New York City, Houston, Miami, and San Francisco have all taken steps to mitigate the risks associated with rising sea levels and global temperatures. Are their successes a blueprint for action at the state and local level?
Wholly unintentionally, Donald Trump may have sparked unprecedented determination within the U.S. to confront the danger of climate change.
Following Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate accord, the president was assailed by businesses ranging from Facebook to Goldman Sachs for risking America’s economic and environmental standing. The White House was choked by phone calls from irate voters.
Perhaps most significantly, a coalition of lawmakers, companies and universities swung into action in an attempt to reassure the world that the U.S. wasn’t completely abandoning the field.
With the federal government casting off the task of emissions reduction, the onus is now on cities and states to make up the shortfall. We look at what four major U.S. cities—New York City, Houston, Miami, and San Francisco—are doing to stave off the threat of climate change.
Outrage over the president’s move to pull the U.S. out of the Paris accord went far and wide, but Bill de Blasio, New York City’s mayor, seemed to take particular offense that one of the city’s own had done such a thing.
“This is a dagger aimed straight at the heart of New York City,” de Blasio said, raising the specter of rising seas and storms bearing down on Manhattan and Brooklyn. “We have to understand that if climate change is not addressed, one of the greatest coastal cities on the earth will be increasingly threatened. It’s very painful to reflect the fact that Donald Trump is from New York City. He should know better.”
To add to De Blasio’s distress, the mayor then had to field questions over what sort of example he was setting by being driven almost every day from Gracie Mansion, on the upper east side of Manhattan, to a gym 12 miles away in Brooklyn. De Blasio said his own environmental efforts were focused on recycling and composting, adding he wouldn’t be drawn into the “cheap symbolism” of using public transport.
But no matter the mayor’s personal habits, New York City has positioned itself, along with California, as the main bulwark against Trump’s demolition of climate change action at home and abroad. Having already promised to cut emissions 80 percent by 2050, De Blasio signed an order committing the city to the goals of the Paris agreement, including its most ambitious target—a warming limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) beyond the pre-industrial era.
New York City has already earmarked billions of dollars to retrofit 1 million buildings to make them more energy efficient, electrify its municipal vehicle fleet, plant thousands of trees and coat rooftops in solar panels.
The city is coming off a promising base: half of New York City residents don’t own a car and while energy use still results in nearly 50 million tons of greenhouse gases, average household electricity consumption is well below the national average. There’s palpable concern about climate change too—in surveys, three-quarters of residents say they are worried about climate change, with more than 80 percent wanting carbon dioxide to be regulated.
New York’s clout has been touted by Michael Bloomberg, its former mayor, who has helped corral a national coalition of cities and states to fill the void left by the federal government’s exit from climate policy and concern. Bloomberg, who recently stumped up millions of dollars for the UN climate secretariat, has said: “We are already halfway there—and we can accelerate our progress further, even without any support from Washington.”
Still, even if California and New York state halve their emissions, the U.S. would not make Barack Obama’s Paris goal of reducing emissions by at least 26 percent by 2025. In this light, New York City’s adoption of the 1.5 Celsius goal—considered a long shot at the time of the agreement in 2015 and now entering the realm of impossibility—appears to be a defiant flourish rather than sober expectation.
“1.5 Celsius was the stretch target at Paris. It’s a very aggressive goal, which is perhaps the most charitable way to put it,” said Daniel Zarrilli, senior director of New York City’s climate policy. “But we are already at risk and it’s important to set high targets to head off the worst consequences of climate change. Others need to see what New York City is doing and make the same accelerations. We need to do more and we need to do it faster.”
According to Zarrilli, heat exposure is already the biggest killer of New York City residents in terms of natural hazards—and then there’s the looming issue of rising seas, which are on course to increase around the city by up to 2 feet by 2050 and 6 feet by 2100.
Without a sharp reversal in emissions, parts of lower Manhattan and Brooklyn face being consumed by the sea, with the city’s two low-lying airports, La Guardia and JFK, expected to have water sloshing around the runways by the end of the century.
