burning our remaining realistic reserves of coal, oil, and natural gas would send us to about 550 ppm. There’s an easy way of not getting to 550 ppm: leave most of those fossil fuel reserves in the ground. But that would sink the economy, unless we very rapidly develop alternative energy sources (nuclear, which is expensive and risky; or solar and wind, which are more realistic alternatives). Is it even possible to make the energy switch so quickly and completely as to avoid major bumps along the road? Building alternative energy infrastructure will itself require energy, and during the crucial early stages of the transition most of that energy will have to come from fossil fuels. There’s no way to bootstrap the energy transition process with energy from, say solar panels and wind turbines, because wind, and especially solar, technologies take years to energetically pay for their own manufacture and installation. So to avert burning even more fossil fuels than we otherwise would (in order to build all those solar panels, wind turbines, electric cars, heat pumps, and so on), resulting in a big pulse of carbon emissions, we would have to severely curtail the use of fossil fuels for current purposes—the maintenance of business as usual. That would also imperil economic growth. And we are talking about a remarkably small time window available for the shift, compared with the decades required for past energy transitions. It’s all so complicated that one can get a headache just thinking about it.

Cumulative-emissions-IPCC

The main stumbling block that leads policy makers to twist their logic into pretzels is economic growth. Remove the requirement for growth, and it’s barely possible (not easy, but possible) to reconcile carbon reserves, emissions, energy sources, and warming targets—if governments somehow dedicate enough money and policy effort to the job. However, with further economic growth as an absolute requirement, the resulting climate models fester with internal contradictions and with assumptions about speculative technologies that very few people believe can be scaled up sufficiently, and that may have economic, environmental, and political repercussions that no one is prepared to deal with.

We cannot afford to hide the implications of realistic fossil fuels reserves estimates behind magical thinking. Perhaps the most important of those implications is that the world is probably just about at peak energy right now, give or take a decade. If we act immediately and strongly to rein in climate change, then a peak in world energy usage will likely occur more or less immediately. If we don’t act, then we may have another decade before fossil fuel depletion results in peak energy anyway. Our energy mix will shift: in the case of strong climate policy, oil will start to decline first (due to depletion), probably before 2020, and coal as well (due to policy), with natural gas growing until roughly 2020-2050, when it peaks globally from depletion. Without strong climate policy, coal peaks anyway (due to depletion) around 2025 (Chinese coal consumption appears to have peaked in 2013-2014). The amount of energy we get from nuclear power probably won’t change much over this time period. Renewables will contribute a larger share, depending on investment levels and policy supports, but cannot realistically expand far enough, fast enough, to maintain energy growth and therefore economic growth.

So overall, one way or the other, we have just about hit the maximum burn rate our civilization is likely to achieve, and it’s mostly downhill from here. That has implications for robust economic growth (it’s essentially over), and hence for war and peace, inequality, political stability, and further population expansion. Dealing with the end of energy growth, and therefore economic growth, is the biggest political and social challenge of our time—though it’s unlikely to be recognized as such. (Our biggest ecological challenges consist of climate change, species extinctions, and ocean acidification.) The impacts of the end of growth will likely be masked by financial crashes and socio-political stresses that will rivet everyone’s attention while a quiet trend churns away in the background, undoing all our assumptions and expectations about the world we humans have constructed over the past couple of centuries.

If we’re smart, we will recognize that deeper trend and adapt to it in ways that preserve the best of what we have accomplished, and make life as fulfilling as it can be for as many people as possible, even while the amount of energy available to us ratchets downward. We’ll act to rein in population growth and aim for a gradual overall population decline, so that per capita energy use does not have to decline as fast as total use. We’ll act to minimize ecological disruption by protecting habitat and species. We’ll make happiness, not consumption, the centerpiece of economic policy.

If we’re not so smart, we’ll join the dinosaurs.

Failing President Spites Climate

There are a lot of things that make protecting Earth’s climate really hard. Like the fact that fossil fuels are so deeply embedded in our economy and way of life. Or the fact that all policy makers, in every country and at every level of government, demand more economic growth (even though increasing the size of an economy leads to more energy and materials usage, and hence more carbon emissions). Or the scary prospect of planetary feedbacks that might increase the scale of climate impacts far beyond scientists’ forecasts.

Add to that list one Donald J. Trump, the likely soon-to-be-indicted president of a nation that’s rapidly careening toward the fracturing of its financial system, the collapse of its geopolitical influence, and the evaporation of whatever ethical basis for world leadership it may ever have claimed.

It’s easy to be cynically dismissive of Trump’s just-announced exit from the 2015 Paris climate accord: the agreement wasn’t strong enough to actually achieve its goals, and Trump will likely be booted from office one way or another before the agreement withdrawal can take practical effect. However, the symbolism is damning not just of him but of a huge swath of American political culture. Sad.

The one good thing that might emerge from this dreary development is a reinvigorated effort on the part of other nations—plus U.S. state and local governments—to engage in the necessary and inevitable transition away from fossil fuels. Just as Donald Trump often makes policy decisions simply by noting what Barack Obama did, and then doing the opposite, untold millions worldwide are increasingly adopting a similar attitude toward Trump and his merry band of co-conspirators. If Trump hates climate action so much, there must be something good about it.

The best success stories about climate action never emerged from Washington; they came instead from places like northern California, where citizens are creating their own nonprofit electric utility companies committed to expanding renewable energy; from Amsterdam and Copenhagen, which have spent decades minimizing the role of the automobile; and from countless villages throughout the Global South where cheap solar cells and LEDs are reducing the burning of biomass for light.

Read between the lines. “Make America Great Again” roughly translates to: “Don’t look to Washington for examples, guidance, inspiration, or help—especially now. It’s up to you. Get to work!” Thanks for upping our dedication and zeal, Mr. President.

Published as “Coal is a Dinosaur and so is the growth economy” in Museletter #301 by Richard Heinberg (richardheinberg.com).  Reprinted with kind permission.  Follow this link to sign up for a free subscription to Heinberg’s “Museletter.”

Sightline Institute’s Kristin Eberhard has been doing outstanding work toward helping people in the Northwest understand how much of what makes us most frustrated and angry about our politics is built into the DNA of our system, reflecting the DNA of our election methods. This issue of OregonPEN presents two of Everhard’s latest pieces, which focus on Portland as the example, but which also present lessons that apply to cities and towns throughout all of Oregon.

The most important thing to understand about our elections is that the reason we wind up with a two-party system in America is that we typically use a “single-member district” (one member of the elected body — Congress, or city council, or state legislature) is elected per district. That means that, even if we used a smarter ballot that let voters rank their choices instead of voting for one choice only, the election threshold would be 50%. (This single member form of ranked-choice voting is also known as Instant Runoff Voting, or “preference voting” in Oregon’s Constitution, which specifically allows it.)

Given Oregon’s unique history of racial exclusion and discrimination, we realistically only have one way to attain better representation of minorities and historically disfavored groups in our city councils and state legislature and in Congress: reduce the voting threshold to win a seat by electing several members at once from larger districts, rather than pitting candidates into single-winner races. All over the world, multi-member districts are the solution that provides for majority rule while allowing minorities to win fair representation.  Here’s the reason: the more seats you elect at once, the lower the percentage of votes needed for a candidate to win a seat (threshold).

With lower thresholds, minority voters and supporters of minority candidates can concentrate their votes on their favored candidates, and ensure that they win a seat — even as the majority continues to win a majority of seats.

The remedy to our toxic politics is not a magical “coming together” — it’s changing the system that has produced such a toxic politics by completely excluding people from having any voice unless they can muster a majority of votes.

In multimember districts, the winning vote threshold for a district of n seats is(1/(1+n))
As the number of seats elected in the same district at the same time goes up, the voting threshold for winning one seat goes down

Based in Seattle, the Sightline Institute (originally Northwest Environment Watch) didn’t make the OregonPEN Best Investment nonprofits for 2016 because that list is limited to Oregon organizations. But Sightline would make any top 10 list of US nonprofits ranked for thoughtful, effective analysis and advocacy. OregonPEN is grateful to Sightline for making their work available and proudly presents these pieces for benefit of OregonPEN readers.

Sightline equips the Northwest’s citizens and decision-makers with the policy research and practical tools they need to advance long-term solutions to our region’s most significant challenges. Our work includes in-depth research, commentary, and analysis, delivered online, by email, and in-person to Northwest policy champions, emerging leaders, and a range of community partners.

