Our ability to work on greater equity and access to Earth’s upside is directly proportional to how livable Earth is in the first place. As Earth becomes more hostile, people themselves become more hostile. This is the most terrifying prospect of climate change; not the weather, but how the weather affects human civilization as we know it. With inequality being what it is in this world, how will habitable land be shared for 6-7-8 billion people when there is less of it?
As Congress and talking heads are debating the Green New Deal, and wildly conflating what it actually is, now may be a perfect time for local communities to act through small local deals. The purpose of this post is to argue the localized impacts of climate change, which are far more actionable than saving the planet as a whole, despite that most localities are also mired in the same inaction. I believe the ideas I will share in this post are actionable enough to help any city or town strive toward being the cleanest and greenest version of themselves, establishing common ground at the local level toward mobilizing against climate change.
With record droughts and floods a few hundred miles apart, wildfires across the entire Western US, and strong hurricanes as far north as NYC, we are beginning to see how this change will actually manifest across the US. Not only is this not the sudden apocalyptic event one may have expected when “global warming” first gained awareness, the most intense warming trend may occur across equatorial regions – far-away regions already beset with poverty, disease, and lack of resources. Bangladesh, Sub-Saharan Africa, India, and Southeast Asia are most at risk of sea level rise, heat waves, and stronger natural disasters, imperiling the huge populations of these regions. There will be human migration.
I see this as a two-pronged challenge. The bottom line is that climate change will be a slow-moving disaster, with worse conditions closer to the equator, requiring a world-wide humanitarian commitment to save these regions. This is the challenge to save our planet. This is not the same as the easier, more winnable challenge for local communities.
Due to lighter impacts across most of the U.S., we have a mostly winnable challenge of localized heating, waste control, pollution mitigation, and resilience.
The fatalistic climate change dialogue we have in the U.S., overwhelmed by the scale and severity of the worldwide problem, is needlessly paralyzed into inaction despite the very actionable options available at the local level. While actionable options at the local level may not address wicked problems of greenhouse gases across the planet, they do make a meaningful difference for localized heating, waste control, pollution mitigation, and resiliency. If a random city, suburb, or town mobilized around these interventions, nobody benefits more than that community.
1. Urban greening strategies work. Every city should have a forester and a strategy to enhance green canopy and shade in contextually appropriate ways. Mexico City is covering concrete expressway viaducts with ivy and shrubs a la “hanging garden.” Most major cities in the US have free tree planting programs for low and mod-income neighborhoods. The urban planning thought circle should stop attacking these programs that do nothing but good, and instead further research into maximizing their impact and benefits.
2. Recycling works, but we don’t do it enough. Most “recycling” bins ultimately go to the same place. Sham recycling is like an environmental placebo; cheaper, more effective, and unlikely to be caught without trash detectives on the case. The reality of recycling is that it’s expensive and labor-intensive to truly separate single-stream junk into the appropriate streams to actually reuse material. More on the labor needed to scale recycling up to the level needed for it to be meaningful.
3. Litter flows down stream just like water and any other run-off or waste generated in our cities. A city in Australia has been using innovative trash nets at key drainage pinch points like pipe outlets. This small Australian city collected 815 pounds of trash that was flowing through their sewers and ultimately destined for open waters and the surrounding habitat.
4. Transit usage, rather than transit systems themselves, work wonders toward reducing pollution/congestion and increasing quality of life. As more and more cities find the means to invest in transit, they should do so with an eye toward ridership and nothing else. This requires serious investments and no shortcuts toward creating a system that everyone would actually use.
5. Tiny tax credits or added taxes to make the cost of recycled paper products more competitive with original manufacture. I often think about buying recycled paper plates, cups, towels, etc. – but it will be 10% more expensive. If 20 cents is the difference, then try a 5-year program to subsidize 15 cents through a scaled manufacturer tax credit, which you can partially recoup with a 5 cent tax on the alternative, assuming anyone still buys that. Then during the 5-year duration of such an initiative, it’s likely the private market will work to drive down recycled product costs and no longer need the gap subsidy.
6. Put laid-off factory workers across rural and urban America back to work recycling materials from the rest of America. We need several times more hands working in recycling operations, separating materials, running machinery, etc. We have a dire problem around the lack of good low-skill jobs through which someone can graduate high school or technical school and still raise a family. This may be where the public sector needs to step in, and may be the new role of civic sanitation services. They say there’s no Republican or Democratic way to pick up the trash, but civic sanitation services that take the lead on local recycling can partner with manufacturers to reuse the materials for new products, which can also be a valuable economic resource.
7. White roofs or green roofs make a big difference locally. Toronto is often considered the largest city in North America making a substantial effort on climate change, in part for their green roof initiative. Toronto offers incentives that make green roof or “cool roofs” a no-brainer, by neutralizing the cost difference. Denver implemented a similar initiative, but changed course when research made clear that the Mile High City’s high-altitude desert climate would be better served by a “white roof” standard, effectively repelling solar radiation. This is a great example of cities inspiring each other and being flexible enough to find the best solution for a particular local context.
8. The majority of airline seats are actually taken by business travelers who fly dozens if not hundreds of time a year. Europe is exploring adding a carbon tax onto flights that incrementally increases with each additional flight one individual takes during a tax year. I don’t like the idea of taxing someone for just their second or third flight, but I think there is a better to accomplish this objective: Just require the purchase of carbon offsets on every business purpose and/or business expensable flight. This has more direct rational nexus to the carbon from air travel, and only affects a consumer that isn’t personally paying for any of their flights. Ideally, the added cost of $50-100 per flight may make some companies think differently about booking the next flight to the HQ city.
9. Declare a coal a natural resource, not for preservation, but for steel and other high value-added goods. This accomplishes much of the same objectives as Trump’s tariff wars, which is to protect a strategic national asset, the steel industry. Much of the argument behind the resurgence in coal is based around mercantilist viewpoints about the role of the U.S. steel industry toward winning WW1 and WW2, and the notion we will need such a steel industry in the event of a WW3. If domestic steel is so important – which is debatable – then who at all is served by just burning this resource for cheap energy? Especially in a day and age where wind and solar have legitimately become cheap energy.
10. Welcome immigrants and refugees to your community. Simply put, the world is getting crazier and more hostile all the time – people who are in peril should be not just welcomed, but recruited to bring their skills, culture, and work ethic to stable communities. Great example: Pittsburgh is probably a good location to try and survive climate change. Pittsburgh also has a non-profit residency program, City of Asylum, that recruits endangered poets worldwide to come to Pittsburgh and bring their culture, art, and values.