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What We’re Following
Weather the storm: Mayor Pete Buttigieg knows that climate change isn’t just a threat to coastal cities. Over the span of 18 months, his city of South Bend, Indiana, was struck by two historic floods—the kind of low-probability events that have become more common in a warming world. The 37-year-old presidential candidate’s approach to the climate crisis is “a mix of the urgent and the politically practical,” highlighting rural and non-coastal issues of environmental adaptation to bring more people into the possible solutions.
In an interview with CityLab’s Sarah Holder airing on television as part of a Weather Channel special this week, Buttigieg emphasized practical actions that might circumvent a partisan battle, pointing to the examples of local initiatives that have already progressed because officials “got tired of waiting for Washington.” Said Buttigieg: “There’s no time to argue over whether climate change is real. We’ve got to get to work on making something happen.” On CityLab: Pete Buttigieg’s Climate Vision: Local Fixes for a Planet in Crisis
More on CityLab
On the Fly
Who among us hasn’t killed time at 30,000 feet tracing the lines of an airline network map in an in-flight magazine? These maps are descendants of a cartographic genre that historically stretched the limits of what maps are for. Less a tool for navigation and more an introduction to a new means of transportation, the maps never had to incorporate real flight paths, so designers were completely free to define air travel imagery. Benjamin Schneider interviewed the authors of a new book detailing how these maps evolved over the past century. On CityLab: The Rise and Fall of the Exuberant Airline Map
What We’re Reading
Can “nests” and eco bikes reduce the environmental impact of parcel service in cities? (The Guardian)
Apple pledges $2.5 billion to combat California’s housing crisis (NPR)
A pumpkin-protected bike lane (Streetsblog)
Airbnb says it is banning “party house” listings in response to a Halloween shooting that killed five people (BuzzFeed News)
The immigrants Trump denounces have helped revive the cities he scorns (New York Times)
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Over the span of 18 months, in August 2016 and February 2018, South Bend, Indiana, was struck by a pair of historic floods—the kind of low-probability catastrophes that have become terrifyingly common in a warming world. The small Midwestern city is still dealing with the consequences.
For its mayor, Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, those floods serve as a tangible reminder of the environmental challenge the world faces, and the inspiration for the climate plan he released in September.
Buttigieg’s scheme isn’t the most ambitious: Compared to Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ $16.3 trillion estimate, Buttigieg wants to spend closer to $2 trillion, and sets a longer timeline for pollution reduction. But the 37-year-old candidate’s approach to the crisis reflects both his creeping centrism and his youth: It’s a mix of the urgent and the politically practical. Emphasizing the rural and non-coastal interests that are often dismissed in issues of environmental adaptation, Buttigieg wants to set up and fund regional resilience hubs, push for greener agricultural methods, and retrain workers in fossil-fuel industries like coal mining.
Last month, CityLab sat down with Buttigieg on the banks of the St. Joseph River in South Bend—one of the sites of the recent flooding. Parts of our conversation will appear on the upcoming Climate Desk/Weather Channel special “2020: Race to Save the Planet” (airing November 7), in which nine presidential candidates discuss their plans for confronting the climate crisis. Our interview has been condensed and edited.
For a lot of people, climate change still can seem like an ideological or an abstract problem. I’m wondering if you could paint a picture—what does climate change look like currently, and what might it look like in 30 years, when you’re in your 60s?
When I think about climate change, I think about neighborhoods like the one we’re in right now. Too often, I think our imagination around climate change is confined to the North and the South Pole. But I see it happening right here in the middle of America, including in my own neighborhood.
Twice in the space of two years, we had extreme weather events—floods that are only supposed to come along every few hundred years. It’s a sign to me that the predictions and warnings that we’ve been seeing from the scientific community for years are coming true on an accelerated basis. What that means is that by 30 years from now, this could be the dominant fact of American life. It could be holding back opportunities for a new generation, transforming and destroying our economy.
Or we could get ahead of it. The way I would prefer to envision climate change is as a major national challenge that we rose to as a national project, and led the world in dealing with, and stood taller because we did it.