We believe true sustainability exists at the intersection of environmental health and social justice.

Sightline has long championed sustainability solutions that benefit all our communities in the Northwest. We strive to identify injustice and work to dismantle the systems that perpetuate it. We actively seek to expand our role in advancing public policy and producing resources for Northwest leaders and community partners that tackle issues of racial and economic inequality.

A few tweaks to voting could create a more representative council

by Kristin Eberhard, Sightline Institute

In the first article in this series, I showed that Portland city government has a dismal record of representing Portlanders. Nonpartisan elections make it hard to measure the council’s ideological representativeness, but it is easy to measure the lack of racial, ethnic, gender, and geographical diversity. For example, although nearly one-third of Portlanders are people of color, no person of color has served on the council in the past quarter-century, and not a single woman of color has ever held a seat on the council. Half of Portlanders are women, but women have served less than one-quarter of the person-years on the council in the past 25 years. In the second article, I posed seven questions (and short answers) about how Portland could better structure its city government to improve how representative it is of residents.

In this, the third and final article in the series, I lay out eight scenarios for electing the council in single-member districts with top-two voting or in multi-member districts with ranked-choice or cumulative voting. Many other factors influence representation, including money in politics, voting rights, and candidate pipelines, but this article focuses on the important puzzle pieces of election systems and district configurations. Each scenario necessarily makes some assumptions about how people vote. Assumptions underlying all scenarios are spelled out in the appendix.

Portland’s representation problem

Portland uses the least representative electoral method: at-large numbered seats and “vote for one” ballots. At-large numbered seats allow the majority of voters in the city to elect every single member of the council, leaving no room for representation of voters in any minority: racial, ideological, geographic, or otherwise.

Switching to districts—the alternative commonly discussed—would prioritize geographical diversity over other kinds. It would guarantee a geographically diverse council but would not necessarily elect more people of color, more women, more renters, or more working-class representatives.

Portland uses the least representative electoral method: at-large numbered seats and “vote for one” ballots.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go through the options:

  • first, single-member districts,
  • then, multi-member districts and election methods (ranked-choice voting and cumulative or limited voting),
  • then, an explanation of voter thresholds to elect a councilor under different election methods,
  • and finally, three scenarios for single-member districts and five scenarios for multi-member districts for Portland.

Single-member districts

Single-member districts yield better geographic representation, which Portland sorely needs. However, single-member districts might do little or nothing for the Rose City’s racial, ethnic, gender, ideological, and economic representation on city council. Single-member districts drawn to create one or more majority-minority districts are a common strategy for remedying violations of the federal Voting Rights Act, which bans election practices that consistently exclude members of racial minorities from representation in elected office. To this end, single-member districts work well in places where people of the same race or ethnicity tend to live in the same neighborhood. In Portland, though, where people of color are very geographically dispersed across the city, it turns out to be impossible to draw even one majority-minority district.

To date, the US Supreme Court has only recognized districts where a single racial group is in the majority and votes together. In contrast, California courts have recognized “coalition districts” where there is evidence that more than one non-white racial groups vote together to elect the same candidate. For example, in the 2006 Democratic primaries for California State Controller and California Insurance Commissioner in San Mateo County, Latino voters overwhelmingly preferred Latino candidate Cruz Bustamante, and both Asian and Latino voters somewhat preferred Bustamante and Asian-American candidate John Chiang over white candidates John Dunn and John Kraft.

As I detail below, though, Portland has no area where people of color, much less any single non-white racial or ethnic group, make up the majority. Consequently, single-winner districts may not increase racial and ethnic representation on the council. In addition, if one district did elect, say, a Latina, she would only represent her district. Latinxs living elsewhere in Portland might feel relieved their interests and life experiences have at least some representation on council, but, especially if she was facing a tough re-election bid, the Latina councilor’s priority would be her own district.

Single-member districts can also have the drawback of promoting “pork-barreling.” Just as councilors under the Commissioner form of government sometimes focus on their own bureaus rather than the city as a whole, a district representative’s job is to represent her district. She may do so to the detriment of a city-wide view.

Finally, Portlanders might feel that a move to single-member districts takes away some of their voting power. Right now, every Portlander gets to vote for every councilor and the mayor. With single-winner districts, voters would only vote for one councilor and the mayor.

Multi-member districts

Multi-member districts elect more diverse councils. In single-member districts, a candidate must win a majority of votes in that district to win a seat on the council. Much of the time in Portland and across the United States, the majority winner is a white male homeowner, and in partisan races, he is from one of the two major parties. Repeat this process in each district, and you could end up with a council made up entirely of white male homeowners with somewhat similar ideological views.

But using ranked-choice voting or cumulative voting in a multi-member district allows a group of voters making up less than a majority in the district to elect a representative who speaks for them—a person who might never be able to win if voters were selecting just one winner. As described further below and in our other work here and here, these election methods have proven to elect more women, more people of color, and more ideologically diverse candidates.

Even in multi-member districts that use Bloc Voting (in a three-member district, voters can “vote for three”), which requires majority support, it turns out that voters seem to be more willing to cast one of several votes for a woman than in single-member (“vote for one”) races where they only have one vote to give.

US states that use both single-member and multi-member districts for their state legislatures are much more likely to elect women from the multi-member districts than from the single-member. They also tend to have more women in the legislature than do states with single-member legislative districts. The improvement in female representation appears to stem from voters’ willingness to vote for at least one woman when they have the chance to vote for multiple candidates at a time. It could also be that women are more willing to run as part of a multi-winner slate than as a single-winner individual.

Germany and New Zealand both use a combination of single-member and multi-member districts, and the multi-member districts are almost three times as likely to elect women and twice as likely to elect people of color. This difference is at least partly due to political parties or other political organizers or donors seeing an advantage in a diverse slate of candidates in a multi-winner election, where they often conservatively assume that the most “broadly acceptable” candidate in a single-winner election is a white man.

Ranked-choice voting

Using ranked-choice voting in multi-member districts—a system also called “proportional single-transferable voting”—would let voters express their preference between multiple candidates, electing a city council that reflected the true diversity of Portland. If electing three councilors from a district, the ballot might look like the one below. All candidates for that district would run together in a pool, and voters would rank them in order of preference. First-choice votes would be counted first, and any candidate who reaches the winning threshold (more than 25 percent of the votes in a three-winner race) would earn a seat.

For example, if African-Americans made up 25 percent of voters and they all ranked the same candidate first, that candidate would immediately win a seat. Just so, if voters who wanted the council to prioritize affordable housing made up at least 25 percent of voters and all ranked a champion for affordable housing first, she would win a seat. If she won more than 25 percent of the vote, all of her voters would (automatically, by the vote tallying method) transfer a fraction of their unneeded votes to their next-ranked candidate. If no candidate reached the 25-percent threshold, the candidate with the fewest votes would be eliminated and his votes transferred to his voters’ next-ranked candidate. This would continue until three candidates won. (Here’s a short video that explains multi-member ranked-choice voting.) The city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, has used this method to elect its city council and school board since 1941, yielding impressive and persistent diversity in both bodies.

Cumulative or limited voting

If using a ranked-choice ballot felt too foreign to Portland voters, cumulative or limited voting could offer a more familiar-looking ballot and an improvement in representation of minority groups, though not as proportional in representation as ranked-choice voting. More than 100 cities and school boards across the United States use these methods in multi-winner elections to achieve better representation. In many cases, a court ordered the locality to switch to multi-winner elections as a remedy for a Voting Rights Act violation, especially in places where people of color are geographically dispersed, as they are in Portland.

With cumulative voting, voters have as many votes as there are seats available, but rather than giving one vote to each favored candidate, they can distribute their votes however they wish. For example, in a three-winner election, a voter would have three votes and could give two votes to one candidate and one vote to another. The “Equal & Even” cumulative voting ballot may be easier to understand, allowing the voter to give up to three votes. The difference is that if she only fills one bubble, all three of her votes go to that candidate, and if she fills two bubble, each candidate gets 1.5 of her votes.

Say, for example, Native Americans make up 30 percent of the voters in a three-member city council district. If all of them  give all three votes to a candidate they feel represents them, he could win one of the seats and those voters could feel they have fair representation on the council.

