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A bevy of ideas to respond to climate change

A bevy of ideas to respond to climate change

By insisting on ‘climate justice’ and ‘disaster communism,’ Dawson makes two important, often overlooked points: that proposed responses to climate change should be equitable; and that social solidarity and mutual aid can be crucial in some crises. But ‘climate justice’ and ‘disaster communism’ seem unlikely to spur major economies ‘to quit burning fossil fuels,’ as Goodell recommends; unlikely to get the World Bank Group to subsidize or insure investments in sustainable infrastructure in developing countries, as Bloomberg and Pope recommend in Climate of Hope; unlikely to help cities retain the taxes they need to cope with climate change, as Barber recommends in Cool Cities; and unlikely to lead to a host of other coordinated economic, cultural, political, legal, institutional, environmental, and demographic changes that will be required to address climate change. Dawson’s solutions are necessary but not sufficient.

The title of Climate of Hope: How Cities, Businesses, and Citizens Can Save the Planet, tells you that its authors, Michael Bloomberg and Carl Pope, embrace the capitalism Dawson rejects. This comes as no surprise from billionaire philanthropist Bloomberg, three‐term mayor of New York City. It is a little surprising in the case of environmentalist Pope, who was a long‐time executive director and chair of the Sierra Club and leader of its campaign Beyond Coal. Despite political differences, the two men have long collaborated in plans to reduce New York City’s negative effects on climate change. They quote a common estimate that cities are the source of at least 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. (Estimates vary widely. Few cities measure their greenhouse gas emissions.)

On the other hand, according to the Bloomberg administration’s ‘PlaNYC’ of 2007, greenhouse gas emissions per person in New York City were only 29 percent of the US average (7.1 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per person per year, versus 24.5 nationally). New Yorkers also consume less water and electricity per person and produce less garbage per person than people in the average American city. Cities contribute to climate problems and to their solutions.

Bloomberg argues that cities ‘do n’t need to choose between economic growth and saving the planet. These are not technological challenges. They are challenges of policy, governance, and leadership. … Our society can’t function without business, which means we can’t solve the climate puzzle without business involvement.’

Bloomberg and Pope make what they call the conservative case for action on climate change, but their ‘conservative case’ leaves many questions unanswered. They argue that free market principles would allow owners of solar panels to compete with utilities in electricity production and would end fossil fuel subsidies. (Would Bloomberg and Pope advocate ending subsidies for research, development, and installation of renewable energy sources, like solar panels?)

Conservatives, they say, should invest in infrastructure to reduce emissions because they ‘make the United States more economically competitive,’ creating conditions favorable for the growth of businesses. (Don’t major investments in infrastructure require government intervention, at least through locating the goal posts and setting the rules of the game?) Because ‘being conservative means being cautious about the future,’ conservatives should take steps now to reduce the risk of potentially very costly future consequences of climate change. Too often, markets fail to reflect the economic advantages of action now on climate change. (Don’t arguments for action now to forestall future damages from climate change depend on both a discount rate and confident knowledge about future damages from climate change?)

Conservatives conserve, say Bloomberg and Pope: within the US (natural resources à la Teddy Roosevelt) and globally (the Montreal Protocol à la Ronald Reagan). ( How would Bloomberg and Pope account for the notable lack of interest in conserving domestic and global environmental resources, including the composition of the atmosphere, on the part of many ‘conservative’ voters and members of the present national administration of the US?)

Rich countries can help poorer countries respond to challenges of climate change with multidecadal, large‐scale capital investments, Bloomberg and Pope argue. The risks include failures of specific projects but more importantly, wars, revolutions, and changes in the politics of national governments. Such risks inhibit long‐term capital investments. In developing countries, the costs of borrowing for large capital investments are high; available capital is sparse. The main economic challenge, according to Bloomberg and Pope, is to change policies in multilateral development banks led by the World Bank Group ‘to reduce risk in sustainable infrastructure investments in developing markets’ that have high interest rates and few buying or selling offers for capital. For example, at present, the World Bank can make loans only to nations. Bloomberg and Pope recommend that the Bank be allowed to make loans to cities as well. Many cities have more people and more economic activity than dozens of smaller countries. Many cities can provide the transparency and accountability banks require.

