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Cities, States and Others Step up Action on Climate Change, Despite Federal Reluctance
Last year, Pentagon defense adviser Andrew Marshall issued a harsh warning of the consequences of climate change: mass chaos, national security crises and food shortages. If climate change occurs abruptly, the report declared, there could be a catastrophic breakdown in international security. Wars over access to food, water, and energy would likely break out between states. Even if climate change is more gradual, recent studies have argued that as many as one million plant and animal species could be rendered extinct by 2050 due to the effects of global warming.
Climate change is the most serious challenge facing the international community. In order to plan for a sustainable future – one that meets needs today without compromising meeting the needs of future generations – global warming must be addressed. We have arrived at a stage in human evolution that requires international cooperation – a stage which demands that world leaders put world priorities ahead of national political agendas in order to halt the peril threatening humanity.
In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) asked all nations to renew their commitment to implement policies based on the three pillars of sustainable development – economic, environmental and social – in order to arrest environmental deterioration and revive world economic growth. In particular, the report stated, poverty has played a major role in environmental degradation. Not only is it our moral obligation to eliminate poverty, the report revealed it is essential to protecting and improving the environment. Further reports have concluded that environmentally unsound technology has been exponentially far more detrimental to sustainable development than even population growth. In order to achieve sustainable development, the Commission reported, our cities must be considered in the global concerted effort.
Rural-to-urban migration and its negative impacts must be stopped, or better, as Urbanist Kaarin Taipale puts it, we must “transform urban growth into an engine of sustainability.” Since three-fourths of the global warming pollution could be solved if we decreased burning fossil fuels, one of the most effective ways to transform urban growth is by switching to alternative energy sources. Fortunately, there are many means of harnessing energy which have less damaging impacts on our environment than fossil fuels, and we already have developed all the technological resources needed. Now we must admit there is a problem and start working in the direction to make this transition. If our current leaders do not want to face this pressing challenge with integrity, then as Leonardo Dicaprio urges, we need to vote for leaders who care about the environment and our health and the future generations who will bear the burden long after the Administration is gone.
A Call to Action
On October 25, 2005, Senator Hillary Clinton (NY) called for a national energy strategy enlisting the oil industry in a process that would help consumers while making the transition to alternative energy technologies. Her plan redirects the hidden "tax" that Americans are already paying to OPEC and the oil companies, but she explained “lasts only long enough to kick-start the alternative energy market that we all know is out there.”
Speaking to Cleantech Venture Network, a group of venture capitalists who recently were named by Wall Street Journal reports for their success in developing clean energy as a viable investment category, Clinton emphasized the immediate concern which is how to help citizens pay their bills and keep the economy moving in the face of dramatically higher energy costs. There is no question, she said, that our failure to make better energy choices is sapping our pocketbooks, limiting our competitiveness, threatening our environment and even our national security. "Hurricanes Katrina and Rita made that brutally clear."
The far reaching problem we face, Senator Clinton stated, is coping with the impacts of massive economic development and competition for oil in other parts of the world such as India and China in the next twenty years. "Loosening environmental standards or opening up a new oil field or two is not going to offset this seismic shift in energy demand," she explained. Her plan unburdens the American people of foreign oil dependence, investing a portion of the profits into the U.S. energy future, instead of regimes we would never choose to subsidize.
The oil industries can choose to either reinvest their profits into America’s energy future or contribute to a new Strategic Energy Fund, she said. The Strategic Energy Fund would help consumers cope with spiraling energy costs, promote adoption of existing clean energy and conservation technologies, while stimulating research and investment by the private sector. She also recommends assessing an alternative energy development fee for those companies deciding not to directly reinvest in our energy future. That fee, she explained would help fund energy transition.
"The Fund could generate as much as $20 billion a year to help with home heating oil costs and develop new energy strategies." In this way, she explained, we would reduce our reliance on fossil fuel, make existing alternative technologies more affordable, jump start our technology, and regain U.S. world leadership. It’s got "Made in America" written on it, in addition to providing a role model for developing nations.