In this excerpt from her book, Tyranny of the Majority, civil rights attorney and Harvard law professor Lani Guinier explains why cumulative voting in multi-winner districts may be a better civil rights remedy for people of color than “race-conscious districting” of single-winner districts.

For example, in Martin, South Dakota, Native Americans made up more than one-third of the population yet consistently won fewer than 10 percent of seats in the city’s system of at-large numbered seats (the same system Portland uses now). In 2008, a federal court ordered the city to eliminate numbered seats and instead let candidates run in a multi-winner pool for three seats at a time. Voters have three votes and can assign one, two, or all three of them to any candidate(s) in the pool. Native Americans voters can express strong support for Native American candidates and now consistently win fair representation on the council.

As another example, African-Americans were chronically under-represented in the city council of Peoria, Illinois, until a civil rights lawsuit prompted the city to switch in 1991 to multi-winner races with cumulative voting. African-Americans have consistently won representation ever since.

With limited voting, each voter gets fewer votes than there are seats available. For example, if Portland were electing all five councilors at once, voters might get two votes each. If electing three councilors at a time, each voter would get one vote among the pool of candidates.

Cumulative and limited voting are inferior substitutes for ranked-choice voting, because they are more vulnerable to vote splitting. That is, if more than one candidate of color runs and voters split their votes between the two, both could lose under cumulative or limited voting, but one would win under ranked-choice voting. Still, they are better than the status quo in Portland.

Number of voters needed to win a seat

One of the challenges with using at-large elections in a larger city like Portland is that candidates must canvass a large area and win a lot of votes to get a seat on the council. If 250,000 people vote, a city council candidate needs more than 125,000 votes to win. (For comparison, 260,448 Portlanders voted in the November 2016 city council race.)

All of the single-member and multi-member district scenarios below drastically reduce the number of votes a candidate must win to get a seat on the council. This reduced burden could open the door for new candidates to run.

In a multi-winner ranked-choice election, a candidate needs to win 1/(Number of seats + 1) of votes in the district to win a seat. If Portland expanded the council to six members and elected them in two three-member districts, each candidate would need at least 1/(3+1) = 25 percent of one-half of 250,000 = more than 31,250 votes to win a seat. If Portland expanded the council to eight members and elected them in two three-member districts and one two-member district, each candidate in a three-member district would need at least 1/(3+1) = 25 percent of three-eighths of 250,000 = at least 23,438 votes to win a seat.

The chart below shows the minimum number of votes each candidate would need to win a seat in each district scenario. In almost all district scenarios, candidates would need around 20,000 to 30,000 votes to win; that’s one-quarter or less of the minimum 125,000 votes they would need to win under current rules.

Original Sightline Institute graphic, used under its free use policy.

The lower threshold to win guarantees greater ideological diversity on the council, because candidates with minority views can win a seat by appealing to the tens of thousands of voters who share those views, rather than trying to reach more than one-hundred-thousand voters. It also might make it easier for new candidates to enter the race. A community organizer without broad name recognition or a big rolodex might be able to round up 30,000 votes in North and East Portland. Changing to any of the district options below might usher in a new crop of council candidates.

Portland scenarios

That covers the voting methods and explains the thresholds to win, now let’s map out some scenarios for Portland—specific combinations of district and election methods, and how they would affect representation of people of color, women, and East Portlanders—all groups chronically under-represented on city council. The multi-member district scenarios below all assume ranked-choice voting or cohesive cumulative voting, and all assume people of color all vote for candidates of color. While this is, of course, not necessarily true because people of color are not monolithic, using the same assumption across scenarios makes it possible to compare them against each other in terms of potential diversity of representation. Other assumptions for all scenarios are listed in the appendix. We’ll look at:

  • The status quo: Current council makeup of four at-large numbered seats
  • Single-member districts
    • Four districts, each with one councilor
    • Six districts, each with one councilor
    • Eight districts, each with one councilor
  • Multi-member districts
    • One city-wide four-member district
    • Two districts with three members each (six councilors total)
    • Two districts with four members each (eight councilors total)
    • A three-member district and a five-member district (eight councilors total)
    • Three districts with two or three members each

In all of the maps below, each dot equals 50 people counted in the 2010 census, color-coded by census categories of race and ethnicity:

Blue dots are non-Hispanic African-Americans;
red dots are Asians, Hawaiians, or Pacific Islanders;
yellow dots are Latinos or Hispanics;
orange dots are Native Americans; and
green dots are non-Hispanic whites.

The result is a visual depiction of where people are densely concentrated within Portland (The Pearl), which neighborhoods are mostly white (Southwest), which have a larger African-American population (North Portland), and which have larger Asian and Latino populations (East Portland).

Current council: Four at-large numbered seats

Portland uses at-large numbered seats to elect each of the four councilors. The council’s fifth member, the mayor, is also elected at-large. Voters vote for one candidate for each seat. Even though there are two council seats available in an election year, voters don’t have the option to choose their favorite two candidates, but must choose one from one list and one from the other. For example, in 2012 some voters might have wanted to vote for both the women on the ballot—Amanda Fritz and Mary Nolan. But voters were forced to choose just one because they were running for the same numbered seat.

Portland’s city council makeup doesn’t match that of its residents. For instance, although fewer than one-quarter of Portlanders live west of the Willamette River, four of five current council-members do. And although nearly one-third of Portlanders are people of color, four of five council-members live in neighborhoods that are less than one-sixth people of color. Nearly half of Portlanders rent, but four of five council-members come from neighborhoods where over 70 percent of people own their homes.

Original Sightline Institute graphic, used under its free use policy.
Current Council
Number out of Total Council Percent of Council Percent of (row) with (row) representing them*
People of Color 0 of 5 0% 0%
Women 2 of 5 40% 100%
East Portlanders 0 of 5 0% 0%

*In this and all the tables below, this column means: Percent of people of color with a person of color representing them on council; percent of women with a woman representing them on council; percent of East Portlanders with an East Portlander representing them on council.

Single-member district scenarios

Four single-member districts

If Portland elected its four councilors from four single-member districts, the districts might look like the map below. The eastern district would have the most people of color: 37 percent. If we assume (as all scenarios do—see the appendix for more details) that all voters turn out in equal numbers and all voters of color prefer the same candidate of color, then to elect a person of color in that district, at least 13 percent of white voters would need to join voters of color in electing her. The northern district would have 33 percent people of color, so could elect a person of color if at least 17 percent of white voters voted for her. In other words, the odds of electing a councilor of color would be somewhat higher than in the current, all at-large situation, but not by much. Each district would have a chance of electing a woman, but, based on past Portland elections, women would likely win zero or 1 seats, possibly two. East Portlanders would be guaranteed a representative.

Original Sightline Institute graphic, used under its free use policy
Four Single-Member Districts
Number out of Total Council Percent of Council Percent of (row) with (row) representing them
People of Color -if 5% of white voters vote for PoC

-if 15% of white voters vote for PoC

0 of 5

1 of 5

0%

20%

0%

34%

Women 0-2 of 5 0-40% 0-50%
East Portlanders 1 of 5 20% 100%

Six single-member districts

If Portland expanded the council from five to seven members and elected six councilors from single-member districts and the mayor city-wide, the districts might look like what’s in the map the below. The eastern and northern districts would be 38 and 36 percent people of color, allowing them each to elect a person of color if at least 12 and 14 percent, respectively, of white voters also voted for the candidates of color. Voters in the other four districts would, using these assumptions, have white representatives. Each district would have a chance of electing a woman, but, based on past Portland elections, women would likely win less than half the seats and might even win zero seats. East Portlanders would be guaranteed a representative.

Original Sightline Institute graphic, used under its free use policy
Six Single-Member Districts
Number out of Total Council Percent of Council Percent of (row) with (row) representing them
People of Color -if 5% of white voters vote for PoC

-if 15% of white voters vote for PoC

0 of 7

2 of 7

0%

28%

0%

45%

Women 0-3 of 7 0-43% 0-50%
East Portlanders 1 of 7 14% 100%

Eight single-member districts

If Portland expanded the council from five to nine members and elected eight councilors from single-member districts and the mayor city-wide, the districts might look like the map below. The eastern and two northern districts would be 38, 37, and 36 percent people of color, allowing them each to elect a person of color if at least 12, 13, and 14 percent, respectively, of white voters voted for the candidates of color. In other words, even expanding to a nine-member council would not get Portland close to a majority-minority district. Each district would have a chance of electing a woman, but, based on past Portland elections, women would likely win less than half the seats and might even win zero seats. Portlanders east of 122nd would be guaranteed a representative.

