A new UN report out this week contained no equivocation about the “dire” and “accelerated” affects of climate change. Immediately, the pundits went to work on analyzing what will happen if we don’t respond. The report also put a fine point on the “politicization” of climate change as the biggest obstacle for a response.
To place the report in context, it may be helpful to cast our minds back to 2009 when the extreme polarization of political parties tore apart a serious effort to curb carbon emissions and address climate change in the form of a cap-and-trade bill. The Waxman-Markey American Clean Energy and Security Act passed in the House and awaited the Senate, and had the support of the president.
This excellent post-mortem describes how it all fell apart.
In many significant ways, the doomed cap-and-trade bill of 2009 offers insight into this latest milestone report and how it will ripple out. Cap and trade and its more palatable cap-and-dividend—where polluters have a cap on emissions and pay into a system that invests in renewable energy or individuals get a dividend check—got swallowed by the shifting sands of extreme polarization. The political landscape remains just as polarized almost a decade later. So what, if anything, has changed in that decade to give hope for a political or solution of another kind?
For a start, the number of Americans along the full political spectrum who believe that climate change exists grew, according to a Yale University study that started in 2009 and continues today. 45% were alarmed or concerned as of the 2016 election (and that number continues to rise).
Yes, Washington is just as polarized. A rational, science-based solution to climate change is even less likely to emerge from the current make up of Congress, a more amped up v2009 who opposed a cap-and-trade system for “ideological or professional reasons” as Harvard economist Theda Skocpol wrote.
Skocpol concluded that a solution to our climate change problems would require moving away from an inside the Beltway strategy into the heartland where climate change is ravaging both rural communities and urban populations. Middle to low income people are more vulnerable to climate change. Socio-economic conditions stack up against them when extreme weather events like heat waves push farmers and stricken older city residents living in air condition-less homes to the brink. Never-seen-before intensity hurricanes are ravaging rural places with flooding. Here is the opportunity to broaden the understanding about how climate change is responsible and to respond in more equitable ways. NPR reported this week that FEMA, because of climate change, has seen its budget expand to half of the Pentagon’s.
Counties and cities are where much of the attention has shifted. 350 cities, including Cleveland, declared they will be #StillIn -- signing on to the Paris Accord even as the president has said he wants out. They will need to be nimble to act on climate vulnerabilities like Cleveland’s. Cleveland's Tree Plan is a worthwhile effort at adaptation when extreme weather relief is needed.
What about state responses? Ohio can do much more than stand on the sidelines.
- State environmental protection agencies will need to increase their budgets and staff in order to work with farmers to reduce pollution run off from agricultural operations.
- They will need to reign in out of control urban/suburban/exurban paved areas like the sprawling Greater Cleveland and Toledo regions that are dumping too much pollution into rivers and the lake.
- The state will have to figure out how to sign on farmers and regional leaders to a plan that stops significant harmful algae blooms every summer and has threatened a $1.5 billion fishing and tourism business and safe drinking water for a couple million people.
- The state’s top elected officials will need to double their efforts to work with metropolitan leaders to build in ways (i.e. more transit connected) that attract companies and a pool of young and well educated employees back into cities where they have expressed a desire to be.
A significant shift needs to be made in priorities at all levels if the new, sustainable cities are going to be created. One of the positives that Skocpol and others identified in the wake of 2009 — the formation of capital at the local level around renewable energy generation — is coming to pass. Solar cooperatives like Solar United Neighbors and Yellow Lite — where group purchasing of residential solar panels has attracted hundreds of ordinary home owners wanting to do something to stop climate change—is the type of buy in that deepens the environmental consciousness and political muscle to keep the U.S. on the right track. Local and state governments can foster this market based change through enabling legislation and incentives that let solar cooperatives grow.
Communities of concerned citizens will need to be fostered like never before. We will have passed the test to if lower income residents are invited to be full participants in this more climate resilient future.