The "energy revolution" can be as big and important as the industrial revolution and the explosion of the information age. However, we have to do what America has always done when faced with a big challenge, she said, "roll up our sleeves and dedicate this country to finding a solution." In effect, she explained, "the country that put a man on the moon can be the country to find new lower cost and cleaner forms of energy. Our nation needs it. Our planet needs it."
Addressing Climate Change in the Environment of a Hostile U.S. Administration
The Rio de Janeiro Summit in 1992 articulated the need to include humanity as well as environmental protection in the sustainability equation. Hence, it concluded, the critical problem of poverty must also be addressed. When the United Nations authorized the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002, it had already realized poverty had deepened and environmental degradation had worsened since the 1992 Summit. The world needed a new summit of actions with results, and not just intent.
Managing urban environmental conditions ultimately belongs with national governments, businesses, scientific bodies, and communities working together; but history shows us U.S. involvement has always sped and strengthened global progress in improving urban environmental conditions for sustainable development. Although U.S. partnership is needed to meet the increasingly urgent demands to make cities livable, the Bush Administration has not been forthcoming.
While the 2002 WSSD Johannesburg Summit was the highest attended conference by world leaders, President Bush was sorely missed. According to original plans, explained participant Kaarin Taipale, “the 2002 WSSD summit would have coincided with the first anniversary of 9/11.” Conference dates were changed at that the last minute in order to make it easier for the President to attend. Instead, Secretary of State Colin Powell traveled to Johannesburg to speak on the President’s behalf, where as Taipale recalls, “he was infamously booed.” Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky soon retorted by telling Summit attendees to focus on actions, “actions being better than words.”
U.S. action has been remiss, explains Vice Chairman of Friends of the Earth Tony Juniper. “The United States has a lot to answer for what has gone wrong since the Rio de Janeiro Summit in 1992. Many trends that were categorized as urgent at that summit – such as poverty, biodiversity loss, deforestation, and overexploitation of renewable resources – had either stayed the same or become worse. First, the U.S. refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol at the 2002 Summit – the single most important environmental treaty to stop Climate Change,” Juniper said.
Although the United States makes up four percent of the world's population and produces 22 percent of the world's greenhouse gases, it’s refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol’s call for reductions in the greenhouse gases merely underscores Federal unwillingness to address climate change. Claiming that the treaty would raise energy prices and kill five million U.S. jobs, the Administration has even raised questions about the scientific legitimacy of climate change. As British Petroleum CEO John Browne put it, “The time to consider the policy dimensions of climate change is not when the link is conclusively proven, but when the possibility cannot be discounted.”
The Union of Concerned Scientists, a group of 6,000 scientists, including 48 Nobel laureates, warns that the Bush administration’s overtly anti-science bias undercuts scientific integrity. This bias was clear when the The New York Times reported that a White House official who once led the oil industry’s fight against limits on greenhouse gases had repeatedly edited government climate reports in ways that play down links between such emission and global warming. The White House response: the reports were “scientifically sound.” As Journalist and author Chris Mooney explained, the Administration relied on those energy interests who have a documented history of muddying the role that humanity plays in climate change while consciously strategizing to “sow confusion on the issue and sway journalists.”
According to a study published by Princeton professors Robert Socolow and Stephen Pacala, the U.S. could reduce emissions to below the 1970 levels just with its current technology. “We in fact already have everything we need to face this challenge,” Vice President Gore has said, “save perhaps political will. But in our democracy political will is a renewable resource.”
Because the Federal government has failed to get involved internationally, state and local officials have been left alone to address the gravity of excess greenhouse gas emissions. Without Federal direction, Senator Clinton has warned, the varying standards that result from the differences in local policies could create havoc for the private sector.
To make matters worse, approximately 100 high-level Administration officials who help regulate industries they once represented – as lobbyists, lawyers, or company advocates – are all part of an effort to avoid addressing global warming. (2004, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)). London’s “Guardian” has further reported that the environmental group Greenpeace obtained documents indicating President Bush‘s global climate policy was heavily influenced by Exxon, Mobil and other oil companies. In briefing papers given to U.S. Under Secretary of State Paula Dobriansky between 2001 and 2004, “the administration is found thanking Exxon executives for the company’s ‘active involvement’ in helping to determine climate change policy, and also seeking its advice on what climate change policies the company might find acceptable.” Quietly, in the background of policy change, by mid August 2004 the Administration had already rolled back more than 400 major environmental mandates, causing the protection of our nation’s air, water, public land and wildlife to be severely weakened.