That’s why my vision on addressing climate change is not just about all of the technical changes we need to make, the investments we need to have, and the need to hold companies accountable for doing the right thing. It’s also about making sure we’ve invited everybody to be part of the solution: from volunteers in a national service program to the agricultural sector, which we should be funding and supporting in sustainable agriculture practices.
If we get this right, it doesn’t have to be partisan. This is too important, too serious, and too urgent an issue for us to allow it to continue to be viewed through a partisan lens. There’s no time to argue over whether climate change is real. We’ve got to get to work on making something happen.
How do you think cities should think about the often-emotional decision of whether to rebuild or to retreat? And how would you incentivize those retreats and fund those rebuilding?
A good example of this comes from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, which experienced a very destructive flood. People have decided to move on, but it wasn’t forced. It was supported. The families were made whole. So how does our future planning accommodate the fact that a 100-year flood isn’t what it used to be? That means making sure that we have adequate resources from an insurance perspective and from a planning perspective to ensure that our future communities are more resilient and are built with these extreme weather events in mind.
Along with rejoining the Paris Climate Accords, you’ve pledged to convene a “Pittsburgh Climate Summit” in your first 100 days in office. I’m wondering what the significance of that global and local pairing is, and what you hope to accomplish at that summit.
The idea behind the Pittsburgh summit is that so many local governments, cities, mayors, counties, sometimes states are acting on their own because they got tired of waiting for Washington. Some of the best ideas on sustainability—from installing a local electric-vehicle charging system, to ensuring that community standards rise higher and meet the Paris Accords—are going on across this country and across the world in a network of cities that aren’t waiting for their national governments to catch up. I want the White House to be an ally for those kinds of communities. Convening them in Pittsburgh will be an opportunity to share the best of what’s going on in those cities and towns, and working on ways that the federal government could be supporting them.
Many cities and states are trying to push people into a less car-centric lifestyle. That’s a challenge for cities with inadequate public transportation systems, or whose built environments are very sprawling and car-centric. How would you encourage people to turn away from personal vehicles and to build more connected and more green cities?
Well, you know, design in cities, especially through the 20th century, really revolved around the car. I’m trying to make sure that design for the future revolves around the human being. Sometimes that means car transportation and sometimes that means walking, biking, or public transit.
We can’t expect people to move beyond personally owned vehicles if there’s not a good alternative. So we’ve got to make sure that between ride-sharing, public transportation, and just good old fashioned walking and biking, we’ve got an array of options right now. The United States subsidizes driving a tremendous amount. We’re more reluctant to support transit or things like trains. When I’m president, I envision making that a greater balance and supporting cities that are trying to do that, too, because if we get it right, it’s also more sustainable, more healthy, and more economically friendly.
For example, when we transformed the heart of [South Bend], including calming down our traffic instead of just getting cars through it as quickly as possible, it led to growth in small business, because we have a more vibrant core in our downtown. When we change our mentality, it’s amazing what possibilities can be unlocked.
Communities of color are being disproportionately impacted by climate change. But they’re also often left out of conversations in Washington, D.C. How would you help communities of color be more prioritized in the future?
One of the things we’ve seen is that neighborhoods and communities of color are always disproportionately harmed when we have these extreme weather events. It’s why, first of all, there needs to be more economic and political empowerment for people of color. That’s a focus in my Douglass Plan, an agenda to deal with the impacts of institutional racism in this country.
We also need to look at how our neighborhoods are set up. Many of them were segregated by design. I’m proposing a twist on the Homestead Act—a 21st-century version of that—that supports people living in historically redlined neighborhoods that are now beginning to get gentrified.
We also just need to make sure that we have a political system that is capable of hearing the voices of those who have been excluded. In many ways, local processes can lead the way toward what we need more of in our national government.
You differ from others in the presidential race, like Senator Sanders, in calling for a tax on carbon. We saw in the Yellow Vest protests in France how anger over fuel taxes helped trigger a populist revolt. How would you structure a carbon tax so that everyday Americans won’t feel the economic effects?