Original Sightline Institute graphic, used under its free use policy
Eight Single-Member Districts
Number out of Total Council Percent of Council Percent of (row) with (row) representing them
People of Color -if 5% of white voters vote for PoC

-if 15% of white voters vote for PoC

0 of 9

3 of 9

0%

33%

0%

45%

Women 0-4 of 9 0-44% 0-50%
East Portlanders 1 of 9 11% 100%

Multi-member district scenarios

One city-wide four-member district

Portland could maintain its current number of just four councilors and elect all of them in a single city-wide pool. Voters could rank their preferences or have four votes on a cumulative ballot. If the 2012 election where Portland voters were limited to choosing between Amanda Fritz and Mary Nolan had instead been a four-winner election with ranked ballots, voters would have seen all the candidates in a single list and been able to rank them: maybe Amanda Fritz first, Mary Nolan second, Jeri Williams third, Steve Novick fourth, Leah Marie Dumas fifth, and so on.

In a four-winner race, the threshold to win is 20 percent of the vote plus one. Using the same assumptions as above, people of color could easily elect one councilor, even with low turnout or un-cohesive voting. With cohesive voting plus support from 10 percent of white voters, people of color could elect two of the four councilors. In other words, assuming exactly the same voter behaviour in both scenarios, one four-member district would elect one or two (out of five total, including the mayor) councilors of color while four single-member districts would elect zero or one. In a four-winner election, women would almost certainly win at least one seat, and all Portlanders would have at least one woman representing them. If they voted together for an East Portlander, East Portlanders could also easily elect a councilor.

Further, if the election were held in a high-turnout presidential election year, it would maximize the number of Portlanders with a say in electing every councilor, because no councilors would be elected in the lower-turnout midterm years.

One District with Four Members
Number out of Total Council Percent of Council Percent of (row) with (row) representing them
People of Color -if 5% of white voters vote for PoC

-if 15% of white voters vote for PoC

1 of 5

2 of 5

20%

40%

100%

100%

Women 1-2 of 5 20-40% 100%
East Portlanders 1 of 5 20% 100%

Two districts with three members each

If Portland split into two districts—a west-south (W-S) district and an east-north (E-N) district—the districts might look like the below map. If the council expanded to six members, Portlanders would elect three councilors from each district, and a voting bloc making up at least one-quarter of each could elect a councilor. In other words, if at least one-quarter of W-S voters wanted a candidate who would focus on better management of the city’s infrastructure, they could elect him. If at least one-quarter of E-N voters wanted a candidate who would focus on improving the city’s treatment of homeless people, they could elect her.

Using the same assumptions as before, if 10 percent of white voters in W-S voted for a candidate of color in addition to all voters of color, the W-S would elect a representative of color. More than one-third of the people in the E-N district would be of color, so they could easily elect one representative of color, and with votes from 13 percent of white voters, they could elect two. At least half, and likely all people of color in Portland would have a representative of color they could call. In a three-winner election, women would almost certainly win at least one seat in each district. Two three-member districts would guarantee geographic balance: three councilors would have to come from the E-N part of the city, and if the 26 percent of Portlanders living east of 82nd all voted for a candidate promising to represent the concerns of east Portland, they would elect her.

Original Sightline Institute graphic, used under its free use policy
Two Districts, Three Members Each 
Number out of Total Council Percent of Council Percent of (row) with (row) representing them
People of Color -if 5% of white voters vote for PoC

-if 15% of white voters vote for PoC

1 of 7

3 of 7

14%

43%

67%

100%

Women 2-4 of 7 28-57% 100%
East Portlanders 1 of 7 14% 100%

Two districts with four members each

If Portland split into the same two districts as above but elected four councilors from each district, then a voting bloc making up at least one-fifth of each could elect a councilor. Using the same assumptions again, the W-S district would elect a candidate of color, and the E-N district would elect two. In a four-winner election, women would almost certainly win one or more seats in each district. This system would also guarantee geographic balance: four councilors would have to come from the E-N part of the city, and if many of the 26 percent of Portlanders living east of 82nd voted together, they would elect a councilor from east of 82nd.

Two Districts, Four Members Each
Number out of Total Council Percent of Council Percent of (row) with (row) representing them
People of Color -if 5% of white voters vote for PoC

-if 15% of white voters vote for PoC

3 of 9

3 of 9

33%

33%

100%

100%

Women 2-4 of 9 22-44% 100%
East Portlanders 1 of 9 11% 100%

A three-member district and a five-member district

Portland could expand the council to eight members plus the mayor and split into two uneven districts: the W-S district, electing three councillors, and the E-N district, electing five. The winning threshold in the W-S would be 25 percent, and in the E-N it would be 17 percent. This would allow for greater diversity of representation within the E-N district.

The E-N would likely elect two councilors of color and two women, while the W-S could elect one of each. East Portland would almost certainly elect a councilor: 26 percent of voters live east of 82nd, and less than half of them could come together to elect one of the five E-N councilors.

Original Sightline Institute graphic, used under its free use policy
Two Districts, Three and Five Members
Number out of Total Council Percent of Council Percent of (row) with (row) representing them
People of Color -if 5% of white voters vote for PoC

-if 15% of white voters vote for PoC

2 of 9

3 of 9

22%

33%

77%

100%

Women 2-5 of 9 22-55% 100%
East Portlanders 1 of 9 11% 100%

Three districts with two or three members each

Portland could expand the council to eight members plus the mayor and split into three districts like the ones in the map below: the W-S and E-N districts, each electing three councillors, and a third East (E) district, electing two. The winning threshold in the W-S and E-N would be 25 percent, and in the E it would be 33 percent.

This arrangement would guarantee geographical diversity and would generate districts almost as geographically small as four single-member districts, possibly making it less intimidating for new candidates to run. But it would also ensure greater diversity of representation—in terms of gender, race, and ideology—within each district and on the council as a whole. Each district could elect one councilor of color, and possibly a woman. Two councilors would come from east of the 205.

Original Sightline Institute graphic, used under its free use policy
Three Districts—
Three, Three, and Two Members
Number out of Total Council Percent of Council Percent of (row) with (row) representing them
People of Color -if 5% of white voters vote for PoC

-if 15% of white voters vote for PoC

2 of 9

3 of 9

22%

33%

71%

100%

Women 2-5 of 9 22-55% 75-100%
East Portlanders 2 of 9 22% 100%

Conclusion

Single-member districts would improve the geographic representation of Portland’s city council. But single-member districts might do very little to improve racial, ethnic, gender, economic, or ideological representation on the council. From the voters’ perspective, single-member districts would lead to fewer Portlanders having a woman representing them on the council, and even if one single-member district elected a person of color, the majority of Portlanders of color would still be without a councilor of color actually representing them.

Multi-member districts are a proven remedy for electing more diverse representatives—in particular, more people of color and more women. Indeed, all the multi-member scenarios above make it likely Portland would see at least one and usually more people of color on the council, and that most Portlanders of color would have a councilor of color actually representing them. By letting voters choose more than one candidate from a pool, all multi-member district scenarios make it more likely that at least one and maybe more women would be elected to the council in every election. Multi-member districts also guarantee some level of geographical diversity, both by breaking the city into smaller chunks and by letting a minority of voters with a common interest—for example, making sure East Portland has a voice—band together to elect a representative.

A more diverse council would also represent more views that Portlanders hold. For example, if around one-quarter of voters thought people-friendly streets were a top priority, they could, in a multi-member district, elect a safe streets champion, or an advocate for good city management, or a councilor who would push for other particular reforms that voters wanted. Portland reformers should consider multi-member districts as a way to elect a more diverse council in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, geography, and political priorities.

Appendix: Assumptions in all scenarios

Each scenario includes a table predicting how many people of color, women, and candidates living east of 82nd might be elected. These tables don’t purport to make actual predictions. But each scenario can be compared against the other scenarios because each scenario uses the same set of assumptions. Namely:

The 2010 census is accurate. (In reality, the census often undercounts people of color. In addition, Portland’s population of color is growing, and the areas with high concentrations of people of color are shifting from North Portland to East Portland.)

