Cities, Green Development, & Politics: Passing the Buck or Jumpstarting Change?

I've been meaning to write about Steve Cohen (director of Columbia Universty's Earth Institute) Valentine's Day piece in the Huffington Post since it came out on Monday. It's an interesting juxtaposition of the savage grilling that Climate and Sustainability policy is getting at the Federal level in the U.S., versus the political support it's gotten in New York City.

If you've ever wondered why (some) cities seem to be able to move faster on the climate and sustainability issues it's worth a look. Cohen's point is that New York has joined the magic dots between environmental sustainability and economic wellbeing in a way that still eludes Federal politicians. At the same time cities are better placed to feel the negative impacts of declining environmental quality and climate change.

"In Washington," Cohen argues, "our environmental leaders are subject to hostility and an outmoded understanding of the connection between environmental quality and economic growth. In New York, it is clear that both the Mayor and the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Commissioner understand that economic growth requires environmental quality."

He goes on to argue that the EPA needs to learn from New York's example and "connect its goals of environmental protection to economic well-being at every turn" especially when it comes to promoting renewable energy.

The Power of Talking in $$$
I couldn't agree more - up to a point.  With certain audiences, when you start talking in terms of dollars and cents something magic happens:  looks of rapt attention suddenly replace yawns and paper shuffling. Whether its the value  of green sector jobs to the local economy, or the value of local wetlands in terms of the storm water functions they provide, economic calculus has a way of opening up the decision making process. And cities, where both the costs of failure and the benefits of success are so apparent, are particularly well place to make that case.

But then there is a question of pace:  how far, how fast, does focusing on the economic benefits of environmental policies get you?  Cohen goes on to say about the EPA, "it is no longer necessary that EPA's traditional flexibility and willingness to negotiate be hidden from view. Accommodation with short term economic interests has always a part of EPA's approach to regulation. The agency has accepted compromise as long as it has been accompanied by slow and steady progress."

That appeal to "slow and steady progress" is a hallmark of many economically driven approaches to environmental policy. But while economic models reassure us that the tortoise will win the race, environmental studies aren't so sanguine. This is the really interesting debate around environmental policy that is happening these days: not the lumbering zombie-like missives of climate change skeptics, but the differences of opinion that exist between scientists and economists about how best to deal with the uncertain future we are facing.

David Roberts and Eban Goodstein both had excellent posts on this over at Grist earlier this month.

Passing the Buck?
I'm not doubting the value of building environmental considerations into the core of our approach to economic development. It's an essential move. But if we rely on it as a silver bullet, we are asking for trouble. Over the past 15 years, the first phase of climate policy debates revolved around scientific certainty. Expectations were high that definite scientific knowledge would get us out of having to make sticky political decisions in the face of uncertainty.  Eventually, the story went, science would reduce political risks by making the right path obvious.  We've seen where that has gotten us.

There's a real danger that now that we have more realistic expectations of science, we are again going to pass the political buck - only this time to we'll hand it to economic models, instead of climate models.

Building environmental considerations into economic development strategies can act as a motor for change. But we also need to keep our eye on the speedometer. To get get where we need to go, we need to turbo charge our efforts. That means making strong political commitments, driven not just by economic calculations, but by an understanding that something much larger is at stake here than economic growth, and that people know it.

Here again cities, as the place where most of us live and breath, will play and important role in finding ways for us to set and achieve goals that go beyond the strictly economic. In cities that are truly leading the way, a large part of the momentum comes from people, communities, and organizations motivated by a holistic view of the challenge we face, and excited about the opportunity to participate in a truly world changing moment in history.

I think there is something in that for higher levels of government as well: People can understand more than numbers, they welcome a chance to be part of making history, and that motivation -- if some structures are in place to support and nurture it --  can lead to real actions and give politicians the support they need to make difficult decisions. As Cohen points out, polls show that that support is already there.  Federal politicians in the U.S. just haven't really connected with it yet.


1 Response to "Cities, Green Development, & Politics: Passing the Buck or Jumpstarting Change?"

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This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

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