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Dear Flannery Assoc. & California Forever: New Cities Won’t Solve the Housing Crisis

Why Don’t We Just Build New Cities?

California Forever was founded in 2017 and is led by CEO Jan Sramek. Its primary investors are tech billionaires, including Marc Andreessen, Patrick and John Collison, Chris Dixon, John Doerr, Nat Friedman, Daniel Gross, Reid Hoffman, Michael Moritz, Laurene Powell Jobs, and the investment firm Andreessen Horowitz. | Image from

Yearning for a blank slate crosses the ideological spectrum—but sooner or later, new places will face the same old problems.

The first urbanists were recorded in the pages of Genesis: “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” But God struck down the Tower of Babel and cursed his people to rely on Google Translate forever.

Despite this false start, the dream of building a great new city continues to this day, even in developed nations like the United States, where we already have a lot of them. We start new companies, new schools, new neighborhoods all the time. Why not a new San Francisco, Boston, or Miami? The yearning for a blank slate crosses the ideological spectrum, touching socialists, antidevelopment activists, curious policy makers, and, most recently, Silicon Valley investors attempting to build a city from scratch—among them Marc Andreessen, Patrick and John Collison, Michael Moritz, Nat Friedman, and Laurene Powell Jobs (who is also the founder of Emerson Collective, which is the majority owner of The Atlantic).

From left, Michael Moritz, Reid Hoffman, Marc Andreessen and Chris Dixon, four prominent Silicon Valley investors, have backed Flannery Associates. | Bloomberg; The New York Times; Clara Mokri for The New York Times; Getty Images; Reuters.

And they’re not just dreaming big or tweeting. As The New York Timesreported in August, they’re backing California Forever, the parent company of Flannery Associates, which has acquired nearly 60,000 acres in Solano County, California, between San Francisco and Sacramento. That’s a lot of land—roughly twice the size of San Francisco or Boston, and slightly larger than Seattle. Housing developments crop up all the time, of course, and suburbs glom on to existing metropolitan areas. California Forever has something else in mind: a top-down community with brand-new infrastructure, where tens of thousands would live and, most important for the company’s vision, also work and play. It’s not your grandfather’s suburban development.

“We’ve gotten into a situation where it’s completely acceptable to talk about inventing general artificial intelligence, and that’s something we’ve accepted is going to happen, but it’s not possible to build a new town where people can buy homes,” Jan Sramek, the founder and CEO of California Forever, told me. (The comparison reveals more about his social environment than anything else; it is not commonly accepted that AGI is “going to happen.”)

But building a new city is hard, and this most recent push to do so—unlike with recent gains in AI—doesn’t reflect an exciting breakthrough in America’s technological, political, or financial capacity. Rather, it reflects an abiding frustration with the ridiculously sluggish process of building housing in America’s most productive cities and suburbs. The dream of a new San Francisco is, then, rooted in the nightmare that the old one may be past saving.

Details about the new proposed city in Solano County are hard to come by, but sketches on California Forever’s website portray an idyllic town, foregrounded by open space and densely built with multiple housing types. Windmills turn in the background. The website reads: “Our vision for walkable neighborhoods, clean energy, sustainable infrastructure, good jobs and a healthy environment is not about reinventing the wheel, but rather going back to the basics that were once the norm across America.”

Image from

California Forever’s project has a lot going for it: The lack of urban or suburban development in the region means an absence of traditional groups that might fight against neighborhood change. Because California Forever has acquired so much acreage, local officials have a strong incentive to work with Sramek to prevent collapsing land values if his project fails. And Sramek is already considering ways to sweeten the deal for existing residents; he says one idea is “setting up a fund that would provide down-payment assistance for buying homes in the new community, which would only be accessible to current residents of Solano County.”

But financing urban infrastructure is exceedingly expensive. “Organic” cities, in which firms and workers agglomerate and then begin to demand that governments finance infrastructure, have a preassembled tax base. If you try to build the infrastructure first, paying for it becomes tricky.

Alain Bertaud, a former principal urban planner at the World Bank and an expert on urban development, told me: “A new city, especially a large one … has a problem of cash flow.” The city can’t raise taxes to build schools and hire teachers, for instance, but it needs to build schools and hire teachers before parents are willing to move—and be taxed—there. “If you look back to [recent] history … the only large new cities were new capitals like Brasilia, Chandigarh, Canberra, [where] the cash flow is not a problem [because] you have the taxpayers of the entire country paying for the cost.”

