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Ready For Our Own Irene?

Toronto, Chicago, Portland prepare for climate change while we pursue real estate development schemes

While the world’s scientists get closer to unanimity about the human role in catastrophic climate change, the American political process produces a mixture of equivocators like Barack Obama and deniers like Rick “pray for rain” Perry and Michelle “God’s will” Bachmann, with the ever-cautious Mitt Romney boldly staking out a position somewhere between “maybe” and Rush Limbaugh’s bad performance art. There’s no serious money or campaign acumen changing the green movement into an electoral force in America, as it is in Europe and even in Canada, where the New Democrats sound as green as can be even as Canadians enjoy the swell times created by another oil-sands petroleum boom. The $10+ billion cost of hurricane/tropical storm Irene will probably not become a political fact except in Vermont, where the damage was worst, and where the electorate—about the same size as Erie County’s—already embraces the green analysis.

Here in Upstate New York, except in the flooded Mohawk valley and in a few towns along the Hudson, the language of politics and policy ignores environmental concerns. It’s all about economic development up here. That’s why Governor Andrew Cuomo has already endorsed a go-forward approach to horizontal drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale, and has gone the Seneca Gaming Corporation and other Native American groups one better by hinting that the big casino development for the Catskills may well be a state affair. The 2011 storm named Irene is a short-lived phenomenon, but the jobless non-recovery from decades of deindustrialization, capital flight, and the gruesome bank collapse of 2008 grinds on and on.

And despite studies from think tanks and engineers and economists who all conclude that we’d better get cracking on cutting carbon emissions, start more mass transit, start resettling cities, stop sprawling—indeed, that we need action on a long policy agenda to address what the climate scientists say is coming—New York’s language consists entirely of the platitudes and slogans of real-estate-oriented economic development.

Not so elsewhere. An impressive roster of big cities got engaged in 2005 with former President Bill Clinton’s Global Initiative because leading citizens and political actors responded to his call to start taking science seriously as a matter of local public policy. Clinton has gotten 40 city governments around the world to put climate-change action plans together, and every American one I’ve read comes complete with two issues addressed: economic-impact documentation and citizen-engagement plans.

In other words, there’s a cost-benefit analysis that lays out the case for undertaking action. And there’s a chapter in each plan on how to get the word out. In the best documents, there’s evidence that the very process of putting the plan together was a long, deliberative, public process that brought lots of citizens out to lots of meetings, so that the plans represent buy-in by many constituencies. It is great stuff.

One should expect great things from great cities. New York, Toronto, Chicago, LA, Philadelphia, and a few big European, Asian, and South American cities have made some commitments that occasionally make news, as when Mexico City set a modest-sounding but somehow believable one for 2012: reducing carbon-dioxide emissions by 12 percent from the 2008 baseline. It’s a big-city PR effort, to be sure: Chicago’s plan was big news for the year that its committee spent working up its plan, and bigger news when the plan was released in 2008. But what it shows is this: A sufficient number of business people in Chicago figured out that if scientists at the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois, and Northwestern were all willing to say that Chicago’s weather is going to make the place feel like Baton Rouge within a few decades, then they’d better sit up and pay attention—and get with the program of deciding how public money should be spent.

Here’s the program that the business leadership in Chicago, and all these other cities, too, signs off on: more public transit, better insulation of public buildings, more efficient vehicles that burn less carbon-based fuel, plus better solid-waste disposal, an end to flushing raw sewage into the watershed, a big infrastructure investment in better rainwater management, and overall, less energy-wasting. Chicago’s “Climate Action Plan” has a target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, and 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

Stirring the blood?

But of course, money to create sustainable cities—whether for Toronto’s crosstown subway, for Chicago’s clean water initiative, for light rail projects everywhere (set aside for now the issue of high-speed inter-city trains, which China, Japan, and Europe have already)—all must come from taxpayers. The way these projects get done is with public-private cooperation, using borrowed money that taxpayers have to repay. Investment banks would be delighted to lead in lending city governments the money to create all this sustainability and science-driven public infrastructure. That’s why the attendees at the 2011 Sustainable Infrastructure Financing Summit, held earlier this year in Switzerland, included lots and lots of bankers. The figure they kicked around for global sustainable infrastructure investments by the year 2030: $25 trillion. With a “t.”

“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood…Make big plans, aim high in hope and work,” wrote Daniel Dean Burnham, architect of the Ellicott Square Building and planner of Chicago at the end of the 19th century.

Investment bankers love the idea of big projects. So do construction workers, engineers, planners, pipe-makers, concrete fabricators, the folks who drive the lunch wagons—everybody loves big public works projects. Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, and the post-Keynesian economists all love it, too, because they understand what Ronald Reagan understood: When you borrow money and invest it in stuff that reduces future costs, the jobs created along the way are worth more than the borrowing costs.

The cynical and the free-market fundamentalists assume that the term “sustainability,” and the climate scientists’ consensus, is just a ruse to justify flying off to Switzerland to hear former investment banker Michael Bloomberg embrace the concept of “a new multi-stakeholder approach to infrastructure financing.” Indeed, it’s hard not to conclude that a great many sophisticated people have figured out that there is a whole lot of money to be made in making the switchover from old, oil-powered urban life to a new way. One recalls the massive over-promising of benefit in the late Clinton presidency, when we all went from paper to PC. That was a nice bubble, too, while it lasted. Eric Janszen warns of a green technology bubble.

What’s different, though, is that climate science says ever more consistently that big change is ahead. One may be forgiven for noticing hurricane/tropical storm Irene more than the news that the big 40 cities of the Clinton Initiative are getting new company. This past month, the Kresge Foundation granted the University of Michigan $1.2 million to help some of the Great Lakes cities get ready for climate change impacts—specifically, the massively disproportionate, record-shattering rains that climate scientists expect will be hitting us harder and more often, and the shrinkage of those gigantic pools of 10,000-year-old glacial melt-water, called variously Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario, which are evaporating away, shrinking like Great Lakes cities, because global warming has shortened the ice season.

As the scientists say that they are in agreement that the climate is changing, and as the big cities are already at work addressing both the public cost and the potential opportunity that will be caused by climate change, and as the Wall Street people have already figured out how much it’s going to cost all over the world, then the line of questioning in our community should go something like this: Is anybody looking into our situation? Is anybody crunching our numbers? What happens to our costs if we don’t prepare for climate change—and what does spending today on a plan like Chicago’s, Toronto’s, Philadelphia’s mean for “economic development” tomorrow?

None of the 40 cities in the Clinton Initiative waited for the Great Equivocator. There’s no point in waiting for the anti-scientific Rick Perry, Michelle Bachmann, Sarah Palin, or Mitt Romney to make the connection between climate change, new technology, and public cost/benefit calculations. They already have the answer.

Bruce Fisher is visiting professor of economics and finance at Buffalo State College, where he directs the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.

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