The key to making a carbon tax work for everyday Americans is to rebate out the value to the American people every year, and do it with a progressive formula so that most people are better off than before. The idea of a carbon tax is not to suck money out of the economy and bring it into the government—at least not for me. For me, the idea is to make sure that our prices more accurately reflect the true cost, including the cost to our own future, of things like fossil fuels. We can do that without making most Americans worse off economically if we have a rebate—a dividend, if you will—that goes out to every American based on what’s been collected.
In September, you visited Conway, South Carolina, to release a federal disaster relief plan. How will that plan account for some of the mistakes made in past administrations with regard to hurricane recovery?
One thing that we’ve learned from recent disasters, including the one where we’re sitting right now, is that there is a complex, overlapping bureaucracy when it comes to getting disaster relief. The last thing you want somebody to have to do when they’ve been put out of their home by a disaster is have to navigate all of these different agencies to figure out how to get help. I’m going to set up a disaster commission tasked with simplifying that process and making sure that we secure the funding sources for relief. Right now, all too often we see administrations dipping into [these funds] for other purposes.
You mentioned holding companies accountable for their role in climate change as well. At tech companies like Amazon, some workers are staging protests and walkouts to draw attention to their employers’ inaction. How would you as president think about galvanizing companies and the private industry?
Well, the beauty of the carbon tax and dividend is it does a lot of that work in terms of realigning the signals in our economy. We also have to make sure that there is a strong Environmental Protection Agency, run by somebody who actually believes in environmental protection and in climate change. This doesn’t have to be anti-business. What I want to do is recruit businesses to ensure they’re doing the right thing and to recognize how private-sector growth is a big part of how we reach the clean energy economy that we need. But that means making sure that we’re honest about the long-term costs of inaction when it comes to what carbon emissions are doing to our very ability to live in the communities that we have built over these last decades and centuries.
You’ve also talked about how rural voters could soon be the future of climate-change voters. I’m wondering how you mobilize that cohort?
I’m excited about the possibility of inviting agriculture to be a big part of the solution. Science tells us that with cover crops and soil management, we could be taking in as much carbon on farms around the world as the entire global transportation sector is putting out right now.
We have the science to tell us it can be done. We need to not only invest in research, but also support the farmers, so if the [costs] are not quite penciling out, we make them whole. If we’re willing to do that over a trade war, we should absolutely be willing to do that as a way to incentivize and reward farmers who are on the cutting edge of the quest for the zero-emissions farm. If we can do that here in America, that achievement will spread around the world and be a tremendous part of the solution.
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Water utilities can also dramatically increase their energy efficiency and reduce overall energy usage by adopting locally based solutions. For many municipal governments, drinking water and wastewater treatment plants are typically the largest energy consumers, often accounting for 30 to 40 percent of total energy consumed. Overall, drinking water and wastewater systems account for approximately two percent of energy use in the United States, adding over 45 million tons of greenhouse gases annually.
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Earlier in 2019, Vancouver’s city council declared a climate emergency and adopted a new set of climate-action targets that pushed its already aggressive goals to a new level. In response to the urgent need to hold global warming to below 1.5°C, the city set a new goal of being carbon neutral by 2050.
There’s much more going on here than radical climate action, as vital as that is. As Vancouver and other cities invent and implement ways to decarbonize their systems and strengthen resilience to climate change, we are reinventing the basic model for urban development that has prevailed since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution around 1800. In fact, we are transforming urban design and life in cities, and Vancouver’s new City Plan will fully embrace climate and equity as core principles.
As Peter Plastrik and John Cleveland explain in Life After Carbon: The Next Global Transformation of Cities (Island Press), the many urban climate innovations underway carry big new ideas about what cities are and how they should work. And these ideas are replacing ideas that propelled the development of the modern city model we all know.
Vancouver is one of 25 global cities covered in Life After Carbon. The authors detail how these “climate innovation laboratories”— from Austin, Copenhagen, and Cape Town to Melbourne, Mexico City, New York, and Shanghai — have initiated wave after wave of locally grown climate innovations that leave no urban system untouched. These cities, they report, “have come to understand themselves, their place in the world, in a new way and act boldly on their changed awareness.” Their efforts have required remarkable creativity, political courage, and resources. Their work has also spurred collaboration among government departments, and between government and the private and civic sectors.
