Metros Turn Up the Heat on Addressing Climate

by Kenan Fikri | June 2, 2011

As the heat and humidity settle into Washington for the season and the hope that Congress might one day take action to prevent a warming climate melts away, readers can find some relief in a recent spate of reports emanating from across metro America.  

Metros, where 84 percent of the nation’s population live and work, will be on the frontlines of adaptation to climate change. Unsurprisingly then, a network of pragmatic metro leaders are taking the adaptation imperative seriously. They’re acting—on data and empirical evidence, no less!—to prepare for a future that will disrupt human geography like nothing in history.   Individual metros certainly can’t halt the planet’s warming single-handedly, but they can control their own contribution to the trend and take strides to mitigate its worst effects as they come to ground. And that’s exactly what these reports show they are starting to do.

As our 2008 report Shrinking the Carbon Footprint of Metropolitan America points out, the relative size of the nation’s metropolitan carbon footprints varies tremendously. By and large, metros east of the Mississippi River (excepting large dense metros like New York, Boston, and Chicago) have far larger carbon footprints than those west of the Mississippi. Altogether, the nation’s top 100 metro areas generate 56 percent of the nation’s emissions from residences and vehicles--rendering them accountable for the majority of the nation’s emissions but highlighting their intrinsic efficiency advantages (they house 66 percent of the population) at the same time.

Motivated by the principle that you can’t manage something if you can’t measure it, the global C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, chaired by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and in partnership with the Carbon Disclosure Project, recently released its flagship report in which 36 global cities fully disclose their carbon emissions. The report, which covers Austin, Chicago, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, Portland, Seattle, and San Francisco in the United States, will inform cities’ emissions-reduction efforts and establish a benchmark for judging the effectiveness of present and future policies. 

Last week, C40 Cities released a follow-on report under the banner that “cities act” outlining the various policy levers at mayors’ disposal and analyzing actions currently underway to tackle climate change in their network of megacities.

The Urban Climate Change Research Network too just released its flagship report assessing the climate risks facing 110 cities worldwide and proposing some responses (as far as I can tell it is not available online free of charge, unfortunately). Cities, summarizes E&E News in its coverage, are emerging—partially by necessity, partially by choice--as “first responders” to the climate challenge. 

The New York Times, meanwhile, had a rich piece last week chronicling Chicago’s adaptation strategies. Confronted with a future climate akin to that of Baton Rouge today, Chicago city planners are tackling the urban heat island effect (see this cool EPA graphic for more on that) with more water-permeable and less heat-trapping building materials, and planting for the future with imported trees from nowhere balmier than the swamps and bayous of the South. 

Brookings Metro will be adding its own unique insight into the matter next month with the release of Coming Clean, a measurement of the low carbon and environmental economy in the U.S. and its metropolitan areas. This original research will provide an unprecedentedly detailed, bottom-up count and analysis of jobs and establishments in the clean economy, broken down into five broad categories and 39 industry segments that range from wind energy to remediation to energy-efficient lighting. It will offer an authoritative definition of the clean economy and provide an important affirmation of its size and shape as it comes to ground in metro America and, hopefully, turn up the heat on action. 

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