Thinking of cities as mere infrastructure is a categorical mistake. New York City is not the Empire State Building or the Brooklyn Bridge; London is not the tube; and Levittown, New York—America’s quintessential “first” suburb—is not its single-family homes. Infrastructure follows people, not the other way around. “You don’t go to a new city because the sewer system is fantastically efficient,” Bertaud said.

In general, the superstar cities we have today were not preselected from above; they were chosen by millions of workers in search of economic opportunity: Los Angeles (oil); San Francisco (gold); Boston (a port, academia); Seattle (lumber, aircraft, tech); New York City (a port, finance). Granted, workers tend to follow firms that follow transportation networks, which themselves are sometimes functions of state investments, but the principle is sound: Cities are people.

When people are choosing where to live, that decision is almost wholly dominated by job availability. What that means is people attract people. It’s a virtuous cycle in which people who move have kids and want teachers and day-care providers and taxi drivers and nurses, and those people want restaurant workers and iPhone-repair specialists, and so on. (Within a job market or when choosing between two equally promising job markets, people do of course consider the quality of life.)

But what if Sramek and his backers aren’t really building a new city after all, just a commuter suburb far away from the inner core? That’s what the pro-housing activist Jordan Grimes thinks is happening; he told the San Francisco Chronicle the project was “sprawl with a prettier face and prettier name.” Solano’s population has a lot of commuters already. Census data from 2016 to 2020 indicated that of the roughly 207,000 workers who lived in Solano, more than 40 percent commuted to another county. Compare that with San Francisco, where of its nearly 510,000 workers, a bit more than 20 percent commuted to another county.

I asked Sramek: Is he truly looking to build a city with its own job market, where residents will be responsible for policing, fire services, parks and recreation, wastewater, libraries? Or is he looking to develop housing, with some space for retail, restaurants, and other cultural amenities? “This is one of those issues that’s very open for community input,” he told me. “We do think that eventually this would become an incorporated city that does provide many of those services.”

Cows graze on land purchased by the Flannery Associates with California Forever in hopes of building a new city between Suisun City and Rio Vista. | Chris Riley / Vallejo Times-Herald.

Sramek isn’t a developer, and his investors are not the sort of people who hope that their hundreds of millions of dollars go into the construction of a few thousand single-family homes. Someone close to the project, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss it freely, told me the aspiration is to prove to the rest of the world what’s possible in America: We can build an attractive, dense, and climate-friendly metropolis, and we can do it quickly. The source also suggested that a big Silicon Valley player might one day move its offices to the area. (I reached out to Andreessen, Patrick Collison, Friedman, and Powell Jobs. They declined to comment.)

Either way, new city or new sprawl, this project is going to run headfirst into the politics of development. Right now, the land is zoned largely for agricultural use. The county holds that changing the current designation to accommodate high-density urban infrastructure will require a ballot measure. Sramek told me he might try to put the question to voters as early as November 2024, but victory is far from assured.

According to some local officials, Flannery Associates alienated the local community by refusing to announce its intentions before it began acquiring land. (Sramek argues that doing so would have made land values skyrocket.) Congressional representatives alerted the Treasury Department, worried that foreign investors were buying up real estate for nefarious purposes. They noted that an Air Force base is nearby. “I will tell you they have poisoned the well,” John Garamendi, who represents a large part of Solano County, told me. “There’s no goodwill. Five years of total secrecy? Five years of not communicating with [local officials]?”

The process of building a city, difficult as it is, seems remotely rational only because trying to build within cities drives people mad.

Sramek and his director of planning, Gabriel Metcalf, who once ran the influential San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association, say the idea for a new city came to them after deciding that working on incremental reforms would never yield the housing needed to make a dent in the overall shortage. As of now, the country needs more housing than almost anyone can imagine, a formidable challenge even if America’s political and legal systems were focused on meeting it—which, unfortunately, most of them are not. Instead of directing a building boom, states still devolve permitting decisions down to the hyperlocal level, where the default is to ban smaller, more affordable homes and where opposition from just a few people can quash desperately needed construction.

“It’s always hard to come to an existing place and try to change it very profoundly,” Sramek told me, when I asked him why he wasn’t focused on building in established cities.