Plastrik and Cleveland have worked in and alongside many of these leading-edge cities, have written insightful reports about cities’ climate innovations, and were instrumental in the formation of two important city networks: the Urban Sustainability Directors Network and the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance. But Life After Carbon provides more than a survey of urban climate innovations. The authors illuminate a compelling thesis of change that is happening on the ground, not just in theories and elusive visions. They identify four transformative ideas that are embedded in urban climate innovations and show how these ideas are being applied worldwide:
- Carbon-Free Advantage. Cities are employing their unique advantages to turn the emerging renewable-energy economy into urban wealth and jobs. The idea that cities can drive economies through innovation and clusters of businesses is new; it overturns the idea that cities are simply supposed to provide entrepreneurs, investors, and corporations with low-cost labor markets and public power and transportation infrastructure.
- Efficient Abundance. Cities are more efficiently using energy, materials, natural resources, and space to generate a new kind of urban abundance. In the 1800s, consumption of goods and growth of economies were considered the primary standards for abundance, and cities were designed to promote consumption. Today, though, ideas about abundance are starting to shift. Abundance is now signified by long term sustainability that is comprehensive, not just economic, and widely shared rather than possessed.
- Nature’s Benefits. Cities are restoring and tapping the power of natural systems to enhance and protect urban life. By contrast, the previous urban model swept away natural habitats and species, engineered control over waterways, consumed vast amounts of natural resources, and dumped enormous amounts of waste, while inhabitants lost direct connection with the natural world.
- Adaptive Futures. Cities are cultivating the capacities of inhabitants and core systems to adapt to new requirements, especially those of climate change. Urban planning previously involved decision-makers imposing their will for control and economic growth on nature and society. Today, climate risks force cities to think differently about the future because it has introduced the potential for disorder and shocks unlike any cities have faced. Planning is coming to focus on resilience, sustainability, and equity rather than control. There is now more awareness that cities must build broad social consensus for change.
The framework in Life After Carbon rings true for Vancouver. Ours is a relatively young city, established in the 1860s with sawmills cutting some of the world’s largest trees into lumber. When a fire in the 1880s swept away what had been built, a modern city rose from the ashes. It had electricity and water systems, and streetcars. It was the western terminus of the new national railroad system, and a port for shipping wood across the ocean. In other words, Vancouver started out as a modern city exploiting local natural resources in a globalizing economy. It has since grown into a city with 640,000 inhabitants in a metropolitan area of 2.5 million, heavily dependent on burning fossil fuels to power vehicles and heat buildings.
By the end of the 20th century, city leaders and residents realized that the city’s future well-being did not lie in doing more of the same. In a radical change in the city’s thinking, we committed to becoming a green city, a renewable-energy city, an economically competitive city, and an equitable city. It’s a clear vision built on different ideas about what a city can and should be.
These commitments to action have helped drive Vancouver’s economic growth. We have partnered with entrepreneurs to develop a fast-growing, job-creating “green economy” business sector, and we are home to 23 percent of Canada’s clean-tech companies. Jobs and population in our community have each grown by more than a third since 1990, while our carbon emissions have decreased in that same time by about 12 percent. Vancouver has successfully branded itself as a highly desirable place for young, innovative talent to find work and build companies. A 2015 study by Brand Finance found that Vancouver is uniquely associated with being clean, green, and environmentally sustainable, resulting in a $31 billion USD brand evaluation.
Vancouver is also working toward a goal of 100 percent renewable energy before 2050. To that end, the city is reducing energy usage and switching from fossil fuels to wind, solar, and hydropower. The largest source of carbon pollution is the burning of natural gas for space and water heating in buildings, so with strong support of council, the public and the building design community, we have put in place a world-pioneering Zero Emission Building Plan for all new construction. The new building code will ensure that new buildings are energy efficient and use no fossil fuel by 2030. We built Canada’s first sewer heat recovery system, which harvests heat from a significant sewer line, enabling residents and businesses to reduce their carbon emissions by up to 70 percent. To produce our own renewable energy, we are harvesting methane from the landfill and partnering with FortisBC, our gas utility, to clean the gas and put it into the fossil gas distribution system.
