Trump can’t make sunlight expensive or slow the wind. He can’t make walking more polluting than driving, or energy efficiency more expensive than waste. For all the damage that Scott Pruitt and others are doing to the government’s environmental agencies, they can only block so much climate progress. Thanks to a surge of elite and grassroots action throughout the country and to market forces around fracked natural gas, the US economy might still squeak clear of its Paris carbon-reduction targets.
But the terrible thing is that Trump’s plan can succeed even while failing. The Paris targets actually aren’t ambitious enough for the United States to help forestall climate chaos. The big picture is simple: massive, rapid cuts to the emissions of greenhouse gases that cause climate change are needed. (This includes blocking new natural gas infrastructure.) To get there will require wide popular support and energetic mobilization.
Progressives’ and environmentalists’ challenge is to create, in the coming decade, the political conditions under which a broad majority of Americans would support truly aggressive low-carbon policies. Climate advocates need to tie the concepts of climate politics, economic fairness, and overall well-being so tightly together that no one can tell the difference. The danger is that progressives’ and environmentalists’ efforts so far—especially their focus on technocratic city-level policies that sidestep inequality—could miss the chance to jump-start a left-populist, equitable climate agenda in time for the 2020 election.
You Can Build Efficiency, but They May Not Come
Progressives’ and environmentalists’ boldest strategy so far has been a work-around: with leadership from former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and California governor Jerry Brown, states, tribes, corporations, and hundreds of cities are gathering under the “We Are Still In” umbrella to aggregate their greenhouse gas emissions–reduction pledges and collectively meet the country’s Paris climate commitments (this is called “America’s Pledge”). This month, Bloomberg Philanthropies even paid to get the group a pavilion at the COP23 climate summit in Bonn to represent the “real” America. The Sierra Club has also joined the fray with its Ready for 100 campaign, where cities commit to using 100 percent renewable energy by 2050.
Cities have rightly received the most attention. They are many, they’re spread in red states and blue, and they have powerful tools to cut carbon emissions. Today, their most fashionable tactic is making buildings more energy efficient. Can this kind of urban climate politics anchor a compelling new national agenda?
Building energy is responsible for over half of cities’ emissions, based on territorial carbon-accounting methods—of which more below. Making progress here is economically helpful—efficiency!—and resonates with most progressives’ passion for data-driven, targeted, technically sophisticated policies. This is challenging, praise-worthy work. No sane climate-action agenda would dispense with it. But this buildings focus—and the broader idea of urban climate policy that it represents—is deeply worrying.
The happy story of low-carbon cities is based on a cheap accounting trick.
First, a focus on building regulations is intensely technocratic. It reinforces the false view that you can achieve fast enough progress on climate change through technicians, planners, and financial engineers making uncontroversial improvements to the existing built environment. But far greater changes, demanding more political buy-in, will be needed. Every political psychologist and their mother knows that stories are what move people. To work, those stories must connect to people’s underlying material needs and inspire them at a time when, with housing brutally expensive, health care costs ever rising, and wages stagnating, economic pain is widespread. The climate story must be shorn of every trace of elitism, of the suspicion that it’s a hobby (whether hypocritical or virtuous) for rich people like Bloomberg and Al Gore. Even some of building retrofits’ greatest champions can see how awkwardly that policy fits the need for a broad, compelling message.
At a recent climate policy forum in New York City, an audience member asked Mark Chambers, the city’s director of sustainability programs, what climate-conscious citizens should be doing. His answer revealed a frustrated longing to transcend his elite policy space: “I want you to recognize the fact that you have an obligation to bring more people into this message,” he said. “We cannot keep being this esoteric group of folks that is just tree-huggers and energy wonks that are kind of moving in circles. We have got to recognize that there are millions and millions of people that need us to be able to translate what we’re doing into actionable items.”
Maybe the solution isn’t translating wonkery but embedding it in something bigger, a project that blends moral intuition with shared material needs. “Medicare for All” and “Free College Tuition” are the slogans rallying progressives right now. Climate activists’ best so far is “Keep It in the Ground,” a story that is clear and compelling, but lacks a forward-looking alternative.
Follow the Carbon
Cities do have one big, exciting idea: the counterintuitive claim that prosperous, liberal urban centers are actually low-carbon because their density reduces car use and facilitates big, energy-efficient building design. It follows that, with the best urban planning, we can improve people’s quality of life and slash emissions by increasing the density of our cities and suburbs. As David Owen wrote in Green Metropolis, “In a world of nearly 7 billion people and counting, sustainability … will look a lot more like midtown Manhattan than like rural Vermont.”
But Owen forgot that Manhattan’s prosperity depends on polluting activity beyond city limits. My second worry about cities and climate change is that when you follow the carbon, you find that the facile Fox News argument that prosperous, liberal climate advocates are deceitful hypocrites contains a grain of truth.
