Severe Storms Refocus City Leaders on Resiliency and Climate

Sept. 25, 2017
Shelley Poticha of the Natural Resources Defense Council describes a heightened focus on resiliency and climate by U.S. mayors following recent hurricanes in North America.

NRDC’s Shelley Poticha describes a heightened focus on resiliency and climate by U.S. mayors following recent hurricanes in North America.

Tough talk about meeting the challenges of climate change abounded among city leaders at a C40 event marking Climate Week NYC last week, with city leaders staking a claim as first responders in the face of growing alarm over powerful hurricanes and other deadly effects of warming temperatures.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio declared himself humbled in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, the likes of which he wished on no mayor, while acknowledging many more of his peers will face such deadly tests—as has already been demonstrated this hurricane season in Texas, Florida and the Caribbean. New York, he said, has taken the lead nationally in cutting emissions from its biggest offender—big buildings.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel proclaimed he would make his city the epicenter of water research in the United States, pointing out that areas in the world hardest hit by climate change are also those suffering the most civil unrest.

The mayor of Austin, Steve Adler, described his city’s focus on renewable energy, green jobs and the environment generally as part of the reason business is flocking there. “We have companies that come to Austin because the people who work for that company want to live in Austin,” he said.

More than 25 cities in 17 states, with populations totaling more than 5 million have adopted resolutions that will enable them to get 100 percent of their electricity from renewable sources like wind and solar—Atlanta being among the latest, last spring.

De Blasio, Emanuel, Adler, other mayors from around the world, Patricia Espinosa, executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, and other U.S. and international leaders were meeting to strategize on next steps for the Paris climate accord for the first time since President Trump announced the United States would withdraw from the agreement.

A formal commitment

They were resolute in their commitment, restating the claim that if enough cities adopt the Paris goal of holding global warming below 2 degrees Celsius by 2050 on their own, they could push the world to 40 percent compliance. More than 350 U.S. mayors have pledged to commit to the goals laid out in Paris to reduce emissions by 80% by 2050, and many more intend to go farther.

The C40 steering group cities announced plans to share detailed blueprints to turn the Paris agreement “from aspiration into action,” with Boston, Durban, London, Los Angeles, Melbourne, Mexico City, New York City and Paris leading the way.

Espinosa said cities must:

  • Incorporate climate change into what they are doing right now, with infrastructure, expanding transit to include electric buses, making buildings more efficient and promoting green infrastructure investments such as green bond markets.
  • Incorporate climate change and sustainability into future planning, making growth smarter and more sustainable and being proactive instead of reactive while driving innovation and a dynamic economy.
  • Communicate with citizens in ways that matter to them to overcome assumptions and roadblocks and help them understand how resilient cities are cleaner, safer and more prosperous. “You can’t hit people over the head with doom and gloom,” she said.

We need more cities on board to help national governments meet the goals of stopping climate change, she added, noting that putting the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals at the heart of the world’s economic strategy could open up $12 trillion in opportunity and create 380 million jobs by 2030.

“Nowhere are people more prepared to capture some of [climate change’s] most important opportunities” than in cities, she said.

The local solution

A question repeatedly raised in media and other arenas is whether it’s realistic to believe local action can be the catalyst for real change, especially with the lack of commitment at the U.S. federal level. The answer is, yes, it can.

California Gov. Jerry Brown and Tom Steyer, founder of NextGen America, told their Climate Week audience it’s the grassroots that will spur politicians to make the policy to ignite business, markets and an economic revolution.

“The iceburg of denial is cracking,” said Brown, with the United States’ official hardline and “preposterous” claims against climate change actually sparking stronger opposition in favor of action.

We agree but rebuilding after storms with green infrastructure, clean energy and transit, and green investment alone isn’t enough. We have to look at the environment and culturebecause that is where climate change and social equity collide, and that is where I am feeling the real urgency resides. Without looking at the underlying social structures that feed inequality in our cities, we risk repeating the same mistakes. Ask those displaced from their homes in Houston and Jacksonville and they will say time is running out.

We know that the lowest-income and most underserved communities face the worst consequences of climate change, and Houston and some Florida cities are prime examples because their growing populations are fueled by cheap land and lower housing costs.

But as I said recently, the cost of flooding wasn’t taken into account in property values in so-called affordable property.

Both Houston and many Florida cities have built homes, businesses and entire industries on flood-prone land with little regard to mitigating for their vulnerability in the path of hurricanes supercharged by warming seas.

The most vulnerable

If we don’t take into account the fundamental problems with that approach, we ignore the fact that those most vulnerable to having their lives disrupted or even destroyed may be pushed into even worse conditions, causing more social division and repeating costly mistakes.

As The New Yorker recently put it, the most important lesson of the latest hurricanes “is how close to the margins many Americans are now living.”

Thousands of low-income residents in Houston, for example, were relegated to living near chemical plants and refineries and now the water and land under their homes may be horribly contaminated and unsafe. To add insult to injury, those who may even want to return are now being served with eviction notices for failing to pay rent on homes and apartments that are uninhabitable. It’s a growing problem of displacement that’s predictable but devastating for families, and there are few responses from public officials.

A call to action

I told Global Citizen in a recent article, the mashup with Harvey and Irma coming so close together could be a wake-up call for coastal communities to start a real conversation about whether they can continue to just allow people to rebuild in the same places and in the same ways, potentially leaving those at the margins behind.

Steyer put it this way to the C40 leaders, saying we “can’t separate climate from everything else” because how we deal with it as an issue is a “symbol of the people we want to be.”

The public, said Emanuel, is in a different place than it was five years ago when it comes to climate change. “They’re asking for leaders to stand up. What we do in 2-3 years will determine what our cities look like in 30 years.”

Climate change is talked about everywhere as the evidence of its effects become more obvious and deadly. I even read about a mother referring to climate change worries as a reason the millennial generation may hold back from embracing adulthood. Talk and concern may spur some action, but its policy change stoked by grassroots urgency that will be the engine that drives it.

Shelley Poticha is a director of urban solutions at the Natural Resources Defense Council. This blog was reposted from NRDC’s expert blog with permission.

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