When Donald Trump, defying science and public opinion, reversed American policy and announced in June that the United States would leave the universally endorsed 2015 Paris agreement on climate change, his decision may have given more impetus to a growing trend away from reliance on shortsighted national politicians.
In country after country, the focus is shifting to local policies and programs, with mayors of cities and towns taking leadership roles in reducing harmful emissions through a range of “green” initiatives that enhance the lives of local people first.
This is the central theme of a new book, “Climate of Hope: How Cities, Businesses and Citizens Can Save the Planet.” As evidence, the book cites more than 7,000 cities in 112 countries that have joined the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy. At particular risk, and therefore most attuned to global climate change, are coastal cities around the world, where sea levels are rising and populations are measured in the millions. Among the cities are New York, Miami, Mumbai, Guangzhou and Shanghai. Migration to urban centers from rural areas in many places worsens the problem.
The authors of “Climate of Hope” are an unlikely pair.
Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire businessman who was mayor of New York City from 2002 to 2013, describes himself as not a stereotypical environmentalist. “I don’t own a pair of Birkenstocks, eat granola, hug trees, lie down in front of bulldozers, oppose GMOs, or lose sleep over spotted owls,” he wrote as context for describing his ambitious plans to make his city more livable and healthy.
After Trump’s fiat on the US withdrawal from the Paris agreement, Bloomberg vowed to donate $15 million from his foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, to begin to meet US payments to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which manages the accord, prompting others to join his campaign. The former mayor, who took office within a few months of the Sept. 11, 2001 destruction of the World Trade Center and in 2012 dealt with the devastation in Manhattan caused by Hurricane Sandy, became the UN’s special envoy for cities and climate change in 2014.
The co-author of the book is Carl Pope, a former Peace Corps volunteer in India, a well-known environmentalist and former executive director of the Sierra Club. He began its Beyond Coal campaign, among other antipollution, green-energy projects that brought Cole to the attention of Bloomberg, who sought his help on a sustainability plan for New York City. Now retired from the Sierra Club, Cole is a senior adviser to Bloomberg. In the book, the two write alternate chapters, Cole on the science of climate change and how to roll it back, and Bloomberg on the crucial role of cities and how they negotiate changes locally. Their book is packed with facts and data.
In a joint preface, the authors reject the “tired old debate” in Washington, with one side predicting catastrophe and the other accusing their opponents of scaremongering.
“Instead of debating long-term consequences, let’s talk about immediate threats,” the authors wrote. “Instead of pitting the environment versus the economy, let’s consider market principles and economic growth. Instead of focusing on polar bears, let’s focus on asthmatic children. And instead of putting all hope in the federal government, let’s empower cities, regions, businesses, and citizens to accelerate the progress they are making on their own.”
Cities, they argue, can act with greater speed and specificity, with concrete issues and solutions in mind.
Some American states are also preparing to pursue climate policies of their own, responding partly to actions of the Trump administration that have reversed decisions taken over decades to clear the air, improve environments on the ground and protect natural resources. They stand in danger of losing federal funds, but they are gaining public support.
On June 20, the Brookings Institution reported on a new study of public opinion from National Surveys on Energy and Environment, a joint effort from Muhlenberg College and the University of Michigan. The study looks at the variety of actions available to American states, emphasizing energy production. In the survey, 66 percent of respondents said that if the federal government fails to address global warming, it is the states’ responsibility to act. Public concern about climate change was found to have jumped noticeably since a survey in 2013. Now a majority of Republicans agree for the first time on state action, along with more than three-quarters of Democrats.
“Climate of Hope” concludes with suggestions for market reforms in current policies and practices — in effect, new thinking in the light of already apparent, visible climate changes. The authors say that subsidies should no longer support mainly fossil-fuel producers and large-scale agricultural enterprises that damage the climate with their gas emissions, create higher health costs and waste money that could go into developing alternate energy sources, although lobbyists would fight these moves fiercely. Regulations and incentives are needed to upgrade factories, technology and residential buildings, the authors add.
Reliable data on companies involved in climate change must be more transparent, the authors say, “so that capital will flow into investments that minimize exposure to climate risk.”
Energy monopolies must be open to competition, they argue: “Anyone who produces electricity — from solar panels, for instance — ought to be able to use power lines for a fee. One doesn’t have to own a railroad in order to ship something via its rails. Why should one have to own a utility to sell electricity via its wires? And yet in many states and countries, laws prevent home and business owners from doing just that.”
Tough reassessment of traditional distributions of political power is the big issue that rounds out the book. “Most representative democracies have voting systems weighted — some might say rigged — to give more power to rural areas than population warrants,” the authors say, adding that the US is “the perfect example of this.”
Americans know that, or should know that after the 2016 presidential election. But constitutional changes might be required, like rethinking the composition of the US Senate and Electoral College. Politically impossible? Maybe not in the long run. Meanwhile, cities and states must do what they can.
If there is one central message in “Climate of Hope” it is this: “America’s ability to meet our Paris climate pledge doesn’t depend on Washington.”
“Climate of Hope: How Cities, Businesses and Citizens Can Save the Planet,” by Michael Bloomberg and Carl Pope; 1250142075.
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.