All racial and ethnic groups turn out to vote in equal numbers in all elections. (In reality, white voters often turn out more heavily, especially in primary and midterm election years.)

Everyone who marked a census box for anything other than “white alone, non-Hispanic” is a person of color. (Some white Latinos or people of mixed racial or ethnic heritage might not identify as people of color.)

Everyone who marked a census box for “white alone, non-Hispanic” is white. (For example, Portland’s Coalition of Communities of Color includes Slavic people, who would be white on the census but might identify as people of color.)

All people of color vote in a bloc for any candidate of color. (People of color are not monolithic. American voters tend to vote for a candidate of their race or ethnicity, but voters of color might not vote for a candidate of color of a different race or ethnicity. In the United States, Latino voters usually strongly prefer Latino candidates, but Latino voters might not vote for an African-American candidate, and vice versa.)

All multi-member districts use ranked-choice ballots, and voters of color rank candidates of color first. Or, if using a cumulative ballot, voters of color put all their votes toward electing the same candidate of color.

Within each scenario, each table shows two cases. In the first case, 5 percent of white voters vote for the candidate of color. In the second case, 15 percent do. (All else equal, white American voters tend to vote for white candidates, so this assumes that some voters either don’t follow that trend or feel the candidate of color’s policy position hew most closely to their own views.)

Except for the five- and nine-district maps that attempt to draw a majority-minority district, most maps try to follow existing geographic or political boundaries, as required by the Oregon Secretary of State’s districting directive, with which local governments must comply when drawing districts.

In a single-winner election, women fare about as well as they have in past Portland elections, with a roughly 0-40% chance of winning. In a three-winner election, women win one seat. In a four-winner election, women win one or two seats. In a five-winner election, women win two or three seats. (US states that use multi-winner elections for their state legislatures are much more likely to elect women than in single-winner elections, likely at least in part because voters often include at least one woman when they have the chance to vote for multiple candidates at a time.)

All voters living east of 82nd vote in a bloc for a candidate living east of 82nd.
Portland elects an even number of councilors and separately elects a mayor who also has a seat on the council.

Originally published as Could Portland Create a City Council That Looks Like Portland? and used with kind permission of Sightline Institute.

by Kristin Eberhard, Sightline Institute

In [a] previous article, I illustrated how Portland’s city council does not represent the city’s people in terms of geography, race and ethnicity, gender, wealth, and life experience. Only two people of color have ever served on the council. In 2016, the city elected Chloe Eudaly, the eighth woman ever and possibly the first renter to hold a seat on the council. Most councilors come from central North-East or Westside neighborhoods.

The Open and Accountable Elections Portland Act, supported by a diverse coalition of Portlanders, will make it easier for a more diverse group of people to run for city council in the future. However, it’s not the only reform needed, and this article details how Portland’s very form of government could change so that the city council does not continue to skew toward electing white, male, central and westside homeowners.

At least five times in the last century, disgruntled citizens launched efforts to reform city elections and make the council more representative and responsive. Many of these efforts focused on changing Portland’s quirky Commissioner form of government, switching from at-large elections to districts, and expanding the council from the current five members to seven or nine. Single-member districts would ensure councilors come from different geographical parts of the city rather than from the same few neighborhoods, an improvement over Portland’s current system. And districts might make it easier for first-time candidates to run because they only have to canvass, say, one-quarter of the city rather than the whole thing. A bigger council could potentially be more diverse as well.

But districts or a bigger council, by themselves, will not create a representative council. As I have argued extensively in Sightline’s Guide and Glossary to Electing Legislative Bodies, to transform the council into a truly representative body, Portland’s best path would be to switch to a proportional system of elections, most likely multi-member districts and ranked-choice voting. That’s a mouthful, so I’ll just call it “fair voting” for short.

In Portland’s case, changing to multi-member districts and ranked-choice voting might require making other changes, such as moving away from the Commissioner form of government and possibly expanding the council beyond five members. In fact, most reforms to Portland’s election system—such as switching to district elections for city council—would necessitate dispensing with the Commissioner form of government.  When you pull on one thread in organizing city government, you find a web of connected reforms.

This article outlines seven key, intertwined questions about how to organize the city government:

  1. What form of government should Portland have? Commissioner, Council-Manager, or Mayor-Council?
  2. What powers and responsibilities should the mayor have? Same as now, more, or less?
  3. How should the mayor be selected? By the voters, or by the council?
  4. What powers and responsibilities should city councilors have? Legislative only, or also executive?
  5. How many city councilors should Portland have?
  6. When should Portland hold elections to maximize voter turnout?
  7. How powerful should the primaries be?

For each question, I also offer suggestions on how to make relatively non-disruptive changes to Portland elections that would enable fair voting (multi-member districts with ranked-choice voting) and, ideally, would complement that improved election system. The next article will describe possible scenarios for electing a council through fair voting and the likely more representative results of doing so.

Question 1. What form of government should Portland have?

In some ways, this is the biggest question of all, and to answer it, we need to backtrack for a quick civics review. The legislative branch makes the laws. The executive branch implements the laws through administrative agencies. The judicial branch interprets the laws. For our purposes, we can ignore the judicial branch and focus on the others as they apply to city governments.

The big questions are how the mayor and council share legislative and executive powers. City councils always have legislative authority (the power to make laws), but will the mayor share some legislative power, for example, by having a vote on the council or veto power of council decisions? The Mayor always has executive authority (the power to implement laws), but will the council share some executive power, for example, by jointly supervising a city manager?

There are three primary ways that cities have answered these questions.

  1. Portland’s Commissioner form of government shares legislative and executive powers evenly between the council and the mayor. But Commissioner governments are an endangered species. Portland is one of the only cities in the United States, the only city over 100,000, and one of just two Cascadian cities with a Commissioner form of government.
  2. Most Oregon cities use the Council-Manager form of government, which also shares legislative and executive powers between the council and mayor, who jointly appoint and supervise a professional city manager.
  3. Most big US cities use the Mayor-Council form of government, which separates legislative and executive powers, making the council the legislative body and the mayor the chief executive. Past Portland reformers have proposed moving to Council-Manager (1933, 1958) and to Mayor-Council (1961, 2002, 2007, 2016).

Let’s delve into the structures, pros, and cons of these three government forms.

Commissioner Form

Under a Commissioner form of government, voters elect city commissioners who play two roles: legislative and executive. Each commissioner, including the mayor, has a vote on the council for legislative business, such as passing budgets, laws, and regulations. Each commissioner also serves as the head (an executive branch role) of one or more city bureaus, such as public safety, parks, or transportation.

The mayor has the same power as the other commissioners, but in Portland he also has the power to assign and reassign bureaus to commissioners and to put together a budget. In January, Mayor Ted Wheeler assigned himself the Police Bureau, the Housing Bureau, and seven other bureaus, and assigned the other four councilors two or three bureaus each including Parks and recreation to Amanda Fritz, Transportation to Dan Saltzman, and Development Services to newcomer Chloe Eudaly.

In some Commissioner city governments, candidates run for specific departments. For example, in Shelton, the only city in Washington State with a Commissioner form of government, candidates can run for commissioner of public safety and mayor, for commissioner of finance and accounting, or for commissioner of public works. Proponents of Portland’s Commissioner government sometimes say that city agencies are accountable to voters because they are headed by an elected official. Shelton’s system seems to work this way: voters can choose a candidate they think would be good at running public works, call that official with complaints about public works, and in four years decide whether that person has done a good job running public works.

Accountability is harder to see in Portland, where voters don’t know who will end up running what, and they don’t necessarily know whom to call or hold accountable, because the mayor can change bureau assignments at any time. For example, Mayor Wheeler said in January his bureau assignments would be temporary, and in April he took them all back, planning to reassign them after the budget is passed.

The Commissioner form of government is sometimes called the Texas Idea because it originated in Galveston, Texas, as a response to the Galveston Hurricane of 1900. The hope was that consolidating legislative and executive power in the same small group of people would help the city respond to natural disasters more quickly. Proponents of Portland’s system sometimes claim swift and direct implementation of policy as an advantage. In practice, though, as the City Club has noted, the unique form of government often leads to gridlock as each commissioner prioritizes the narrow interests of his or her bureau, rather than prioritizing city government as a whole. Their narrow focus can lead to short-sighted city management. As former Portland Commissioner Steve Novick explains:

As soon as you assign bureaus to a commissioner, two things happen: Those bureaus become incredibly important to that commissioner, and everything else the city does becomes relatively unimportant. …

In the 1990s, Commissioner Earl Blumenauer pushed Mayor Vera Katz to spend more of the general fund on transportation. The other three commissioners could have taken Earl’s side. But why would they? Not their bureau. In fact, those with general fund bureaus would have seen Blumenauer’s request as a threat to their bureaus. …

The existence of the commission system reduced the universe of potential transportation champions by 80 percent.