“I spent my whole career on the infill side,” Metcalf told me. (Infill development is building on underutilized land within existing development patterns, such as turning a parking lot into a few townhomes.) “I believe in that completely, but we are only delivering a small fraction of what we need … Whether it’s trying to build a high-speed rail line or renewable-energy transmission line or high-density infill housing, there is a vetocracy in place that across America makes it incredibly difficult and slow to build the things we need to build.” (Funnily enough, that vetocracy includes one of the investors in the Solano County project: Andreessen. I reported last year that he co-signed a letter with his wife opposing new development in the wealthy town of Atherton.)

The socialist writer Nathan J. Robinson has also issued a call to build new cities, and he, too, seems to have given up on the idea of reforming existing places: “​​The exciting thing about building new cities from scratch is that it allows you to avoid the mistakes that are made in the ‘organic’ (i.e., market-built) city … A new city can avoid all of the disastrous errors that gave us the ugly suburban wastelands that constitute so much of contemporary ‘development.’”

American cities and suburbs have earned Sramek’s fatalism. And certainly, building a walkable, thriving new town in Solano County would be positive for anyone who found a home they loved there. But Sramek and his backers want to set an example, and good examples should be replicable. This one isn’t. Sites like Solano County—near bustling job centers that lack residential development—are few and far between.

Two types of places need a development boom: those that already have lots of people living in them, like Boston or Miami, and those that are growing quickly, like Georgetown, Texas, near Austin. To the extent they’re failing to build, it’s not because they lack inspiration. They’re failing because the politics are genuinely thorny. Many people oppose new development on ideological grounds, or because they think it’s a nuisance, or because they deny the existence of a housing shortage at all, or even because they believe it interferes with other priorities.

A new city, moreover, won’t necessarily escape these antidevelopment pressures in the future. It might expand for a while, but it will eventually face the same old problem: residents who don’t want change. Even in Manhattan, a place where residents are surrounded by high-density housing and cultural amenities that come from density, people regularly oppose new housing, new transit, and even new dumpsters.

Solving the housing crisis doesn’t require inventing new places for people to go; it requires big cities to embrace growth, as they did in the past, and smaller cities to accept change. Again, cities are people, and people are moving to Maricopa, Arizona, in the suburbs of Phoenix, and Santa Cruz, California, south of San Jose. These places may not feel ready to accommodate newcomers, but some will have to rise to the occasion.

What America needs isn’t proof that it can build new cities, but that it can fix its existing ones.

Jerusalem Demsas is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

This and more stories on the Flannery land grab:

Developer Behind Imagined New Solano County City Says Billionaire Group Wants to Build a ‘City of Yesterday’

California Forever was founded in 2017 and is led by CEO Jan Sramek. Its primary investors are tech billionaires, including Marc Andreessen, Patrick and John Collison, Chris Dixon, John Doerr, Nat Friedman, Daniel Gross, Reid Hoffman, Michael Moritz, Laurene Powell Jobs, and the investment firm Andreessen Horowitz. | Image from

SFist, by Jay Barman, September 25, 2023

Confirming fears by planning experts that the billionaire group behind an imagined, utopian city built on arid agricultural land in Solano County will be retrograde in concept, visionary developer Jan Sramek said as much in an interview with KQED today.

Sramek went on KQED’s Forum Monday along with Fairfield mayor and original critic of the project Catherine Moy, and Chronicle writer J.K. Dineen. And he spent much of the broadcast defending the idea that this new city is something that Bay Area and Solano County residents will want, and that it will be “affordable by design.” Sramek also revealed a few key bits of new information, including the fact that the group doesn’t intend to quickly try to get the city incorporated — though this could be all talk.

“This could remain in unincorporated Solano County for a long time,” Sramek said. “We think government is fine as it is in Solano County. The county does a great job of running the county … And then at some point, it would be a decision of the voters in this new community whether they want to incorporate.”

Sramek also said that the majority of the first homes built would be row houses, perhaps built by small-scale firms, and made to be affordable for middle-class families.

“We think that there’s so much wisdom in how we built cities and towns over the last hundreds of thousands of years [sic] in some places. And so from the beginning, we’ve believed that you go back to go forward… The plans that people put forward will be very inspired by those great old American neighborhoods that someone who was born 100 years ago will recognize… We want to build a city of yesterday,” Sramek says.

He suggests that row houses “are some of the most under-appreciated types of types of buildings,” and can be built “much more cheaply” than dense, mid-rise condo complexes, at least so long as the land is cheap enough. But is that really true?

Fairfield Mayor Catherine Moy said that the secretiveness with which the group behind the project, Flannery Associates — or maybe now known by the project name as California Forever — conducted themselves for years hasn’t won them any friends in local government. Moy also suggests that “there’s something else going on here,” given that the group has plans to develop 60,000 acres, or a space twice as large as Fairfield itself, which has over 120,000 residents.