More than $20 billion has been set aside for defenses to this threat, but some critics argue that as much effort and money should be spent on overhauling the city’s existing creaking infrastructure. The subway system is under strain, with delayed signal work causing huge delays and much angst (the New York Times recently compared it unfavorably to the London Underground).
The state is responsible for New York City’s transport system, and Governor Andrew Cuomo, while praised by environmentalists for his own efforts to expand renewable energy, has been accused of favoring flashy new projects rather than fixing the nuts and bolts of public transit.
“Our carbon footprint is a lot smaller than it could be because we move around millions of people on public transport rather than car, but mass transit is often overlooked,” said Lara Skinner, associate director of the Worker Institute at Cornell University.
“A lot of attention is given to technological fixes rather than what is right in front of us. A massive improvement and expansion of public transport would be one of the best ways to reduce emissions in transport, especially as lack of affordable housing is pushing people further out.”
Skinner is the co-author of a new report that advocates New York go much further by retrofitting all public schools for energy efficiency, establishing a new rapid bus transit system and installing an additional 1GW of solar projects statewide. “We have started on a good path but we need to majorly scale it up,” she said. “We have 1,000 public schools in New York City and just a fraction have solar.
And, surely enough, after the president made his Paris announcement, San Francisco’s board of supervisors on June 6 introduced a resolution stating that this city would stay the course. “I think it’s important San Francisco goes on record as a city that it is committed to this agreement, regardless,” said the city supervisor London Breed, the board’s president. “We’re not going to stop doing what we do best.”
Since 2008, each of the city’s scores of departments has been required to submit climate action plans; ecological regulations across the city’s myriad layers of government have been centralized in the 26 chapters of San Francisco’s environment code. Matters addressed by San Francisco on a municipal level range from how to best deal with arsenic-treated wood and construction debris to strict building requirements.
San Francisco’s path to a greener tomorrow comes via the “0-50-100-Roots” plan, a phrase that rolls off the tongue of the environmental department spokesman Guillermo Rodriguez, if no one else. This proposal is composed of reaching “zero waste” by 2020 (a goal perhaps more aspirational than realistic); 50 percent of all trips in the city being undertaken on “sustainable transportation” (the perhaps 45,000 Uber, Lyft, and other app-hailed drivers now clogging city streets count under the city’s metric, interestingly); use of 100 percent renewable energy (a goal that syncs overall with the state of California’s wishes by 2045); and a bevy of plans to protect and augment the city’s tree canopy.
The city’s chosen environmental path has, however, been circuitous. Early versions of San Francisco’s plastic bag ban, for which the city received worldwide praise, may actually have harmed the environment more than they helped. The city’s much-hyped green energy plan, a competitor to Pacific Gas & Electric, suffered through a tortured, decades-long gestation and was burdened by its own overly rosy economic and ecological pledges. The city has taken strides to ensure its municipal vehicles and buses are electric, hybrids or run on biodiesel—but for many years some of these ostensibly “green” vehicles failed transit passengers at an alarming clip.
But San Francisco is nevertheless making progress. In 2015, the city measured its greenhouse gas emissions at 28 percent below 1990 levels—despite the city’s population growing nearly 20 percent, and a robust bump in its gross domestic product of 78 percent. That mark handily beat the city’s stated goal of 25 percent in 2017 in both reduction totals and timeframe; the plan is now to drop emissions 40 percent by 2025 and 80 percent by 2050. San Francisco’s reduction goals, says the Business Council on Climate Change’s executive director, Michael Parks, are fairly standard among large American cities. But in achieving and surpassing those goals rapidly, the city “is a national leader.”
Miami Beach likes to bill itself as a poster child for the effects of climate change. Flooding from each successive year’s King Tides reaches farther inland and affects more homes, businesses, and livelihoods, and the waters lap ever higher toward environmentalists’ dire predictions of a five-feet rise in sea levels in south Florida by 2100. So to Philip Levine, the outspoken mayor of the low-lying coastal city, Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the Paris agreement was nothing short of “a colossal mistake.”
“It’s a punch in the gut for all of us who on the ground are experiencing this threat first-hand,” said Levine, who has overseen his city’s investment of hundreds of millions of dollars to raise roads and sea defenses and install modern and powerful pumping equipment.