Most American cities abandoned the commissioner form of government by the 1940s and moved to the Council-Manager form, discussed below.

Finally, because commissioners serve as heads of city-wide departments, Commissioner governments never elect commissioners from districts. If they did, for example, parks would likely look great in the Parks Commissioner’s district and less great elsewhere in the city.

Council-Manager Form

Most US cities, and most Oregon cities with populations over 2,500, use a Council-Manager form of government. Voters elect a council, either in districts or at-large, to serve as the legislative (law-making) body. In places such as Bend, the council members select a mayor from among themselves to head the council. In many Oregon cities, including Eugene, Hillsboro, and Salem, voters vote separately to elect the mayor to serve as head of council. Together, the council and mayor hire, supervise, and may fire a professional city manager or city administrator to manage the day-to-day administrative needs of the city and implement the policies set by the council. This form is sometimes called a “weak mayor” government because the mayor’s power does not much exceed that of regular council members.

Proponents of the Council-Manager system say cities run in an efficient, business-like manner; constituents are well-represented by the powerful council; and one reckless mayor can’t throw the city off-track. Critics worry that sharing power between council and mayor means no clear leadership from the mayor and that an appointed professional manager might try to usurp power from the elected council and mayor without being accountable to the people.

Portlanders would find the shared power between the council and mayor familiar, since that is how the Commissioner government works now. Electing the mayor individually but having him serve on the council would also be familiar to Portlanders. But the Council-Manager form could free Portland up to elect councilors from districts. The biggest substantive difference would be that, instead of being responsible for individual bureaus directly, councilors and the mayor would indirectly manage all bureaus by jointly supervising a city manager who would manage all city bureaus.

Mayor-Council Form

Most big cities in the United States—including Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and Seattle—use a Mayor-Council form of government. Voters elect a council, either in districts or at-large, to serve as the legislative body, and also elect a mayor to serve as the city’s chief executive. The mayor might supervise a professional city manager. Past Portland reform efforts have referred to this form of government as “strong mayor,” but mayors can be considered strong or weak under the Mayor-Council system, depending on how much power they have (more below).

Proponents of the Mayor-Council form praise the centralization of executive responsibilities in the mayor, giving the mayor the opportunity to exercise strong leadership. Critics worry that it gives the mayor too much power and does not give enough responsibility to the elected council.

Like Council-Manager, the Mayor-Council form would free Portland to elect councilors from districts. And voters would continue to directly elect the mayor. But Portlanders might have to accustom themselves to a stronger mayor and a weaker council.

Answer 1. Council-Manager government with bureau oversight committees

If Portlanders want to switch to fair voting (multi-member districts with ranked-choice voting)  to get a more representative council, they will likely have to change the Commissioner form of government. If Portland elected all councillors from one city-wide district, it could retain the Commissioner form. But if it breaks the city into two or more districts, each councillor will only represent a slice of the city and could not serve the interests of her districts and simultaneously be the head of a city-wide bureau.

If Portlanders want to make minimally disruptive changes, they might opt for a Council-Manager form of government. Instead of having a Parks Commissioner and a Transportation Commissioner, each of whom would be in charge of a particular bureau, a few Councilors could form a Parks Committee and a few others a Transportation Committee to oversee these bureaus. This is what Seattle, Los Angeles, and many other big cities do. It would maintain a direct link from voters to elected officials to bureaus, just like with the Commissioner form of government.

Question 2. What powers and responsibilities should the Mayor have?

The difference between a “strong” and “weak” mayor is of degree, not kind. As mentioned, most “strong” mayors are found in the Mayor-Council form of government because the mayor has control over all or most executive powers, and Council-Manager cities often have “weak” mayors because they share some executive power with the council. But Mayor-Council cities can have a weaker mayor, and Council-Manager cities can have a stronger mayor. It just depends on what powers the mayor is given.

A mayor might have some or all of the following powers. More powers mean a stronger mayor.

  • Act as the chief executive officer, centralizing executive authority.
  • Appoint and remove department heads.
  • Assign council members to chair or serve on committees.
  • Appoint citizens to serve on advisory boards or commissions.
  • Prepare the annual budget.
  • Receive the annual budget developed by chief administrative official or city manager and make an annual report to the council.
  • Serve on the city council.
  • Vote in council meetings.
  • Have veto power over the council’s legislative decisions.
  • Oversee daily operations of the city, without interference from the city council or administrative boards or commissions.

Portland currently has a somewhat weak mayor, with the power to appoint and remove department heads and with a vote on council, but without veto power and without exclusive control of executive functions. In contrast, Seattle has a relatively strong mayor, serving as the chief executive officer of the city and with veto power over the council.

Answer 2. Leave the mayor’s powers unchanged

If Portlanders want to adopt fair voting but don’t want to change the balance of power between the mayor and the council, they could keep the mayor’s power about the same as now. The mayor currently assigns Commissioners to oversee bureaus, and he could still assign councilors to serve on committees overseeing bureaus—for example, the Parks Committee and the Transportation Committee. The mayor could prepare the annual budget and vote on the council, as he does now. But electing councilors through fair voting or switching to a Council-Manager form of government does not require any expansion of the mayor’s powers. He need not have veto power over the council nor centralized executive power.

Question 3. How should the mayor be selected?

In all three forms of government, voters may elect the mayor directly. In the Council-Manager form, voters can instead elect all the councilors and let the councilors choose a mayor from amongst themselves.

Letting councilors choose among themselves could yield unexpected benefits. Even though Portland’s mayor has little more power than do councilors, it costs more than four times as much to run a competitive campaign for mayor (nearly $1.5 million) as to run a competitive campaign for council (around $300,000). People of color and women who otherwise might be priced out of an expensive mayoral campaign could win a council seat and become the mayor. For example, the city of Yakima, Washington, recently elected the first three Latinas ever to serve on the city council (two from majority-Latino districts, and one from the city at-large), and the council initially unanimously selected Avina Gutierrez, a Latina, as the mayor.

If Portland moved to a Council-Manager form and selected the mayor from among the council, Portland might see a woman of color as mayor for the first time ever.

Answer 3. Leave the mayoral election unchanged

Portland could elect councilors via fair voting and still elect the mayor at-large, just like now.

Question 4. What powers and responsibilities should city councilors have?

In all forms of government, councilors are legislators with the power to pass city laws, ordinances, policies, and regulations. Councilors might also have some executive power either directly, as heads of individual bureaus in the Commissioner form, or indirectly, as joint supervisors of the city manager in the Council-Manager form. Councilors generally have no executive power in the Mayor-Council form.

Answer 4. City council keeps legislative and executive powers

By adopting the Council-Manager form of government, Portland councilors could retain the same level of executive authority they have now, just exercised by managing the city manager and managing bureaus through committees, rather than directly heading bureaus.

Question 5. How many city councilors should Portland have?

Around the United States, city councils range from 5 to 51, with an average size of 6. Portland’s council is remarkably small. Although the city is home to more than 600,000 people, Portland has just five city councilors, including the mayor, or less than one elected city official per 100,000 people. For comparison:

City Council + Mayor? Population Electeds per 100,000 people
Portland, OR 5 620,000 0.8
Seattle, WA 9 1 650,000 1.5
Oakland, CA 9 390,000 2.3
San Francisco, CA 11 1 840,000 1.3
Eugene, OR 9 156,000 5.8
Bend, OR 7 81,200 8.6
Beaverton, OR 5 1 93,500 5.3

If the mayor is elected separately but also has a seat on council (Council-Manager or Mayor-Council), voters elect an even number of councilors (the mayor makes it odd). If the mayor is either selected from among the council (Council-Manager form) or does not have a seat on the council (Mayor-Council form), voters elect an odd number of councilors.