And, Moy adds, “There are other areas that this group could develop in and do a lot of good for humanity, including our downtown. Putting a city in an area that is 98% [agricultural] is not a good idea. We are running out of [agricultural] land. We don’t need to develop it.”

Sramek insists that, despite so much out-migration from California in recent years, he’s “gone out and found a group of people who want to double down in California, who believe in the state, who believe in the optimism and the dynamism, and who want to use their resources to build something great in California.”

But doesn’t this all sound a bit like Disney’s Celebration, Florida?

The Chronicle’s urban design critic John King has already critiqued the early rollout of the California Forever proposal, even though it contains no concrete plans.

“Besides the utter lack of specificity in terms of what the conversation will actually be about, here’s the most insulting aspect of California Forever 1.0: It claims to be the natural outgrowth of Bay Area planning tradition,” King writes. “It does this by exhuming a pair of pre-1970 government documents… and says, ‘Let’s dust off those plans, and breathe new life into them’… Or maybe not: Among other things, the 1960 plan calls for a new bridge from San Francisco to Sausalito by way of Angel Island. Plus new suburbs in West Marin and filling in up to 325 miles of the existing bay for development purposes.”

It was about unhindered sprawl, in other words, and did not focus on urban centers and existing transit corridors. “It’s so sad and disappointing,” said Greenbelt Alliance executive director Amanda Brown-Stevens, speaking to the Chronicle. “They’re looking to the past, all the failed approaches that put us in this situation, and doubling down.”

This and more stories on the Flannery land grab:

It’s been almost 20 weeks since Sheri Leigh first wrote about Benicia’s ‘La Migra’ games. What have we learned, and what’s next?

Sheri Leigh on what she’s learned about La Migra so far, and where we may want to go next

Sheri Leigh
Sheri Leigh, Benicia resident and educator.

By Sheri Leigh, September 22, 2023

Back in May 2023, I posted my concerns about a game the high school students in Benicia play, which they call La Migra. At its simplest level, it is a game of chase, with upperclassmen attempting to ‘capture’ underclassmen before they reach a designated ‘safety zone,’ which is located across town from the game’s starting point. In its ideal form, the game promotes outdoor activity, teamwork, creative solutions, and excitement – but it also can (and does) involve hazing, police arrests, traffic hazards, trauma, kidnapping, and racially based harassment and assault. 

Ever since I first heard of the game, I wanted to know more, and I vowed to share what I learned with the community. Since then I have interviewed several people, including some who have participated in the game, a non-participating student who was racially targeted and assaulted in the name of the game, our school district’s superintendent, the police chief, a descendant of Mexican immigrants who was upset by the title and its meaning, and a host of community leaders, including parent and City Council Member Kari Birdseye. I can certainly do more, but here is what I have learned so far.

First, the game is completely student led. It’s been a Benicia tradition for decades, with its popularity waxing and waning over the years. Its popularity recently surged, probably a result of the isolating years of Covid. None of the event planning or promotion is sponsored by the school district. It doesn’t take place during school hours or on school property, and therefore the school district has no legal right to take disciplinary action against any students who may commit criminal acts while playing the game. 

Some Benicia High School students have taken action against the game, posting warnings to discourage peers from participating. | This image is a still from a 2023 NBC Bay Area report.

Some of the students who have played found the game fun, exciting, and edgy. They like the autonomy and the potential danger, and even the unknown consequences of getting ‘caught.’ They found the game to be one of the only engaging and interactive activities available to them. There is nothing else like it in the community. There is no laser tag, no paintball, no safe room, and no bungee jumping nearby. Not even a bowling alley. The closest thing Benicia has to offer teens looking for an adrenaline rush is the haunted train depot, which is only an option during the month of October. 

Despite the youthful enthusiasm surrounding the activity, many people have experienced severe, long-term trauma from the La Migra Game. Its structure promotes bullying at its worst level. Some young people have been shot with ice pellets and called racial- or gender-based hate names, and have felt compelled to hide in fear for their lives. And I’m not exaggerating. Others were unceremoniously ‘captured’ and taken alone at night to far away or remote locations. Some of the victims weren’t playing or even aware of the game at all. Imagine what an unaware young person thinks if they are suddenly grabbed, thrown into a car trunk, and driven away in the middle of the night? I know what I would be afraid of. Fortunately, so far, no one has died or suffered long term physical harm, but the potential is definitely there.

