Monday, May 8, 2017

Climate Change And Cities

This is a time when the credibility of national governments is at an all-time low. In the United States, Donald Trump openly denies climate science. Indeed, he has declared his intention to revive the coal industry and boost fracking, two very dangerous sources of environmental disruption. He is even musing about withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement Climate.

Here at home, things are not much better. While avoiding the harsh rhetoric of a climate-change denier, Justin Trudeau, by some feat of rhetorical legerdemain, insists that developing the tarsands is not incompatible with a cleaner environment. Such may sound good to the untutored mind, but for the critical thinker demanding specifics, the prime minister offers pretty thin gruel.

So where are we to look for real leadership? Even though they are at best very junior partners, because they have the most to lose as recent events have made very clear, cities may have far more ability to exert substantial influence on the climate change file than most people might think.

The late Benjamin Barber wrote a book, recently published, called Cool Cities: Urban Sovereignty and the Fix for Global Warming arguing that cities, not national governments, hold the key to real progress on the climate change file. An excerpt in The Guardian offers some of his thinking:
The list [of what municipalities can do] includes divestment of public funds from carbon energy companies; investment to encourage renewable energy and green infrastructure; municipal carbon taxes; fracking and drilling bans; new waste incineration technologies; regulation of the use of plastic bottles and bags; policies to improve public transport and reduce car use; and recycling.
Barber cites the city of Oslo, which is pursuing a zero-emissions campaign, as an exemplar:
The city is applying the goal with particular efficiency to transportation, and electric vehicle charging stations are plentiful. The plan is to make Oslo the most electric vehicle-friendly city in the world – one in four new cars sold in Norway are electric – and a champion of green housing and architecture: its new opera house is set in a neighbourhood that gleams with green infrastructure.
And cities in Asia are embracing some surprising initiatives as well:
The greater Seoul region has a population of almost 25 million, and in 2015 it was ranked the continent’s most sustainable city. Seoul has made a massive investment in electric-powered buses. It already has the world’s third largest subway system, but its carbon fuel bus fleet of 120,000 vehicles has been a massive source of pollution. Current plans are to convert half this fleet to electric by 2020, which would be the world’s most ambitious achievement of this kind.
One of the main impediments to a wider application of municipal green projects is the constraint on the power of local government:
There are two formidable obstacles blocking a larger role for cities: a paucity of resources and the absence of autonomy and jurisdiction. The European Union favours regions over cities, and works more on agricultural subsidies than affordable urban housing. In the United States, the structure of congressional representation means a suburban and rural minority rules over the urban majority.
Here in Canada, at least in Ontario, what a local government can do, as Toronto mayor John Tory found out to his great disgruntlement, is only what the provincial government will permit it to do. Road tolls in Toronto, as had been proposed and initially approved by the Wynne government, was ultimately vetoed, given that a provincial election is pending next year, and motorists have long memories.

There is only one answer, according to Barber:
If cities are to get the power they need, they will have to demand the right of self-governance...

Because urban citizens are the planet’s majority, their natural rights are endowed with democratic urgency. They carry the noble name of “citizen”, associated with the word “city”. But the aim is not to set urban against rural: it is to restore a more judicious balance between them. Today it is cities that look forward, speaking to global common goods, while fearful nations look back.
We, as a species, have a clear choice: continue on our present heedless course to planetary destruction, or start to make the hard, painful and expensive choices in order to live to fight another day.


  1. Municipalities, being creatures of provincial statute, have no independent existence. No province is going to grant municipal autonomy, the equivalent of severing one arm and one leg. The feds might entertain the idea of city-provinces but that would require constitutional approval of - well, the provinces. How many votes do you imagine Ottawa would muster for that idea?

    By any measure, Vancouver Island should qualify for provincial status. It's physically larger than most Maritime provinces and more populous to boot. In many ways the mainland and the island are foreign to each other. It's just one of those things that isn't going to happen.

    1. Like much that is written about climate-change solutions, Mound, I realize that this is largely pie-in-the-sky thinking. suggests what could be done if we had the will which, unfortunately, is sorely lacking in our world.