We’ll start by deconstructing the method used by countries, regions, and cities in their regular greenhouse gas emissions audits: territorial accounting. It works by drawing a border around a jurisdiction and adding up the greenhouse gases emitted within. For cities, we must include emissions from regional power plants. From this perspective, the policies that progressive mayors are championing—more efficient buildings, more rooftop solar, and tweaked power-purchase agreements—will slash emissions.
But what about the carbon emitted to make the goods and services we consume in cities? Take your smart phone. Territorial accounting only tallies the emissions that result from charging it; it ignores emissions from material mining, manufacturing, and international shipping—its “indirect” emissions. The same logic applies to steaks, jeans, and arc lamps—all reliant on polluting activity expelled from the city to operational landscapes far away.
The inconvenient truth is that urban territorial accounting erases affluent city dwellers’ massive ecological responsibilities. Rural coal fields, cattle ranches, industrial parks, logistics complexes, and fracking pads—all outside the urban snow globe and often in red states or developing countries—are the hidden support systems of progressive city dwellers’ prosperity. The happy story of low-carbon cities is based on a cheap accounting trick.
The alternative is consumption-based accounting. Here, the emissions from making and moving iPhones, jeans, burgers, and so on are attributed to the final consumer. When you include overall consumption, big prosperous cities’ carbon footprints increase by two to four times. A study of San Francisco by the Stockholm Environment Institute found that 80 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions caused by in-city consumption and activities were physically emitted beyond city limits.
It’s not just inequality between city and country; there’s also inequality within the city. Take New York, where finer-grained geospatial research by the environmental economist Kevin Ummel follows the carbon to households at the neighborhood level. Ummel and I have published a map visualizing this data. It shows that residents of dense, affluent Manhattan neighborhoods like Midtown, the West Village, and the Upper East Side had the city’s biggest carbon footprints, comparable to some of the country’s most sprawling suburbs. Surprised? Just follow the river of Amazon boxes through city streets or the sound of roller suitcases clattering over sidewalks. The problem is extreme wealth and consumption. It’s counterintuitive to think of urban temples of consumption as low-carbon, because it’s counterfactual.
Yes, urban density is key to lowering carbon emissions. But following the carbon tells a different story about urban climate virtue. The best example of urban sustainability isn’t Manhattan or San Francisco, it’s working- and middle-class neighborhoods with row houses and apartment buildings like much of Brooklyn or South Philadelphia: neighborhoods with good access to public transit, local jobs, and public services, with residents who consume far less than Manhattan’s rich.
Gentrification is a huge threat to the low-carbon urban fabric we already have.
These democratic neighborhoods accidentally became the country’s most climate-friendly because for decades, unions, community groups, and motivated citizens fought hard to get parks, libraries, sports facilities (even handball and basketball courts), theaters, decent schools, and other low-carbon public amenities installed. These amenities are what foster all the benefits of social connectedness and community; they allow the exchange of meanings to matter more than the exchange of goods, even while basic needs are met by quality public institutions. (To be clear, it’s not because the poor consume so little; they should consume more. The affluent must consume much less.) What made these communities live was being anchored by dense housing that residents could afford thanks to public policy. As the urbanist Mike Davis argues, “the cornerstone of the low-carbon city, far more than any particular green design or technology, is the priority given to public affluence over private wealth.”
Now, this model of low-carbon urbanism is being threatened by gentrification and displacement. This can shred communities’ public life, strip away affordable housing, and—because it often comes with nicer parks and bike lines—mingle the stories of urban greening and low-carbon urbanism. Gentrification is a huge threat to the low-carbon urban fabric we already have. Now more than ever, urban progressives must cement the alliance between social justice and environmental improvement by vigorously defending affordable housing in dense neighborhoods.
While many urban progressives fetishize raw density in spite of the best carbon data, they often neglect the importance of bringing livable density to suburbs. You already get decent energy efficiency with traditional streetcar or garden suburbs, whose homes are closer together. And urban designers have been coming up with compelling ways to gently densify more sprawling places, building on a feminist tradition of facilitating connectedness and shared care work. There are still more ways that following the carbon and focusing on inequality can reframe the climate story in the next few years.
Beyond City Limits
The best social science on attitudes to climate change, like the sociologist Kari Marie Norgaard’s book Living in Denial, points to the political-economic underpinnings of people’s thinking about climate change. When people avoid confronting climate change, it’s usually because it threatens their own sense of economic well-being. (In the United States, the Republican Party has perfected the exploitation of this fear.)