A lawn with kids running away.
‘La Migra’ is slang for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and is the name used for this controversial game based on ICE agents deporting undocumented immigrants. This image is from a 2018 video showing footage of the Game starting.

And beyond the individual targeting of young and vulnerable people, the title and the premise is racially charged. The fear that surrounds the words ‘La Migra’ is very real to many people. Among a group of migrant workers, when someone yells ‘La Migra,’ many run, terrified of apprehension and deportation back to the extreme hardships they could have fled.  Beyond mimicking the real fear many feel when hearing the words La Migra, the game glorifies a very serious problem this country has with immigration. United States immigration policies are difficult and expensive to navigate for foreigners. The immigration officers have a reputation of brutality. And generally speaking, there is little compassion for people entering this country illegally, even when they are here because they fear for their lives or their family’s well-being, and want nothing more than to have a job and feel safe. Sadly, American culture (particularly white American culture) maintains a historic lack of tolerance and acceptance of newcomers and foreigners. 

A wall is spray painted with the words 'No One Is Illegal'
Photo by Miko Guziuk on Unsplash

Do we really want our children emulating a painful and very genuine national tragedy? 

La Migra is not only an opportunity for hazing, or worse; it also has a serious impact on public safety. The students who are playing are caught up in the excitement of the chase. Young people playing the role of the “undocumenteds” are jumping into private yards, running across the street at a moment’s notice, and using other pedestrians, businesses, or cars as shields. In the meantime, those posing as the ICE officers are driving recklessly, and upping the ante by shouting threats or names at their quarry and, more recently, by wielding weapons or firing pellet guns, often without concern whether or not their target is actually voluntarily participating in the game. 

In the late spring of 2022, following the report of one particularly brutal incident involving two unaware and non-participating young people who were attacked by a truck full of students charading as ICE officers who were playing the game, a well-attended town hall meeting initiated by those most impacted was held in a local church. It turned out that these young people’s experience was far from an isolated incident. A host of others who had been victimized and traumatized during the games also spoke up; many who spoke are now adults who still carry the trauma with them. It was an emotionally painful account of this long standing tradition. The evening prompted community action. 

Dr. Damon Wright, Benicia Unified School District Superintendent. | Photo from BUSD Press Release.
Benicia Chief of Police Mike Greene is a 30-year law enforcement veteran, long-time Benicia resident and graduate of Benicia High School. | Uncredited image from BPD website.







Early in the 2022-23 school year, the Benicia School Superintendent spoke about the dangers of the game at every school staff meeting. He and his staff sent an informative email to all Benicia families and sent several follow-up emails as the La Migra game night grew nearer. Student leaders actively discouraged others from taking part in the game. The superintendent himself showed up at the opening of the game and personally tried to convince students to go home, rather than get involved in something that could have long-term legal and emotional effects.

As the evening of the 2023 game approached, the City and the Police Department sent out warnings to residents, encouraging families to keep their children home. And although the Benicia police have always been aware of the game, this time they made a bigger effort to keep our young people and community safe. Several extra police officers were out that evening on overtime, costing our City untold amounts during what many are calling a financial crisis, and more than 20 students were apprehended; one was charged with battery for firing a gel pellet gun loaded with ice at another student. Parents were required to pick up their children at the police station and face the consequences of having their son or daughter involved with the law. 

Some Benicia youth participate in the game for a fun physical challenge. | This image is a still from a 2018 KBCW broadcast and has been blurred to protect child privacy.

And I have been researching and writing articles from a variety of perspectives trying to inform our community about the game. 

What’s left to do? A lot! Communication is a big part of this, and we can do more. But we also need to address the very real voids that La Migra seems to be filling for young people who are otherwise lacking healthy, positive outlets for their creativity and energy. Again, there’s nothing beyond sports available in this community for young people who seek healthy engagement, competition, and an adrenaline rush. 

There’s also a need to address how education fits into this conversation. One perspective that I have heard over and over again is that there is not much taught or discussed at schools about the challenges and trials that immigrants face in this country. If we want to promote acceptance and inclusion, we need to raise awareness at every level, starting in early education and carrying it through to high school graduation. 

