Thursday, July 16, 2009

Can We Change the Climate, Really?

In 2007, we proudly declared that the environmentalism movement had achieved its opus. They convinced a worldwide audience that the human activities of the past one hundred years had in fact contributed to a change in the global climate. Companies began falling all over themselves declaring that they were green. Sustainability had achieved buzzword status and now pervades most every discussion about growth and development.

Then our house of cards fell down. If we marked 2007 as the year that we all went green, perhaps 2008 will be best remembered as the year we all went red. Now, with the recession still looming large, 2009 might be the year that environmental sustainability gave way to economic survival. Or will it? Congress is busy preparing a massive climate protection bill whose centerpiece is a complex cap and trade program that, according to recent reports might be managed by Wall Street. “Cap and trade” is a theoretical model of buying and selling pollution credits as a means to lower our overall carbon usage. In addition, it seeks to regulate our carbon emissions through a variety of controls, incentives, and investments. Is this just a gizmo-green, trillion-dollar boondoggle? And does it really matter?

Perhaps not. The truth is that our climate is always changing. Global warming is not a new phenomenon. In fact, we have been in a warming trend since we emerged from what scientists refer to as the “little ice age” in the 1850’s. That doesn’t mean to suggest that there isn’t in fact an anthropological (human-induced) acceleration of climate change occurring. On the contrary. There is in fact substantial consensus that our carbon-based economy is having some real adverse impacts on local and global climates.

Enter the resilient city. According to the Center for Resilient Cities, city resilience is “the ability of an urban area to effectively operate and provide services under conditions of distress.” The term sustainability suggests that organizations can operate in such a manner that they have a minimal long-term effect on the environment. Resilience, on the other hand, seems to take on a more pragmatic tone, whether intentionally or not. If sustainability is depicted with a Toyota Prius driving through a meadow in full bloom, resilience might be more akin to a fire fighter containing a fire from spreading down the block. And, in many ways city resilience is the opposite of city reliance, an unwritten protocol which has enabled far too many local governments to perpetuate inefficient urban services and unsustainable infrastructure with a combination of new growth at the fringes and state and federal grants to subsidize it. And this cycle of co-dependency is being perpetuated with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Tax Act of 2009 (ARRTA) whose greatest offering to our American cities is an expanded use of debt for infrastructure investments.

Resilient cities must be better than this. No more widened interstate highways and industrial parks in the name of economic development. Instead, resilient cities must build innovative new schools in walkable, urban neighborhoods; construct parks and greenways to foster a healthier (less obese) population; create a multi-modal transportation system that gives residents a true choice with high quality bus and rail service, bicycle networks, and sidewalks everywhere; and finally, and perhaps most importantly, they must implement strategies that ensure a broad level of housing opportunities are within close proximity to the previously mentioned amenities. Cities must also innovate with localized production and management of energy and other utilities, and they must radically re-think how they deliver efficient and essential urban services.

If we can crack this nut, and figure out a way to keep our nation’s cities growing, vibrant, affordable and attractive, perhaps we can attack our climate issues at the core. Only then can we convince people to pass up that cheap house in the suburb and live more compactly and more efficiently. And only then can we really lower our greenhouse gas emissions and affect climate change, if we can do anything about that at all. If we can’t, our cities will be better able to adapt to whatever climate-related impact might befall us. Either way, cities win. And if cities win, we all win.

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