This anti-environment spirit, reports Robert Kennedy, Jr., pervades virtually all of the Sub-secretariats today, including the Department of Agriculture, Interior, and Energy. In contrast to entering public service for the public interest, these officials are motivated by the intent to specifically subvert the very law they are now charged with enforcing. “The current Administration,” he says, “has put the most insidious polluters in charge of all the agencies that are supposed to protect the American people from pollution.”
One notable exception was Christine Whitman, appointed by Bush to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In 2002, she released a report stating that Climate Change was an urgent problem created by human activity that would quickly create other problems unless immediately addressed. A public relations crisis ensued when Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute declared “someone should be fired” over this. Apparently, White House Chief of Staff on Environmental Quality and former lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute Philip Cooney did not see (edit) the report before it was released. President Bush publicly discounted the report by calling it a report from “the bureaucracy.” Whitman resigned from the EPA soon after.
At the Clinton Global Initiative, a summit of actions and results held by President Clinton in New York last September, Al Gore reported that some of those who benefit from unrestrained pollution from global warming also spend millions of dollars each year creating pseudo-studies that cloud the issue. This is not the first time this type of swaying from industry lobbyists has occurred. After the Surgeon General warning of the dangers of smoking, Gore noted, the tobacco industry hired ‘scientific prostitutes’ to argue that smoking was good for people. While such actions can be understood, he said, they are not acceptable, “not when the fate of the earth – rather, the fate of a habitable earth for human beings -- is at stake.” He quoted muckraker Upton Sinclair who wrote more than a century ago: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon him not understanding it.”
Embracing the Urban Challenge
The former Vice President challenged the notion that addressing the problem of climate change would harm our economy. “Incredible opportunities in addressing climate change are available that would help, not hurt, our economy,” he said. Citing how the city of Portland, Oregon, independently decided to reduce greenhouse emissions below the Kyoto limits, Gore reported that Portland has come within a hair of achieving its goal “and has prospered economically while doing so.”
Since urban issues have been basically ignored in the summits for sustainable development and the Federal government has failed to provide sufficient federal leadership, mayors across the country created a coalition of their own to deal with climate change. More than 160 cities have already made commitments and are involved in combating global warming by reshaping their cities through innovative programs and technologies.
Worldwide, cities and provinces are working together to end global warming: 675 localities in thirty countries are now documented participants. Moreover, 152 U.S. cities and counties and 100 Canadian localities have joined in Cities for Climate Protection program created and run by ICLEI. Scores of major U.S. cities have already reduced their emissions below 1990 levels, saving $600 million through efficiency measures. These coalition mayors say they have made urban living more eco-friendly while creating local jobs. They have also agreed to pressure Congress to pass the bipartisan Climate Stewardship Act, which would establish a national emissions trading system.
Critics say U.S. government efforts are coming too slowly. According to the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the Administration is spending $2 billion on initiatives to promote renewable energy, clean-coal technology, hydrogen-powered vehicles, and nuclear power. President Bush's energy bill, which went into effect in August 2005, calls for industry to slow emission increases, but it still does not demand an overall reduction.
Every time those in the Senate present plans to implement federal standards, or set targets, they have consistently been thwarted either by Republicans in Congress or the Whitehouse. Senator Clinton explained emphasis must not only be placed on increased use of alternative energy sources, but the federal government must offer direction by setting clear, measurable goals. In this way, she said we can assume leadership in solving our energy crisis. Therefore, as part of her national energy strategy, she is calling on Washington to replace its entire fleet of government vehicles with fuel-efficient cars and trucks by 2010.
Urbanist Kaarin Taipale explained what’s wrong with the tempo of the forthcoming energy mandates from the Bush Administration. “They are just now calling for gas efficiency changes, not only are these efforts coming as too little, too late; they only save a few gallons of gas while cars are heavier, using more energy through electronics and air conditioning.”