More councilors mean more costs for taxpayers to fund the councilors and their staff (though, in reality, the costs are miniscule compared to the overall city budget). And each councilor is less powerful. But a bigger council creates more opportunity for diverse views to be represented and for more voters to feel they have a voice in the city.

Answer 5a. Elect six councilors

Portland could switch to fair voting with just four councilors, but in order to get a reasonable cross-section of the city represented on council, it would need to elect all four councilors in the same year. The upside would be that all council and mayor elections could be held in a single high-turnout presidential election year, maximizing the number of voters who cast a vote to elect a councilor. The downside would be that many councilors could turn over all at once. However, incumbents usually run again, so it is possible, but unlikely that the entire council would ever turn over in a single election.

Expanding the council to six members plus the mayor would make Portland’s council the same size as Bend’s (which has one-seventh the population) and still smaller than Eugene’s, Seattle’s, Oakland’s, or San Francisco’s. Portland would have 1.1 elected city officials per 100,000 people, still fewer representatives than any other city on the list. With six members, Portland could elect three members at a time from two different districts, adding just two council members and electing a much more diverse council.

Answer 5b. Elect eight councilors

Alternatively, if the city opted for eight councilors plus the Mayor, Portland would have a very average-sized council for a city of its size, with just under 1.5 elected officials per 100,000 people. Portland could elect four councilors from each of two districts, or split into three districts, each electing two or three councilors. In either case, Portland would have a much more representative council.

Question 6. When should Portland hold elections to maximize voter turnout?

Voter turnout is much higher and more diverse in presidential election years. Portland is one of the few cities in the United States that takes advantage of this fact, holding mayoral and some council elections during presidential election years and yielding much higher and more representative voter turnout than in other US cities. In Oregon more broadly, around 70 percent of registered voters turn in ballots in presidential elections, compared to around 50 percent in mid-term election years. Nationwide in the United States, African-American voters turn out in presidential elections at rates equal to or rivaling whites but lag behind white turnout in midterm years.

City elections held in presidential years let more Portland citizens, possibly especially African-Americans, have a say in who gets elected to city government. Because it would be a more representative voting system in a high turnout election, electing more councilors in presidential years could lead to broader participation and potentially better representation.

Answer 6a. Elect three councilors in midterm years and three in presidential years

Electing all councilors in a presidential year could empower more Portland voters in local elections. But Portland could adopt fair voting and stick with its current scheme, electing half in the presidential year and half in midterm years. If Portland expanded to eight councilors, elected from three districts, it could elect councilors from two of the districts in presidential years, maximizing turnout, and hold elections for the third district in midterm years.

Answer 6b. Elect five councilors in presidential years and three in midterm years

If Portland expanded the council to eight members and split into three districts, it could have two districts—a two-member and a three-member—hold elections in presidential years and the other three-member district hold elections in midterm years.

Question 7. How powerful should the primaries be?

Primaries narrow the field for general election voters, but less than half as many people vote in primaries as vote in general elections. The people who do vote in primaries, moreover, tend to be older, whiter and wealthier than general election voters, meaning they may vote for older, whiter, wealthier candidates, limiting options for more diverse general election voters.

Right now, Portland council elections usually end after the primary, so candidates spend a lot of time and money trying to win the primary. By the time general election voters get their ballots, the race is usually over, or even if it isn’t, voters only have two candidates to choose between.By eliminating the primary, Portland could shorten the election season and give general election voters more options and more power.

Alternatively, Portland could make primaries less important by allowing more candidates to advance to the general. The real battle would be the general election. Candidates could focus their time and money on the general election, and general election voters would have more options to consider.

For example, if Portland expanded the council to six members and split into two districts, each district would elect three councillors in the general election. The primary, using a ranked-choice ballot, could advance seven candidates per district—a bit more than two candidates per available seat—to the general election, where voters would narrow down to three winners. The battle to be in the top seven in a district would be less fierce, so the campaign season would effectively be shorter, not starting in earnest until after the primary. General election voters would rank the seven candidates in order of preference, and the top three would win seats.

Answer 7. Make the general election more important than the primary by advancing more candidates

Portland could adopt fair voting and retain primaries, with just two changes: first, the election would never end at the primary, so general election voters would always have a say, and second, the primary could advance more candidates, somewhat shortening the campaign season and giving general election voters more options.

Many choices for Rose City reformers

Changing Portland’s government isn’t just a question of whether Portland should have a strong mayor or elect councilors from districts. Portland also has the opportunity to create a more representative council and give more Portlanders an opportunity to have a voice in city government. By adopting multi-member districts with ranked-choice voting, as discussed in my next article, Portland could become a national leader in representative city government.

Originally published as “7 Key Questions About How to Change Portland City Government” and used with kind permission of Sightline Institute.

An Electrifying idea for Oregon

Stephen Miller, YES! Magazine

Over the phone, it’s clear that Bill Moyer is frustrated.

“We’re not talking about some kind of Elon Musk-vacuum-tube-Jetsons-freaking-cartoon fantasy,” the Northwest resident says. “We’re talking about something that has a proven history.”Moyer has been begging Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to invest in a renewable energy-powered freight rail line from Seattle to Chicago. But the governor has shown little interest, although he recently asked the state Legislature to approve $1 million to study an ultra-high-speed passenger train from Seattle to Vancouver, B.C. “We’d love for him to show some leadership for the entire state on something that’s not so pie-in-the-sky,” Moyer laments.

Futuristic commuter trains are one thing, but Moyer has his sights set on an idea that is at once larger in scope and more firmly grounded in existing technology.

Moyer is a good-natured musician and progressive activist who has lived on Vashon Island, a short ferry ride from Seattle, since 1989. He has a mop of curly dark hair and speaks in the laid-back tone you’ve heard at your local bike shop. These days, he often sports a black T-shirt that proclaims the name of his progressive advocacy organization, the Backbone Campaign.

It was that group that researched and authored the recently released Solutionary Rail, a 126-page book filled with charts, maps, graphs, and tables to support the feasibility of a bold electrified rail proposal.

The idea seeks to address two significant problems facing the country. On the one hand, the overwhelming scientific consensus warns of an impending climate catastrophe for which we are woefully unprepared. On the other, the country’s bridges and roads are, in fact, crumbling. The American Society of Engineers awarded the country a D+ in 2016, as it has consistently since 1998. During his first address to Congress in February, President Donald Trump ignored climate change but called for $1 trillion to fill cracks in the nation’s infrastructure, which largely accommodates fossil fuel-hungry automobiles.

Transportation accounts for nearly a third of the country’s carbon emissions, of which 84 percent is attributed to cars and commercial trucks, the EPA reports. So, as Moyer sees it, it’s obvious that climate change and infrastructure should be tackled in tandem.

“The biggest climate impact we can have is getting the trucks off the roads, and eventually getting people back to the tracks, as well,” he says. To do this, the Backbone Campaign proposes revitalizing and electrifying America’s rail system, powering it entirely with community-owned renewable energy.

The plan would update existing freight railways by adding overhead wires to carry high-voltage electricity generated in towns along the lines and smoothing out turns too tight for high-speed travel. It would swap diesel locomotives for electric engines that are 35 percent cheaper to operate and that haul freight five times more efficiently than trucks.

In many places, it would add additional track to free up passenger rail that would otherwise get stuck behind delayed freight. And it would do all of this with a focus on justice—for the people who live alongside dirty and noisy diesel train lines, for current and future rail workers and the underemployed millions who would benefit from a large-scale infrastructure undertaking, for communities that could find economic security in renewable energy generation, and for those around the world whose lives are already threatened by global warming.

It’s a grandiose idea, perhaps even improbable, but Moyer is known in progressive circles for being someone who gets things done. His track record includes the “kayaktivist” blockade that confronted Shell Oil in Puget Sound and the 150-foot replica of the Constitution, signed by thousands, which tumbled down the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in protest of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on Citizens United.

In truth, electric rail is not such a long shot. China and Russia have already invested heavily in electrifying more than 40 percent of their railways. The Trans-Siberian Railway—the world’s longest at 5,772 miles—went fully electric in 2002, and Russia now moves about 70 percent of its freight over electrified lines. France, Italy, and Germany have also electrified as much or more than half of their rails, according to the CIA World Fact Book.

The United States operated more than 3,000 miles of electrified rail up until the 1960s.

As Solutionary Rail recalls, the United States operated more than 3,000 miles of electrified rail up until the 1960s—granted, none of it powered renewably—when the influential auto industry and the subsidized interstate highway system pushed rail to the back burner.

