A number of climate change themed books track how we got to this (tipping) point and paint disaster-porn scenarios of our continued inaction. Cities underwater! Millions of climate refugees! Runaway temperatures! Melting icebergs! They raise multiple red flags and back up their statements with statistics and data trends. They rightfully lay blame on obstructionist government officials (looking at you U.S. Republican party), the oil and gas industry which continues to receive billions in government subsidies despite being the most profitable industry in the history of the world, and decades of over-consumption in developed countries. We have seen a growing number of increasingly alarmist reports that document the interrelated real time impacts of rapid climate change including: melting glaciers, rising sea levels, changes in the water cycle, more intense and frequent storms, more frequent and intense forest fires, warmer average temperatures, increasing death tolls, and the human-caused six extinction event (Anthropocene extinction).
However the story is pitched, these actual consequences have had little impact on changing our behavior. In fact, despite knowing about the impact of increased global greenhouse (GHG) emissions from burning fossil fuels (among other causes) for more than 100 years, we have made only minimal progress in reducing our global carbon footprint. This hard-won progress is quickly being reversed by the Trump administration. If we continue to point figures, or try to get climate science deniers on board before taking any action, we will only waste more time and energy. We cannot count on the government to take the lead, we must take matters into our own hands.
While Climate of Hope forecasts many of the most likely outcomes of rapid climate change, it also outlines some practical approaches to sustainability with thoughtful urban planning. This book is a collaborative effort between an environmentalist, Carl Pope, and a self-avowed capitalist, Michael Bloomberg. They divide each chapter between them with slightly different takes on several climate change topics, using solutions tailored to urban challenges as examples. They outline long-term green and gray infrastructure projects that not only improve quality of life, they can save—even earn—money. As the forward-thinking ex-mayor of the capital of the world, New York City, Bloomberg writes about the challenges in creating and implementing PlaNYC, which began to prepare the flood-prone city for sea level rise. New York is now one of the greenest cities in the world and continues getting greener under a new administration. Pope documents achievements made by Beyond Coal and the Sierra Club to protect the environment and human lives. Both use an economic approach to sustainable development, which not only saves cities money and lives in future environmental disasters, but can also generate new tax revenue in development while improving the quality of life. Leading the charge, mayors from around the world have forgone government obstructionism to address the urban challenges of climate change with innovative solutions that create jobs.
Some projects are costly, such as waterfront development, but have long-term savings in protecting already developed land from rising sea levels. Projects such as parks that double as rain catchment basins, restoration of wetlands, and thoughtful infrastructure in low-lying coastal areas are discussed. Solutions are not one-size-fits-all, nor are they all expensive. Many projects are affordable with substantial impact and offer a quick return on investment (ROI). For instance, green infrastructure, such as planting trees, bioswales, green roofs, and rain barrels can divert runoff from wastewater treatment plants, recharge aquifers, clean the air of particulates, reduce ambient temperature, provide wildlife with green spaces and improve the mental health of human residents, which reduces costs and creates jobs. And as a side benefit, this also reduces GHG emissions.
An underlying theme of the book is about marketing. The green movement has been driven for the last 40-50 years by a passionate sense of urgency, but has not gained much traction with politicians who create policy nor investors who are looking for yield. Short term strategies and long term projects do not play well together. An example used in the book clearly depicts this divide. In arguments to close aging coal-fired power plants, activists use warming temperatures and environmental impact studies, but Beyond Coal takes data that shows how many avoidable deaths would be caused by air pollution and how many millions of dollars rebuilding/replacing the coal plant would cost in comparison to replacing the power plant with natural gas or renewable energy. This dollars and cents approach sidesteps any environmental controversy and boils it down to the bottom line. Saving money, and lives, is an easier story to engage politicians and impacted voters. Beyond Coal has used this strategy to close 271 coal-fired power plants across the U.S. to date.
A proverb used toward the end of the book summarizes their optimism quite succinctly. “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time in today.” We may be behind the curve in addressing climate change, and we may be too late to reverse it, but we can adapt and learn to live with these changes now, and preserve our planet for future generations.
Image Credit: Time Out: New York