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 always be equitable; and that social solidarity and mutual aid is essential 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 greatly help locations retain the taxes they should 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 which will be needed to address climate change. Dawson’s solutions are necessary however 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. This 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 adverse effects on climate change. They quote a common estimate that places are the source of at least 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. (Estimates vary widely. Few places measure their greenhouse gas emissions.)

On the other hand, in line with the Bloomberg administration’s ‘PlaNYC’ of 2007, greenhouse gas emissions per person in New York City were only 29 percent associated with the US average (7.1 metric tons of skin tightening and 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 men and women into the average American city. Cities contribute to climate problems and to their solutions.

Bloomberg argues that places ‘do n’t need to choose between economic growth and saving the planet. These are not technological challenges. These are generally challenges of policy, governance, and leadership. … Our society can’t function without business, meaning 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 maxims would allow owners of solar panel systems 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 panel systems?)

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 wary about the long term,’ conservatives should take steps now to reduce the risk of potentially very costly future consequences of climate change. Too often, markets neglect 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, regarding the part of many ‘conservative’ voters and members of the present national administration associated with 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, in accordance with Bloomberg and Pope, is to change policies in multilateral development financial institutions led by the whole 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 makes loans only to nations. Bloomberg and Pope recommend that the Bank be allowed to make loans to locations also. Many places have more people and more economic activity than dozens of smaller countries. Many places can provide the transparency and accountability financial institutions require.

Bloomberg and Pope also recommend ending subsidies to fossil fuel producers and large agricultural interests (without researching these subsidies to those received by ‘green’ energy companies); requiring all elements of the economy—’including fossil fuel companies, manufacturers, commodity traders, financial institutions, insurers, 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 just a free‐market solution) and realigning economic incentives allow 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 places lack credit ratings and cannot borrow to finance their 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 places from financing and implementing methods 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 places. … Devolving power to places is the best single step that nations usually takes 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 places until massive urbanization overwhelms the political opposition of rural areas. It seems very likely to require more than this ‘conservative case’ to arouse potential urban voters to vote in their own self‐interest and tip this long‐term political power fight.

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 within 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 household of Ireland’s legislature voted to ban ‘as soon as is practicable’ Ireland’s sovereign wealth fund from investing in businesses that derive more than 20 percent of revenues from fossil fuels, and in November 2018, the upper household confirmed the bill, making Ireland the initial country to plan to divest its sovereign investments from fossil fuels. Ireland had about €318 million ($361 million) dedicated to coal, oil, gas, and peat assets, not as much as 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 places to divest holdings in fossil fuel companies.

It really is uncertain 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 into 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 alterations. Bloomberg and Pope are undoubtedly right to focus on places’ have 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 places is vital. His 2013 book, If Mayors Ruled the entire cause and effect expository essay world: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising places, argued for communities of cities and collaborative political action. His Cool Cities: Urban Sovereignty plus the Fix for Global Warming, published six days before he died, applies those arguments to climate change. It will be 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 minus the coordinated action of many other places. For example, in September 2018, de Blasio of New York and Khan of London teamed up with C40, a global network of places, to create the C40 Divest/Invest Forum to encourage places to divest from fossil fuel holdings. To assure that ‘urban communities can succeed in securing justice and sustainability for their citizens,’ Barber writes, places must first acquire or retain the money and legal authority they need certainly to fulfill their responsibilities to their citizens. Cities around the world pay more into the coffers of higher quantities of government than they get back. With or without permission from national governments, places must establish their right to govern themselves collectively across national boundaries. Cities must create an ‘urban rights action,’ an ‘Urban Party’ to lobby higher quantities 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 towards 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 isn’t only politically insupportable but morally untenable.

Time and demography may be regarding the side of Barber’s hopes and dreams. In 2018, an estimated 55 percent of all men and women lived in locations, and by 2050, a projected 68 percent will—an increase of 2.5 billion city dwellers (United Nations Population Division 2018). It could 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 hinges on politics, leadership, and enough climate catastrophes to put up people’s attention.

Climate Change and Cities: Second Assessment Report of the Urban Climate Change Research Network (UCCRN) is an encyclopedia that gives everything that city leaders, policymakers, businesses, nonprofits, plus the community ever wanted to understand 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 places, disasters, and climate risks; urban climate science and modeling; urban energy, water, wastewater, transportation, health, and governance.

This revision surveys new research and adds guidance for locations on the best way to integrate climate mitigation (reducing future threats) and adaptation (responding to what are the results), urban planning and design, equity and environmental justice, economics, finance, plus the private sector, urban biodiversity and ecosystems, housing, informal settlements, urban solid waste, plus the special problems of ‘Urban Areas in Coastal Zones.’ Other new topics include information and communications technology, urban demographics, plus the psychological, social, and behavioral challenges and opportunities of decisionmaking about climate change. The 46 case studies of places’ 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 several elements 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 researchers 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 give attention to single hazards such as for example heat waves, floods, and droughts, centered on past events, to ‘integrated, system‐based risk assessments and interventions that address current and future hazards throughout entire metropolitan regions.’ This shift requires places 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 vital 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 as well as its physical effects matter, the impact of climate‐related disasters depends at least as much, the report says, regarding 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 possess a few broad options. One is to accomplish nothing: usually do not prepare; never implement plans. (Play now; pay later, you, your children, and their children.) One is to defend the status quo: make an effort to enable visitors to go on living and working in the same way they do now; build round the problems. One is to get transformation: encourage people to move out of harm’s way; reimagine where and how cities develop so that they may prosper into the coming climate. One is to mix these strategies: with as much foresight as possible, make an effort to prevent future damage and plan to adapt as necessary to what comes.

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

The best model for what may lie ahead comes from the final 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 into the Eemian were higher than now by some 4 to 6 meters (13 20 feet), though estimates vary, with fluctuations all the way 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) and on occasion even 3.5 meters (11.5 feet) per century (Rohling et al. 2008). Sea‐level rises of that size and speed would drown several of today’s coastal places, 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 hazard today. Its base, below sea level, is warmed by the ocean while glaciers around it retreat. Will my young ones and their children, now living at low elevations near Boston and San Francisco, start to see the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans pour within their homes, as I saw the Atlantic pour into mine?

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