Events and programs honoring Mexico’s rich cultural heritage are relatively rare in Benicia. | Photo by Fili Santillán on Unsplash

And as a community, what about cultural celebrations?  Vallejo hosts many events – sponsored by the City or various community groups or both – that celebrate cultural diversity, such as Dia De Los Muertos festivities, a Filipino Festival and more. Here in Benicia, we finally have a Juneteenth celebration and a Diversity Festival, and both have come about thanks to the hard work and ingenuity of the community organizations that put them on, namely Benicia Black Lives Matter and the Benicia Foundation for the Performing Arts, respectively. I also want to acknowledge that Benicia has a long-standing Portuguese Holy Ghost parade, to honor those with Portuguese heritage. 

But that’s not much. According to our most recent census, over 30% of our population is non-white (~14% Latino, 11.5% Asian, 3.5% Black, 12% mixed races, etc.) and yet, we don’t do much to celebrate or recognize our cultural makeup. 

We can do more. And we should!

If you ask the average person in this town what they love most about Benicia, a common answer is how welcoming and friendly we are. Let’s own that! Let’s start thinking critically and proactively about how and why La Migra came to be popular with Benicia youth, what’s missing from our children’s education and our town’s calendar of community events that could have contributed to this sad reality, and what can be done – what we can do together – to honor and celebrate the cultural diversity and positivity that makes this town truly great. 

Share your story
If you would like Sheri to hear and share your perspective on the ‘La Migra Game,’ please contact her through the Benicia Independent. Remember that it is your story that is critical for others to hear, not your name, unless you would like to be identified.
Reach out to Sheri:
Leave a voicemail for the BenIndy: ‪(707) 385-9972‬

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The Climate Overshoot Commission Releases Its Report

[Note from BenIndy: This first installment of an analysis of The Climate Overshoot Commission’s report is a bit weedy but worth your time. The report itself kicks off by stating that the likelihood of global warming exceeding the Paris Agreement’s goal of 1.5°C is “alarmingly high and continues to rise” before charging policymakers to reduce emissions, such as by an “ambitious and orderly phasing out of fossil fuels […] . ” Here, Dr. Parson of UCLA’s Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment offers a brief history of the commission and what the high risk of exceeding the Paris Agreement’s goal – and “climate overshoot” – may mean for climate response.]

A dozen global leaders weigh in on the risk of exceeding the Paris temperature targets and what it means for climate response.

Click the image to read the full report on the Climate Overshoot website.

Legal Planet, by Ted Parson, September 18, 2023

Edward A. (Ted) Parson is Dan and Rae Emmett Professor of Environmental Law and Faculty Co-Director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The Climate Overshoot Commission recently completed its work, releasing its report at the United Nations last Thursday, September 14. This report comes in conjunction with the U.N. General Assembly and a collection of high-level climate and environment events, including the Sustainable Development Goals Summit, 18-19 Sept, and the Climate Ambition Summit, 20 Sept.

The Climate Overshoot Commission is a senior independent international body, consisting of twelve distinguished individuals from around the world, including former heads of government, national ministers, and leaders of major environment, development, and civil society organizations. Chaired by Pascal Lamy, former Director-General of the World Trade Organization, it was convened by the Paris Peace Forum. The UCLA Emmett Institute contributed to the establishment and work of the Commission in several ways. Two former Emmett Institute law fellows served on the Secretariat. UCLA law students provided research and analytic support to the Secretariat in the International Climate Law and Policy Clinic. I served as a senior advisor to the Secretariat. In this and a few subsequent posts, I’ll present highlights of the Commission’s contributions, with some commentary — my own views, of course, not those of the Commission, which has very cogently spoken for itself.

There have been dozens of international commissions. Some of you may recall the 1986 World Commission on Environment and Development, or Brundtland Commission, which first popularized the idea of “sustainable development.” Commissions generally aim to advance international debate on hard issues, typically when other bodies are constrained in their ability to do so. Commissioners bring experience, stature, broad global representation—but crucially, are not presently in political office, so they are not required to advance national positions. They can speak and discuss freely. Like its predecessors, the job of the Overshoot Commission was to say things that are true and important, but that other more politically constrained bodies are unable to say: to talk loudly about elephants in the room and naked emperors.

This boiled down to two jobs. The first was to sound the alarm about the imminent likelihood of global heating exceeding the Paris temperature targets. The second was to say what this high risk of exceeding the targets— “overshoot”— means for climate response.