For residents of cities who have access to mass transit, have low energy costs for small housing units, and are vulnerable to climate impacts, it’s relatively easy to make the case for strong climate action. It’s also easier to make the case for climate politics to racialized Americans, many of whom live in cities, and who largely get that they bear the disproportionate burden of environmental harms. Polling shows that blacks, and especially Spanish-speaking Latinos, are more worried about climate change than white people are. But it’s not enough to register their support—climate policies must also defend their interests and learn from their leadership.
Meanwhile, the missing member of the broad progressive coalition is a conservative segment of poor and working-class whites, especially in rural areas and in deindustrialized or former fossil-fuel landscapes. These are victims of the fossil-fuel economy. Tragically, they have depended on it most viscerally, making them vulnerable to the fossil lobby’s cynical, deceitful messaging.
For instance, while 55 percent of city dwellers believe global warming is a very serious issue, only 40 percent of rural Americans (overwhelmingly white) report the same. These numbers must move to enable massive climate action. To bring more white rural workers into a multiracial climate coalition and to deepen the commitment of existing members of that coalition will require fusing climate action with economic fairness.
The federal government has the best tools to do this. It can implement the most comprehensive carbon tax, then spend those revenues on rebating consumers, investing on a large scale to accelerate the clean-energy transition, and funding local resiliency projects. It’s all about investment, and no one can leverage more money than Washington, DC. (There’s no law that limits climate investment to carbon-tax revenue alone.)
As 2020 approaches, bigger states can still step up. Some are trying. Efforts to pass intensely progressive carbon-pricing policies in California and New York gained significant traction despite failing this summer; in each case, policies would have dedicated a third or more of revenues to investing in job-rich clean-energy and resiliency projects in racialized and low-income communities. In both states, urban environmental justice movements were key coalition leaders. There will be time to try again. (California is also leading a push to phase out combustion-engine cars and maintaining a decent cap-and-trade scheme.)
Cities can take action on equitable low-carbon policies that are already on the table, scaling up with federal support later. One example: retrofitting public housing to slash energy use and create skilled local jobs, as projects in Boston, Toronto, and Paris have modeled. Eventually, funding from a revitalized HUD could massively expand this. Another important, already tested idea is developing community solar programs in climate justice communities. A third, long championed by community groups in New York, is building dedicated bus lanes to immediately reduce congestion, carbon emissions, and workers’ commuting times.
These projects model an investment-oriented climate politics that prioritizes creating jobs and improving well-being in low-income, working-class, and racialized communities, with governments collaborating with community organizations and social movements. The country’s environmental justice movement has long been a leader in this approach. Their leadership is more important than ever.
slash carbon while fighting inequality. We don’t need to wait.
The already affluent should help foot the bill. There have been some tentative steps in this direction, New York’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, has argued that the city should raise taxes on its wealthiest residents to pay for improvements to the subway system. The labor and community group coalition Align has begun arguing for more: congestion pricing and an extra tax on wealth. (Align is also organizing around what it calls “whole building” retrofits, which do more to bring in social equity.) In support of other public affluence policies, like universal access to preschool, De Blasio has proposed a “mansions tax” and a “millionaires tax.” Each time, New York state’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, who has himself backed a range of clean-energy policies and exemplifies the centrist current in climate policymaking, has slapped down the idea of taxing wealthier New Yorkers.
To build a broader coalition, city-based climate leaders have to leave the city. For instance, as cities commit to sourcing 100 percent of their energy from renewables, those cities’ leaders and social movements can support rural, community-based clean-energy projects that pay good wages. Urban social movements and political leaders are already supporting campaigns against fossil fuels. Now they need to support community-led clean energy. Decarbonizing fast enough to avoid global warming will require massive construction of wind and solar farms and countless miles of new power lines.
There’s much more that progressive urban residents, acting as part of social movements and organizations, can do to support community autonomy and ownership over this new energy economy. In 2012, roughly half of the clean energy produced in Germany came from community-owned clean-energy cooperatives. There’s also the issue of wages. Clean-energy manufacturing usually isn’t unionized. Blue-collar workers suffer big wage cuts when they shift to clean energy. Will urban liberals join picket lines and pro-union rallies outside the factories that will build the wind turbines and solar panels that will power our cities? (Rural electricity cooperatives serving tens of millions of consumers are another good place to get active.)
None of these ideas is a panacea. But their underlying principle is simple: slash carbon while fighting inequality. We don’t need to wait. To make urban climate politics equitable and to connect to rural workers, progressives and environmentalists should build a common-sense story about climate politics that’s based on the best data, prioritizes economic fairness, and is backed by immediate action. Urban and rural futures can only be made safe and prosperous together.
Featured image: Workers install solar panels along a “solar highway” in Oregon, 2008. Photograph courtesy of Oregon Department of Transportation / Flickr