Bloomberg and Pope also recommend ending subsidies to fossil fuel producers and large agricultural interests (without comparing these subsidies to those received by ‘green’ energy companies); requiring all parts of the economy—’including fossil fuel companies, manufacturers, commodity traders, banks, insurance companies, and government regulators—to measure and disclose data on climate‐related risks’ ( not a move likely to be widely welcomed without government pressure, if the real‐estate industry in Miami is indicative); ending monopolies on producing and selling electricity; investing in natural resources like soil carbon; setting regulatory standards ( not a free‐market solution) and realigning economic incentives to enable investors to collect some of the money saved by energy efficiency in rental buildings; and cracking down on ‘rent seeking,’ the acquisition of special economic benefits through lobbying or political influence without paying for them.

Many cities lack credit ratings and cannot borrow to finance their own infrastructure. Many cannot adopt a local sales tax without approval from some higher administrative unit. Bloomberg and Pope recommend removing the legal obstacles that prevent many cities from financing and implementing solutions to problems of climate change. They call on all (presumably citizens as well as business and political leaders) to ‘urge their national governments to devolve more power to cities. … Devolving power to cities is the best single step that nations can take to improve their ability to fight climate change.’

Bloomberg and Pope’s ‘conservative case’ for action on climate change seems a sheep in wolf’s clothing because its ‘baa’ is more aggressive than its bite. In a democracy, state and national governments seem unlikely to devolve significant powers to their cities until massive urbanization overwhelms the political opposition of rural areas. It seems likely to require alot more than this ‘conservative case’ to arouse potential urban voters to vote in their own self‐interest and tip this long‐term political power struggle.

In January 2018, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced plans for New York City’s pension funds to divest about $5 billion from fossil fuel companies over the next five years, and to sue five large fossil fuel companies—BP, Exxon Mobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and Shell—in federal court for contributing to climate change that harms New York City. In July 2018, the lower house of Ireland’s legislature voted to ban ‘as soon as is practicable’ Ireland’s sovereign wealth fund from investing in firms that derive more than 20 percent of revenues from fossil fuels, and in November 2018, the upper house confirmed the bill, making Ireland the first country to plan to divest its sovereign investments from fossil fuels. Ireland had about €318 million ($361 million) invested in coal, oil, gas, and peat assets, less than one‐tenth of the fossil‐fuel investments of New York City’s pension funds. In September 2018, de Blasio and London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan urged other cities to divest holdings in fossil fuel companies.

It is unclear whether these actions are symbolic or effective when compared, for example, to reducing the size of each city government’s car fleet and making it all electric, or to enacting congestion tolls on fossil‐fueled cars in the central city to support mass transit, or to modifying building codes to make space heating in cold climates and air‐conditioning in warm climates more efficient, among a host of other practical, on‐the‐ground needed modifications. Bloomberg and Pope are certainly right to focus on cities’ need to be able to govern themselves, as does the next book.

Benjamin R. Barber (1939 2017), founder of the Global Parliament of Mayors, agreed that delegating power to cities is crucial. His 2013 book, If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities, argued for networks of cities and collaborative political action. His Cool Cities: Urban Sovereignty additionally the Fix for Global Warming, published six days before he died, applies those arguments to climate change. It is the shortest, most theoretical of the five books I review here. Barber argues that nations (and international bodies) have failed to protect their citizens against climate change, thereby forfeiting their right to sovereignty.

One city cannot address climate change successfully without the coordinated action of many other cities. For example, in September 2018, de Blasio of New York and Khan of London teamed up with C40, a global network of cities, to create the C40 Divest/Invest Forum to encourage cities to divest from fossil fuel holdings. To assure that ‘urban networks can succeed in securing justice and sustainability for their citizens,’ Barber writes, cities must first acquire or retain the money and legal authority they need to fulfill their responsibilities to their citizens. Cities around the world pay more into the coffers of higher levels of government than they get back. With or without permission from national governments, cities must establish their right to govern themselves collectively across national boundaries. Cities must create an ‘urban rights movement,’ an ‘Urban Party’ to lobby higher levels of government ‘for autonomy, resources, and legitimacy,’ as Barber described at length in 2013.

The climate justice that obsesses Dawson in Extreme Cities matters to Barber too:

The rich man reacts to the rising tide by moving his summer home from Cannes to St. Moritz. The poor woman holding her newborn drowns. … a environmental plan that is not also an environmental justice plan is not only politically insupportable but morally untenable.

Time and demography may be on the side of Barber’s dreams. In 2018, an estimated 55 percent of all people lived in cities, and by 2050, a projected 68 percent will—an increase of 2.5 billion city dwellers (United Nations Population Division 2018). It would not be surprising if those billions asserted their political rights for safety and justice in the face of climate change and other threats. Whether they will depends on politics, leadership, and enough climate catastrophes to hold people’s attention.