Our new climate-emergency targets include ecosystem reforestation in the region: by 2030, restoration work will be completed on enough forest and coastal ecosystems to remove 1 million tonnes of carbon pollution annually by 2060. Meanwhile, the city is developing its next environmental plan, which calls for accelerating and expanding its nearer term decarbonization targets. By 2030:
- 90 percent of Vancouver residents will live within an easy walk of their daily needs
- Two-thirds of trips will be by active transportation and transit
- 50 percent of kilometers driven on Vancouver’s roads will be by zero emissions vehicles
- Embodied emissions in new buildings and construction projects will be reduced by 40 percent
- By 2025, all new and replacement heating and hot water systems will be zero emissions
All of this work to create a new kind of 21st century city must be done with a strong lens on equity to ensure that everyone, especially low-income people and neighborhoods, benefits from these changes.
My involvement in shifting Vancouver’s thinking about its future as a city has taught me that, as Life After Carbon puts it, “transformational ideas are becoming a new standard for cities—not just a toolbox of innovations but a radically different way of thinking about, a model for, city development and urban achievement around the world.”
The framework of ideas that Plastrik and Cleveland found in urban climate innovations reveals a common ground among cities; a simplified understanding of what they share. It’s useful in several ways. Most importantly, the framework’s key ideas allow us to recognize that the real and urgent work of city leaders in the age of climate change is to fashion better cities. Better cities are economic innovation motors, ultra-efficient in all regards, fully reconnected to nature, and having the social capacity to turn climate disaster into opportunity for the entire community. Few cities have put all of these pieces together.
The framework also helps city leaders recognize that other players: businesses, professionals, community organizations, and other levels of government, are not only critical to success but are embracing these new ideas and implementing them in their own spheres. Life After Carbon emphasizes this point in its final chapters, describing the substantial range of related activities undertaken globally by non-governmental entities.
Life After Carbon presents an inspiring account of actual urban change that could not have been written just 10 years ago; there simply wasn’t enough going on then. But today, the story of cities’ transformative journeys makes compelling reading for local government leaders everywhere. As we know in Vancouver, and as other cities are showing, Life After Carbon is prescient in declaring that “the successor to the modern city is busy being born.”
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When former Congressman Beto O’Rourke recently traveled to the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, he participated in a roundtable of people whose lives had been upended by Hurricane Katrina and who were still recovering from the flooding havoc. What he said he heard consistently from them was that the federal government had wasted billions of dollars in the recovery phase on failed projects that could have been avoided had more people directly impacted by Katrina been consulted. Most of those people, especially those living in the Ninth Ward, had been displaced to places as far away as O’Rourke’s home state of Texas.
“Still today in 2019, we have problems because that money was not thoughtfully, was not intelligently spent using the experience and the perspective of the people who actually live in this community,” O’Rourke said one of the participants told him.
He took this as a mistake that he would not be replicating should he become president in 2021. His climate plan calls for a $1.5 trillion investment in infrastructure, research, and technologies to address climate change, including $650 million dedicated to people whose lives are already being disrupted by climate catastrophes—people “to whom we look for our inspiration and leadership,” reads his campaign platform.
“When we’re talking about investing in communities that are on the front lines, those communities will decide where those investments go,” said O’Rourke during an interview with CityLab for the upcoming Weather Channel special “2020: Race to Save the Planet” (airing November 7), in which nine presidential candidates discuss their plans for confronting the climate change crisis. “Who knows better how to address these issues than those who are living through those issues right now?”
I interviewed O’Rourke on Presque Isle in Erie, Pennsylvania, on the Water Works Ferry Dock overlooking Lake Erie. This location was chosen as an example of how climate change is affecting non-coastal areas today—Erie has been experiencing more severe storms, heavier lake-effect snow and rainfall events, growing dead zones in the lake, worsening algae blooms that threaten beaches and drinking water, and increasing numbers of invasive species.