For the first, the Commission did its job pretty well, albeit with some reservations. Its forceful opening message is that the likelihood of global-average heating exceeding 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels—the more ambitious of the Paris targets—is “alarmingly high and continues to rise.” This is a stronger statement of this risk than has been made by any similarly high-level climate body, although not nearly as strong as is justified. Exceeding 1.5°C is virtually certain: indeed, it’s quite likely to happen within the next decade. More seriously, the Commission was silent on the risk of exceeding the higher Paris target, 2.0°C—with much more severe impacts than 1.5°C— which is also high and mounting. The Commission did report recent assessments from three bodies—the IPCC, UNEP, and IEA —which have synthesized projections of end-of-century heating. These are pretty alarming. Just maintaining present emissions-cutting actions—i.e., no further strengthening, but also no backsliding—give end-of-century heating of 3.2°C (IPCC), 2.6°C (UNEP), and 2.5°C (IEA); adding commitments in NDCs on top of current actions gets these down to 2.8°C (IPCC) or 2.4°C (UNEP); and adding conditional commitments and long-term net-zero targets reduces these to 1.7°C (UNEP and IEA). Getting better, but not very comforting.

Deciding how to speak effectively about such projections is surprisingly hard, for a couple of reasons. First, such statements aren’t just scientific but are also political—intended to report what is known or knowable about a risk, in such a way as to elicit a certain kind of response. All public-facing bodies like the Commission fret over how to sound the alarm that bad things are coming, to convey an appropriate level of action-motivating alarm without inducing despair and passivity. Second, there is real uncertainty in such statements, which gets larger and is more dependent on human choice the further ahead you look. While exceeding 1.5°C is pretty much locked in, there is so much range for human action in longer-term projections like 2.0°C, that most bodies —like the three the Commission quoted—speak not in terms of likelihood, but in terms of if-then, conditional statements. If control measures are this strong, then we project this degree of heating. The Commission chose to focus on the 1.5°C target, to speak very forcefully about the likelihood of exceeding it, but not to suggest certainty or unavoidability.

To give the Commission credit where due—and it is due in many places—on one point closely related to these projections, they were uncommonly and admirably frank: Noting the risks and the stark tradeoffs posed by aerosol pollution in the lower atmosphere. This pollution, mostly from burning fossil fuels that contain sulfur, has severe current environmental and health effects, estimated to kill more than 5 million people per year due to respiratory illness. It is also exerting an inadvertent cooling effect that masks a large fraction—perhaps a third to a half—of the climate forcing from previously emitted greenhouse gases that are already in the atmosphere. This pollution has to be cleaned up—and is being cleaned up—notably via the recently enacted tightening of restrictions on the sulfur content of marine bunker fuels adopted by the IMO. But cleaning this up will remove its cooling effect, which the IPCC recently estimated as 0.7°C.

Another related contribution the Commission made to climate clarity and realism (although less than it perhaps might have) concerns the use of the term for which it was named, “Climate Overshoot.”

Overshoot scenarios initially appeared in integrated assessment models (IAMs). They are projections in which some measure of environmental disruption initially exceeds a target, e.g., one of the Paris global temperature targets, but then stops growing, reverses, and eventually returns to the target level after this temporary period of exceedance. Calling these “overshoot scenarios” makes sense in describing model results, but is somewhat misleading in the real world, because it implies that once you exceed a target you are on an overshoot trajectory, which will in due course reverse and return to the target. In other words, the term suggests that such reversal and return is somehow automatic or easy, perhaps even built into the definition of “overshoot.” But what is actually highly likely is not the complete overshoot trajectory, but the initial exceedance of the target. How large and long-lasting the exceedance is, indeed, whether temperature actually returns to the target at all rather than just staying higher, depends on what happens to net emissions afterwards. Returning to or below the target, let alone doing so after just a small and brief exceedance, will take the same extreme reductions in emissions that have been so challenging to achieve thus far, now with the additional requirement that any continuing emissions be more than offset by extreme scale-up of stable atmospheric removals. Current and coming advances in carbon-free technology will help, of course. But given decades of shortfall in reducing global emissions, and continuing structural factors hindering needed sharp reductions, there is no justification to assume this vast transformation will somehow get easy, let alone automatic, by the mere fact of exceeding the targets and suffering the resultant worse climate impacts. Fossil interests will keep fighting, even if it’s to stretch their demise out longer rather than to live forever. Perhaps increasingly severe climate change and impacts will make transformative socio-technical change easier, but this depends on political assumptions – theories of social change – that are not clear.