“If Eisenhower had signed the high-speed rail bill instead of the interstate bill, the country would be connected by rail,” says former Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood.

A congressman who sat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, LaHood had a bipartisan approach that helped him become the only Republican appointed to Obama’s cabinet who had been elected to public office.

In 2009, he was given the unenviable task of rallying votes for Obama’s Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which appropriated about $830 billion to kick-start the flagging economy.

The act leveraged $48 billion for transportation, of which about $10 billion was earmarked to establish intercity high-speed rail, including a line between San Francisco and Los Angeles that’s now under construction. This investment was projected to create tens of thousands of jobs and stimulate U.S. manufacturing while directly addressing global climate change.

“Obama wanted to send a message to the country that we need to start investing in high-speed rail,” says LaHood, who was not aware of Solutionary Rail but has been a staunch proponent of high-speed trains. “If you look at cities all over America, they’re investing in their metro systems, in their bus systems, because a lot of these young people who are moving to D.C. or Chicago or L.A., frankly, they don’t want a car.”

The idea to focus on rail emerged from ongoing grassroots efforts to resist coal trains.

But Republican governors such as Florida’s Rick Scott and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker rejected the money outright, and legislators resisted further budgeting for rail projects.

“Because it was a part of the economic stimulus, Republicans didn’t like it. Because it was Obama’s idea to invest in rail, people didn’t like it,” LaHood says. “Our Achilles heel in America is that our national government hasn’t invested in rail.” Tired of the bitter political divisions between Congress and the White House, LaHood resigned after one term.

Moyer understands the frustration of waiting on politicians. The Backbone Campaign seeks instead to effect change from the ground up through what Moyer calls a non-ideological coalition of unconventional allies—farmers, environmental activists, renewable energy developers, and labor experts. The idea to focus on rail emerged from ongoing grassroots efforts to resist coal trains and the development of the Pacific Northwest into a fossil fuel corridor to Asia.

Moyer knew next to nothing about railroads or the people who work on them, but he assembled a team of experts that includes a senior Amtrak engineer and a whistleblowing union member who, in 2013, sent Moyer a copy of a paper on railway modernization with a note: “Let’s see if you and your people can green this.”

The team spent three years considering the global context (the U.S. is way behind), studying the efficiency of electric locomotion (even with today’s low fuel prices, the per-mile cost of diesel energy is nearly twice that of an electric train), mapping renewable source availability (every state has something), examining the impact of long-haul trucking (60 percent of highway maintenance costs are due to heavy trucks), and meeting with economists to address the Herculean task of funding.

They see electric trains zipping passengers between metropolises, picking up grain in rural towns, and delivering to coastal ports.

“Greening” trains was only the start.

Moyer, whose father was a Jesuit who worked for several northwest tribes, was born near the Yakama reservation and lived on Swinomish land through grade school. He was exposed to racism and cultural genocide early on and recognized that, in America, railroads carry a two-faced cultural memory. The trains that connected the East Coast to the West and ushered in an age of industrialization for many also brought a wave of terror and misery for millions, as pioneers continued to colonize, decimating buffalo herds and altering the landscape forever.

Solutionary Rail could not move forward without acknowledging this, and at the proposal’s moral center is a commitment to a just transition—a shift to a sustainable economy that addresses the inequities and injustices currently borne by laborers and marginalized people. The rights of workers and Native people had to be part of the equation, Moyer says.

The team’s ultimate vision is national. They see electric trains zipping passengers between metropolises, picking up grain in rural towns, and delivering to coastal ports. The railways that already crisscross the country offer rights of way that, outfitted with power lines, would allow electricity generated by Iowa windmills not only to propel the trains, but also to power cities many miles away.

Of course, all of this will require major upfront investment.

Single-track electrification costs an average of $2 million a mile. To demonstrate the feasibility of his national plan, Moyer proposes electrifying the Northern Corridor from Seattle to Chicago—4,400 miles in all—at a base cost of $11 billion.

A separate analysis from the Great Northern Corridor Coalition in 2012 indicates that, by 2035, rail service could make up the cost in public benefits, but that still doesn’t resolve the conundrum of initial investment. Backbone’s solution is to couple private investment with a public entity that would issue tax-free bonds at low interest rates and oversee funding and construction.

“[Trump has] talked a good game about infrastructure. If he follows through, Congress will follow his lead.”

Given the rail’s potential for American employment, manufacturing, and energy independence, it would seem that a case could be made to set aside a portion of Trump’s $1 trillion infrastructure request to break ground on solutionary rail.

But in March, the administration released a budget proposal that called for significant cuts to long-distance Amtrak service. If the idea seemed like a long shot before, the odds under the new administration appear to have worsened.

LaHood, pointing to the president’s New York connections, expects Trump’s infrastructure vision to go beyond roads and bridges, but he notes that the clock is ticking.

“A president in their first year has an opportunity to get two or three big things done and then their window of opportunity closes,” he says. “He’s talked a good game about infrastructure. If he follows through, Congress will follow his lead.”

Moyer is surprisingly unshaken by the election’s result. “The emphasis was already on the states, not the federal government,” he says, and whether Trump can be influenced is somewhat immaterial to the need for bottom-up organizing.

“The credibility of change agents largely depends on not just their capacity to articulate an oppositional stance on something that is wrong or evil or destructive; their moral authority and capacity to move society requires that they have a viable alternative, a proposition,” Moyer says confidently.

Solutionary Rail is his proposition.

 Originally published as Electric Trains Everywhere: A Solution to Crumbling Roads and Climate Crisis in YES! Magazine’s Summer 2017 “Sanctuary Issue.” Republished with kind permission of YES! Magazine.

The state where the Mosier Oil Train Bomb Blew is the perfect state to lead the way with the Solutionary Rail proposal

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“Illustrations by J. Craig Thorpe, provided courtesy of the Backbone Campaign.”

Solutionary Rail is a PEOPLE-Powered infrastructural proposal that requires a broad grassroots alliance to make it happen with the public benefit components in tact.  That is why it is ESSENTIAL that people like YOU understand the key aspects and that you invest in this compelling, positive, and doable proposal.

  1. Solutionary Rail proposes a strategy for shifting the economics of rail AWAY from dependence on moving heavy fossil fuel commodities and freight for exclusively large shippers to diversified high value freight.  It is our compelling “YES!” – an entirely doable vision that provides a win/win alternative to the boom and bust economics of ever-growing unit trains of coal and explosive oil.
  2. Solutionary Rail describes how track modernization, electrification and transmission infrastructure could augment the private rail infrastructure to speed up and increase efficiency of freight and passenger rail in order to draw freight and people off highways and airplanes and back onto the tracks. Increased speed and a capacity means better service to communities and producers all along the tracks.
  3. Solutionary Rail overcomes obstacles by creating of a tax-exempt, not-for-profit Steel Interstate Development Authority, or SIDA. The purpose of SIDA would be to initiate a public-private partnership with railroads and other stakeholders in order to issue tax-exempt bonds to finance, build, and operate the electrification and transmission infrastructure.  The SIDA would create a tax-exempt  “public belt,” over the private railroad right of way.

  4. The SIDA’s semi-public ownership of the electrification infrastructure addresses the obstacles for private railroads who won’t invest in that aspect of the needed infrastructure despite it resulting in cleaner more efficient trains due to:
    1. higher cost of private capital – AND –
    2. the property tax burden they’d have to pay on any improvements they owned
  5. Solutionary Rail creates synergies removes restraints on the buildout of distributed renewable energy production by opening corridors for renewable energy transmission and a customer for distributed renewable energy produced by communities, utilities, tribes, rural electrical cooperatives and farmers across rural America.
  6. Solutionary Rail is NOT a corporate giveaway but a partnership that invigorates the our transportation and energy infrastructure, creates jobs, and serves private and public interests with the mandates that:
    1. secure minimum crew sizes and labor conditions for safer trains and better jobs
    2. return of scheduled freight and service to underserved communities
    3. green the electricity used to power the trains 
    4. requires resolution of easement issues on tribal land 
  7. AGAIN – This is a PEOPLE-Powered infrastructural proposal, requiring a broad grassroots alliance.  It is ESSENTIAL that people like YOU understand the public benefit aspects and invest in this compelling, positive, and doable proposal.