While all of that is important, it was clear as we spoke that O’Rourke was just as concerned, if not more, about communities that have been rendered “most vulnerable” to climate disaster by historical race and class discrimination. These people are also central to his policy vision more generally—which includes his support for the national reparations bill introduced earlier this year by Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee. Given how Hurricane Harvey and other recent storms have ravaged black and Latino Texas communities—and revelations that top oil companies knew they were fueling climate change problems, but did nothing—environmental justice, for Texas’s native son O’Rourke, is unavoidable. Which is probably why O’Rourke constantly invoked “frontline communities” throughout our 20-minute conversation.
“One of the best predictors right now of your proximity to a polluter or to the consequences of climate change is your race in America, is your income in America. Those are the communities that are literally on the front lines,” said O’Rourke. “Any comprehensive plan to address climate change must address the environmental justice component of this, and our plan will do that.”
This is the kind of outlook that climate policy planners have evaded for decades. O’Rourke wants to bring them to the forefront. But he is not the only presidential candidate talking about this kind of justice. Senators Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, and former HUD Secretary Julián Castro all have climate plans that are rooted in or make explicit commitments to environmental justice goals. Sanders secured the endorsement of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Congress’s shepherd for the Green New Deal legislation, which also banks on environmental justice and racial equity components.
O’Rourke stands out among this crop as a straight white male who represents one of the most racially diverse states in the nation. It’s a state that is perpetually devastated by severe climate change impacts—flooding, sea-level rise, drought, and extreme heat. It’s a state defined in large part by its fossil fuel largesse, namely its oil companies, which serve as both the largest source of energy and greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. Meanwhile, it is also the state that produced the bedrock research for environmental justice: Some of the first studies on how race predicts proximity to pollution were conducted in Houston by Robert Bullard and his then-wife Linda McKeever.
Additionally, Texas has a long history of fighting against voting rights for African Americans and Latinos, while fighting for gun rights for whites. Just a month ago, O’Rourke’s home city of El Paso was shaken up by a vicious gun attack, where a white nationalist took the lives of dozens of people and injured dozens more in an attack on Mexican Americans. O’Rourke had already been advocating for racial justice on the campaign trail before this mass shooting—one of the deadliest in U.S. history—but the attack emboldened him to go even harder on confronting racism. Speaking with CityLab, O’Rourke talked about the mass incarceration system that has devastated millions of black families, and about the gross inequities in public education that have failed so many black children. He spoke of these issues not in isolation, but as an interlinked assault on black lives.
“It’s in our economy, where there’s ten times the wealth in white America than there is in black America, and it is in our environment and our lived experience, and in the impacts of climate change today,” said O’Rourke. “Until we call this out for what it is, and see it clearly and speak honestly about it, we’ll never be able to take the decisive action that will repair the damage done and ensure that we discontinue visiting this kind of injustice on future generations.”
For O’Rourke, that decisive action means investing billions in affordable housing, reliable and clean-energy-fueled transportation, and universal, high-quality health care, prioritized especially for those communities on the front lines of climate disaster.
“They’re adjacent to the polluters, and their rates of asthma are through the roof right now,” said O’Rourke. “So we’re ensuring that we don’t lock in polluters where they are, and that those who have borne the brunt [of climate change] are first in line to get the assistance they need to either leave those communities, or more importantly to have the polluters leave those communities, to make sure that the health and safety and well-being of their children can be guaranteed.”
When O’Rourke talks about ensuring that “we don’t lock in polluters where they are,” he’s referencing cap-and-trade, a market-based mechanism for pricing carbon pollution that is one of the leading proposals among policymakers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Many environmental justice leaders oppose it (as does President Trump, though for different reasons). Depending on the way the cap-and-trade system is set up, it could allow polluters to simply buy their way out of any carbon emission reduction standards, or invest in offsets in another location to allow them to keep polluting where they are. Environmental justice activists have long argued that this lets the systemic pollution of local frontline communities go on unperturbed in the quest to reduce global emissions. Recent studies out of California, one of the few states in the U.S. with a cap-and-trade system, support some of their claims.