Besides, she said, making cars more energy efficient will not solve our urban problems alone. “Cities must be made to have mass transportation accessible, viable, and not just for the poor,” she stated. We need to build cities where people do not depend on their own private car. “I’m not talking about green ideology; where we use bicycles and suffer – or where we all live provincial and primitive lives,” she explained. She then cited Manhattan as an example: even though it was not originally purposely planned to be energy efficient, the city offers a great transportation system. In most cities in America – and even more in the rest of the world where buying American cars imitates the American Dream – the car is a status symbol, a signal telling people how well you are doing. “But in Manhattan,” she said, “this is not the case. Everyone takes some form of public transportation, not just the poor.”
Addressing Climate Change at the Clinton Global Initiative --Thinking Outside the Barrel
“We face a global emergency; a deepening climate crisis that requires us to act.” -- Al Gore
The Clinton Global Initiative, which took place in Manhattan on September 14 -16, 2005, served as a catalyst for spurring community-level development while providing a supportive atmosphere from which to facilitate pro-development policies at regional and national levels.
During the session on Climate Change, Senator Clinton remarked that while the Federal government has avoided responsibility for climate change, state and local governments have been providing models for action. The very large disadvantage of this state and local leadership, Senator Clinton warned, “is it could lead to a patchwork of regulation, which I think would be very unfortunate and would pose extra burdens on the private sector.” In effect, she said, it is the private sector that has a big stake in pushing for a real national response – one that will actually deal with the problem, not continue to deny it or postpone it.
Senator Clinton described her visit to Barrow, Alaska, where she met with a number of the scientists who have been charting climate change for 30 years. While ‘off the radar’ for many of us, the situation there is having very problematic effects for all of us. One professor studying the effects of Permafrost thawing explained that, as the Permafrost melts, it releases carbon and methane which makes our global warming worse. When Clinton asked him what an individual citizen could do to solve the problem, he responded, “plant more trees.” Trees have a sequestering ability. They absorb the excess carbon dioxide in that atmosphere and in return give back clean oxygen. That's something every one of us can do, she added, alone, with family, group, neighborhoods, and communities. And the other is: each of us can make decisions that insure we are as energy efficient as we can be in our homes and in our places of business and try to make better choices about transportation. While these individual choices might seem very small in and of themselves, she told us, in the aggregate, they can also influence policy.
Tom Roper, retired Victorian Parliament and current Project Director of the Global Sustainable Energy Islands Initiative (GSEII), represents a group that must rely on the International community. While the small island developing states (SIDS) are collectively the least responsible for greenhouse gas emissions through fossil fuel use and deforestation, Honorable Roper explained, they are most impacted by climate change. In addition, island states contain a disproportionately high amount of below poverty level income citizens. “Most SIDS are ill-equipped to deal with their existing environmental problems,” said Roper, let alone the predictions of rising sea levels. The 43 members of the Alliance of Small Island States represent 50 million citizens. No where are people more at the mercy of international inaction. Roper is supervising projects on the small islands to serve as a role model of sustainability which incorporates energy efficiency and renewable energy. “They are tackling their own economic and social issues as well as environmental,” Roper said. “These nations are not just complaining; they are taking action,” he added.
Pennsylvania and Perhaps Louisiana . . .
Kathleen McGinty, Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and former principal environmental advisor to President Clinton, offered a project to reduce greenhouse gases in Pennsylvania. The project is committed to providing the resources to enable a clean energy future in Pennsylvania through up to $1 billion in tax-free bond financing to build renewable and efficient power plants and fuel production facilities.
Governor Rendell’s administration has committed itself to: adopting greenhouse gas tailpipe standards, replacing dirty, inefficient power plants, and securing passage of one of the most far-reaching clean energy laws in the nation.
On a final note: at the Clinton Global Initiative, many found one recommendation most compelling – rebuilding New Orleans as a model of energy efficiency. The city of New Orleans, like older cities, was not built to withstand the effects of a level 5 hurricane. It flourished during a time when the effects of global warming were not yet known. Global warming, however, has been increasingly creating erratic weather patterns with more frequent, extremely severe storms. What better way to target climate change and create hope than by turning New Orleans into a model city for a new, more intelligent tomorrow. As one Climate Change session participant put it, “we’ve got to think outside the barrel.”
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