“It’s like being on a boat and the next thing you know the entire current has gone against you, but you know you still need to go in the right direction. For all of us who are experiencing climate change and sea level rise, we have no choice but to continue forward.”
Levine was a signatory to the defiant open letter to Trump signed by more than 1,200 mayors, governors, and education and business leaders pledging to abide by the terms of the Paris accord, and has promised to press ahead with Miami Beach’s ambitious works program.
With partners including four south Florida counties who in 2012 formalized their own regional action plan to combat the effects of climate change on their collective population of 6 million, the city’s own efforts predate the Trump administration by several years—and will long outlast it, Levine insists. “Our priorities are the low-lying areas of our city, the western part of the island,” he said. “We’re building up those areas, putting in the pumps, and we have seen significant, incredible success. Now we’re going to other parts of our city, other places that are also low lying and we need to raise.”
Under a resiliency strategy entitled Rising Above, the city—barely seven miles wide by one mile across—is elevating more than 100 miles of roads, installing 80 new pump stations, upgrading stormwater drainage utilities and raising sea walls in the most vulnerable areas by up to 5 feet.
The works, which began in the fall of 2014, are costly and already at $500 million, Levine said, although they are partially offset by grants from the state of Florida and a $7 hike per household in stormwater rates (which the mayor justified by asking residents if they would rather live in Miami Beach or Atlantis).
Other efforts to reduce the city’s carbon footprint include the promotion of water taxis and trolley buses, to get cars off the streets, and incentives for green construction. While Levine acknowledges the project might secure only a half-century’s respite, he hopes the investment will buy enough time to find a political solution to the ravages of environmental change, albeit after the current president leaves office. As for Trump himself, Levine wonders what goes through the president’s mind when he looks out from his waterfront Mar-a-Lago mansion just up the coast in Palm Beach and “sees how narrow the beach is compared to just 20, 30 years ago.”
An oil and gas hub might seem an unlikely place for officials to affirm their commitment to green energy, but Houston is by far the country’s biggest municipal user of green power. It annually uses almost 1.1 billion kWh of solar and wind power, representing 89 percent of its total electricity use, according to the latest figures from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
That puts it seventh nationally in the EPA’s list of green partners, ahead of Starbucks and Walmart and just behind Cisco Systems and Apple.
Among local governments, another Texas city with a strong oil and gas bent, Dallas, is second. Despite Texas’s well-earned reputation as a bastion of highly conservative Republican politics, six Texas entities are in the top 30, compared with four from liberal California.
The current mayor of Houston, Sylvester Turner, has built on the work of his predecessor, Annise Parker—also a Democrat—by burnishing the city’s green credentials while trying to avoid alienating traditional industries that helped grow the city and still drive much of its economy.
Parker co-founded the Mayors National Climate Action Agenda, while Turner is one of 246 mayors who have committed to uphold the Paris agreement’s aims in the wake of Trump’s announcement.
This local emphasis comes despite a statewide political approach that stresses limited regulation and is notoriously friendly toward oil and gas companies even as pollution in cities such as Houston remains a serious problem.
Still, almost 100 percent of the Houston city government’s power use now hails from renewable sources: In April, it announced a 50MW solar plant based 600 miles away in the remote west Texas town of Alpine was online and able to provide up to 10.5 percent of the city of Houston’s needs. The plant has 203,840 solar panels spreading over 360 acres and reflects Texas’s growing interest in solar power. It still lags behind other sun-kissed states in solar, though has long been a leader in wind.
Houston is also cutting its emissions. Lara Cottingham, deputy assistant director in the city’s administration and regulatory affairs department, said that since 2007 the city has seen a 35 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from municipal operations. That has been achieved by measures such as replacing light bulbs, demanding that new buildings be made as energy-efficient as possible, retrofitting fire stations, police stations, and libraries, and not only acquiring greener vehicles but also improving logistics so they are used more intelligently.
A corner on the first floor of a city permitting office on the edge of downtown is given over to a green building resource center, with eclectic exhibits designed to educate visitors on the benefits of going green—from recycling to high-efficiency toilets to bioswale that removes pollutants from stormwater run-off. A screen displays usage data from the solar panels on the roof.