Environmental justice organizations used to take a hard prohibitive stance against cap-and-trade, but the Equitable and Just National Climate Agenda, a declaration of social justice-minded climate change policy goals created by a conglomerate of more than 200 leading grassroots and mainstream environmental organizations, suggests there’s been a softening on this. Reads the platform:
We understand that there are EJ concerns about carbon trading and other market-based policies. These concerns include the fact that these policies do not guarantee emissions reduction in EJ communities and can even allow increased emissions in communities that are already disproportionately burdened with pollution and substandard infrastructure. In order to ensure climate solutions are equitable, support for climate research that assesses how policies affect overburdened and vulnerable communities is essential.
O’Rourke’s plan calls for a $250 billion investment in climate research, with 80 percent of that going towards studies on how to “rapidly achieve net-zero emissions while growing our economy.” But it also calls for giving farmers and ranchers “unprecedented access to the technologies and markets” to allow them “to profit from the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions they secure”— which sounds a lot like carbon pricing and trading.
That might make sense for the rural places of America, given that Big Ag operations in states like Texas are responsible for roughly 10 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. Yet there are still large Latino and low-income farmworker communities, as well as nearby Native American tribal lands, that could suffer if carbon trading locks polluters in place. O’Rourke unveiled his climate plan from California’s Central Valley, to bring attention to farmworkers living there who he says are already “bearing the cost and consequence of climate change right now,” from drought, wildfires, and air and water pollution.
“Though the Central Valley produces so much of the food that this country depends on, those who have those jobs in the agricultural industry very often have a hard time drinking the water that comes out of the tap or breathing the air that we should be able to take for granted in this country,” said O’Rourke.
As for urban America, O’Rourke is focused on the flooding that has besieged his home state. There have been five record rainfall events in Texas the last five years, including one in September, from Tropical Depression Imelda, which dropped nearly 44 inches of rain on southeast Texas. O’Rourke proposes increasing the budget for pre-disaster mitigation grants by ten, noting studies showing that governments save $6 for every dollar used from these grants.
“We now know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Houston is gonna continue to have very large rain events, so let’s invest in the infrastructure that will mitigate the damage that they do,” said O’Rourke. “We know that if you live along the coast anywhere in this country that you’re subject to rising sea levels. We can predict that; we understand it’s coming. Let’s make sure we invest in the infrastructure that protects your home, your business, your family, your way of life. It is an expensive proposition, but it’s far less expensive than paying to rebuild after the fact.”
We can also predict now which communities will be the hardest hit by extreme weather events and which ones will have the most difficult time rebuilding. O’Rourke understands that race is the primary determinant for these critical problems, due to America’s long, enduring history of racial segregation and discrimination.
“To get to the root of this, I think it’s really important that everyone in America understand our true national story, going all the way back to the 20th of August, 1619, when the first person was brought to this country against their will and forced to begin building the wealth and the greatness and success of this country from which their descendants today are excluded from fully participating in and enjoying,” said O’Rourke. “That includes their proximity to polluters or their presence on the front lines of climate change, so signing a reparations bill into law as offered by Sheila Jackson Lee that forces that national conversation so we all know the true story of this country is an important step of making this right, and that’s something I’ll do as president.”
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Until Thursday morning, things were going pretty well for the protest group Extinction Rebellion, which has successfully staged a series of effective climate-crisis demonstrations in London since forming in October 2018. Last November, they blockaded five bridges across the Thames, a campaign they stepped up around the climate talks this month. Demonstrators instigated a mass blockade that substantially shut down access to the government district in Westminster, as well as BBC Headquarters and City Airport.
As writer and activist George Monbiot wrote last year, XR aims to foster “a movement devoted to disruptive, nonviolent disobedience in protest against ecological collapse.” More than 1,300 protesters have been arrested in course of this current London campaign, which also included a “mass feed-in” of about 100 breastfeeding mothers outside of Google’s London headquarters.