An illustration of the deep difficulty thinking coherently about exceedance and overshoot can be found right in the recent IPCC AR6 report—a point the Commission discovered in the course of its work but did not include in its report. The overshoot scenarios reported in the IPCC all fall into two buckets: “low overshoot,” in which 1.5°C is exceeded by at most 0.1°C (this bucket also includes a tiny number of scenarios with no overshoot at all, but to be a little glib, nobody believes those); and “medium to high” overshoot, in which 1.5°C exceeded by 0.1 to 0.3°C.  A casual read could be forgiven for inferring that these numbers reflect a reasoned conclusion by the IPCC that these are the biggest overshoots the world will likely have to deal with. But unfortunately that’s not what it means at all. These buckets with their low overshoot numbers are a definitional artifact, arising from the year-2100 endpoint of the analyses. For a scenario to be called “overshoot,” it had to get back to its target by the year-2100 end of the analytic time horizon. Scenarios that peaked above 1.8°C—i.e., that exceeded 1.5°C by more than 0.3°C this century– did not have time to get back below 1.5°C by the end of the century, so were not labeled or analyzed as overshoot.  Even more so, no scenario that exceeded 2.0°C could be called overshoot, because there is not enough time on any trajectory to exceed 2.0°C, reverse, and return to 2.0°C by the end of the century. So, the overshoot scenarios identified and analyzed as such are in fact the best possible trajectories in which 1.5°C is exceeded, which manage to get back to 1.5°C by 2100. The IPCC in no way ruled out or judged unlikely future trajectories with higher and longer-lasting exceedances. These are there—in fact, they are clustered into buckets by their end-of-century heating.  These include, for example, the scenarios I reported above, in which continuance of present policies or NDC commitments without increasing ambition (granted, a scenario that may be unlikely on the pessimistic, no-action side) give end-of-century heating of 3.2°C and 2.8°C, respectively (with the lower figures subsequently estimated by UNEP and the IEA, as noted above). 

Having sounded the alarm about the likelihood of overshoot—albeit pulling their punches a little in concession to the perceived need to give a positive message—the Commission’s second job was to say what this high risk of overshoot means for climate response.

At first cut, this is a simple story: do more of everything and do it faster. But given the widespread desire not to face the stark likelihood of potentially severe exceedance, there actually is more to say—in particular, that the gravity of risks requires consideration of more extreme or radical approaches to limiting climate change than have gained serious attention thus far. It is no longer acceptable to deem plausible solutions that might help inadmissible a priori.

The Commission did this and did it pretty well—to varying degrees across the four major response types, of which they addressed all – mitigation, adaptation, removals, and solar geoengineering or SRM. Indeed, given the current state of climate debate, merely including all four response types with similar levels of scrutiny and detail represents a significant contribution. They also presented a useful and original conceptual framework for thinking about climate responses in presence of overshoot, dividing the four response types into two pairs according to which of two large-scale aims they pursue: Reducing the magnitude and duration of overshoot; and reducing the harms that follow from any given magnitude and duration of overshoot. The two responses that limit the magnitude and duration of overshoot are mitigation and removal: deep cuts in present and future emissions; and removing past emissions from the atmosphere and putting them somewhere long-term secure. The two ways to limit the harms resultant from any specific magnitude and duration of overshoot are adaptation and solar geoengineering (Sort-of, on the last one: the Commission doesn’t recommend solar geoengineering—in fact, its immediate recommendation is to enact a moratorium on it—but it also recommends researching it and starting to talk about how to resolve the governance problems it would raise). They also separately addressed climate finance; a cross-cutting response relevant to all responses.

From left to right: Kim Campbell (Canada’s 19th Prime Minister, Founding Member of Club de Madrid; Chair Pascal Lamy (Vice President of the Paris Peace Forum; former Director-General of the World Trade Organization, France); Hina Rabbani Khan (Minister of State for Foreign Affairs of Pakistan); Unknown; Xue Lan (Cheung Kong Chair Distinguished Professor and Dean of Schwarzman College, Tsinghua University, China); & Muhamad Chatib Basri (Former Minister of Finance of Indonesia).

I’m going to address how the Commission dealt with each response type in subsequent posts, which I’ll put up at intervals of one or two days. The next two will separately consider the two response types where the Commission’s recommendations are most radical, most original, and most likely to attract controversy: mitigation and solar geoengineering. I’ll then review their analysis and recommendations on adaptation, removals, and climate finance, and close with a review of reactions to the Commission (which should start to be clear by that point) and speculation on its impact.

[Note from BenIndy: All bolded elements above represent added emphasis by BenIndy. You can subscribe to in order to receive notifications for Dr. Parson’s follow-up posts.]