Climate Change and Cities: Second Assessment Report of the Urban Climate Change Research Network (UCCRN) is an encyclopedia that offers everything that city leaders, policymakers, businesses, nonprofits, additionally the community ever wanted to know about cities and climate change.4 It updates the UCCRN’s First Assessment Report on Climate Change and Cities published in 2011. The earlier report surveyed cities, disasters, and climate risks; urban climate science and modeling; urban energy, water, wastewater, transportation, health, and governance.

This update surveys new research and adds guidance for cities on how to integrate climate mitigation (reducing future threats) and adaptation (responding to what happens), urban planning and design, equity and environmental justice, economics, finance, additionally the private sector, urban biodiversity and ecosystems, housing, informal settlements, urban solid waste, additionally the special problems of ‘Urban Areas in Coastal Zones.’ Other new topics include information and communications technology, urban demographics, additionally the psychological, social, and behavioral challenges and opportunities of decisionmaking about climate change. The 46 case studies of cities’ responses to climate change in the earlier report have grown to well over one hundred case studies in a searchable online database. Hurricane Sandy, the subject of one of these case studies, figures prominently in many parts of the new report.

The summary for city leaders emphasizes actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; to assess risks and prepare climate action plans jointly with scientists and all stakeholders; to answer needs of the urban poor, the elderly, women, minorities, recent immigrants, and other marginal populations; to enhance the city’s credit‐worthiness; to plan long‐term; and to participate in national and international capacity‐building networks.

To reduce the risks of climate‐related disasters, the report recommends a shift away from a traditional 123helpme.me focus on single hazards such as heat waves, floods, and droughts, based on past events, to ‘integrated, system‐based risk assessments and interventions that address current and future hazards throughout entire metropolitan regions.’ This shift requires cities to develop the institutional capacities, collaborations, and human resources to make integrated risk assessments. Cities should also: develop the financial capacity for resilient responses using public‐private partnerships; buy land and properties in hazard‐prone areas and use them to reduce risks; strengthen local social cohesion and cooperation; use tax and fiscal policies to enhance safety and encourage necessary relocation; formulate and enforce zoning ordinances and building standards appropriate for climate risks; require sellers of real estate to disclose hazards of flooding, landslides, mudslides, or earthquakes, for example; use natural buffers; strengthen infrastructure resilience ( e.g., by removing critical public facilities from hazardous areas); anticipate needs for recovery when disasters happen; and build back better or elsewhere. The report gives many examples.

While a hurricane’s intensity and its physical effects matter, the impact of climate‐related disasters depends at least as much, the report says, on the local and regional culture, demography, and economics, on ‘local governments’ institutional capacity, the built environment, the provision of ecosystem services, and human‐induced stresses.’ Prepare!

Urban responses to climate change have a few broad options. One is to do nothing: do not prepare; do not implement plans. (Play now; pay later, you, your children, and their children.) One is to defend the status quo: try to enable people to go on living and working just as they do now; build around the problems. One is to seek transformation: encourage people to move out of harm’s way; reimagine where and how cities develop so that they may prosper in the coming climate. One is to mix these strategies: with as much foresight as possible, try to prevent future damage and plan to adapt as necessary to what comes.

Collectively, these five books additionally the dozens (perhaps hundreds) of other recent books on cities and climate change show that climate change poses big, interlinked, locally different problems for many, maybe all, cities. They warn against looking only for easy, simple solutions.

The best model for what may lie ahead comes from the last warm period between ice ages, about 129 to 116 thousand years ago, an interval geologists call the ‘Eemian interglacial.’ Global mean surface temperatures then were at least 2 degrees Celsius warmer than at present. Such warming is projected for later this century if no effective action is taken to reduce emissions. Mean sea levels in the Eemian were higher than now by some 4 to 6 meters (13 20 feet), though estimates vary, with fluctuations of up to 10 meters (33 feet) around the mean. In the course of these fluctuations, sea levels sometimes rose as fast as 2.5 meters (8 feet) or even 3.5 meters (11.5 feet) per century (Rohling et al. 2008). Sea‐level rises of that size and speed would drown many of today’s coastal cities, as Goodell fantasizes in the last pages of The Water Will Come. a principal source of the water that raised sea levels during the Eemian was a collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (Carlson et al. 2018; Voosen 2018). The West Antarctic Ice Sheet is under severe threat today. Its base, below sea level, is warmed by the ocean while glaciers around it retreat. Will my children and their children, now living at low elevations near Boston and San Francisco, see the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans pour into their homes, as I saw the Atlantic pour into mine?

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