But then came these chaotic scenes early Thursday morning: Londoners watched as activists glued themselves to, and climbed onto the roofs, of subway trains, forcing transit services to halt on the London Tube’s Jubilee Line and Docklands Light Railway, which shuttle riders to the U.K. capital’s two financial districts. Angry commuters counterattacked, and some demonstrators were set upon violently. There are no reports of medical treatment being needed, but eight arrests of protesters were made.
— Holly Collins (@HollyJoCollins) October 17, 2019
The Tube protest may have been designed as a wake-up call for a society that the activists believe is speeding towards catastrophe, but the early-morning incident has unfortunately already ended up being something different: a public relations disaster that, against a backdrop of widespread public support among Londoners for Extinction Rebellion’s planet-saving message, has reinforced some of the negative stereotypes about the environmental movement. Right-wing commentators have been quick to damn the protest as “class war” waged by privileged people who have the “luxury of hijacking the underground.”
To understand what went wrong, you need to know a bit about London geography. The stations targeted by activists—Canning Town, Stratford, and Shadwell—are physically very close to the financial district of Canary Wharf. But they are a world removed from it. These stations serve some of the poorest areas not just in London, but in Western Europe. Most commuters shuffling to the train platforms at 7 a.m. (in a country where professionals usually start work after 9) are not wealthy financiers—they’re lower-income workers scraping a living in a notoriously expensive city. Footage of climate protesters with what British people would instantly read as middle-class accents blocking working-class men and women trying to get to their jobs soon after dawn—where they might be sanctioned for lateness—is terrible image-making. It plays into the hands of people who dismiss environmental activism as a hobby for privileged progressives.
That’s a trap that Extinction Rebellion has largely avoided up until now. To a substantial extent, the group developed from the Occupy movement, whose tactics of making protest a permanent public presence they have refined. Elsewhere in Europe, the group has set up a climate camp outside Chancellor Angela Merkel’s office in Berlin, blockaded a shopping mall in Paris, and tried to occupy the canalside outside Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum and the gardens of the Royal Palace in Brussels.
As with Occupy protests, these encampments have attracted condemnation from those who resent the disruption, but they’ve been peaceful, and the group’s emphasis on striking theatrical tableaus of costumed demonstrators has generated a lot of powerful imagery and sympathetic media coverage. Their message has been consistent: We are in the midst of a climate emergency so serious that it makes complaining about an interrupted commute vanishingly trivial. These protests served their message carefully by staging demonstrations that try to punch upwards—towards government and big finance—rather than down to the ordinary people whose lives are entwined with them.
That’s why the scuffles on London’s public transit were so counterproductive. Official response has been swift, with London Police banning further demonstrations by the group until further notice (a move that Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg strongly criticized). Mayor Sadiq Khan and rail unions also condemned the protesters, making the obvious point that electric-powered public transit should be considered a climate change solution. Even many members of the protest group itself expressed frustration: The Guardian reported that 72 percent of XR members opposed targeting the Tube, according to an internal poll taken before the protests were carried out.
It’s not hard to see why: These protests not only missed their intended target—the finance companies of Canary Wharf, which are located on private land with ludicrously tight security controls—they ended up creating a false dichotomy, setting up a conflict between the climate movement and public transit users. The optics of the incident end up wrongly implying that working-class London commuters neither care about, nor are affected by climate change.
Extinction Rebellion has also risked playing into the hands of those in the U.K. who dismiss climate change concerns. This is a country with a a bit of bullying, authoritarian streak to its culture; there are those here who really enjoy footage of hippies getting punched, as the ripples of applause for the attacks on protesters on social media illustrate.
As the urgency for climate action grows, Londoners who support Extinction Rebellion’s broader aims can only hope that the group can learn from this experience and adjust their tactics accordingly. The group suggested as much in a statement it released after the incident: “In light of today’s events, Extinction Rebellion will be looking at ways to bring people together rather than create an unnecessary division.”
If that happens, a vital lesson will have been learned. The U.K. capital is a critical player in the global battle for decarbonization. The climate movement needs victories here, and can ill afford to lose the sympathies of its residents.
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