The Green New Deal Overlooks Cities’ Role

Climate change discussions must not ignore the impacts that local governments and extreme weather have on one another.
April 2019
(Shutterstock)
By Pete Saunders  |  Columnist
Urban planner

The divisiveness surrounding climate change at our various levels of government has made meaningful progress hard. As a result, we may be quickly approaching the point where reversing the effects of climate change is futile and where, instead, finding ways to adapt to its myriad impacts is the new goal.

Whatever you may think about climate change, it’s bound to have a huge economic impact. The Green New Deal, the economic stimulus plan that was introduced in the newly elected Democratic Congress, has elements of the policies and programs that will be necessary to transition our economy. But two things currently hinder the Green New Deal’s ability to move forward. First, it’s extremely broad in scope, more wish list than actual policy. Second, it doesn’t deal with the fact that states, counties and cities will need to find their own specific solutions to the challenges imposed by climate change.

There’s a clear role for states and localities in the areas where they already have considerable policy influence: transportation and land use. Transportation, a significant portion of state fiscal outlays, accounts for the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. We’ve already benefited tremendously from an extended era of cheap fuel and transportation. But what happens when those costs skyrocket? Will a simple transition to electric vehicles be enough to stem the tide? Or will we have to come to grips with the ways in which we travel?

This leads to impacts on land use, which cities and counties largely control. Our nation has been reliant for decades on an urban form that prioritizes land consumption. Are we ready for a transition to land uses that lead to more density and travel reductions to lower greenhouse gas emissions? Relatedly, where increased precipitation becomes the norm, stormwater storage and management will be paramount. Can we develop communities that make storage an integral part of how we live? The same holds for areas that become drought-stricken as a result of climate change. Can they find ways to extend water infrastructure to thirsty cities?

A report looking at counties by the Brookings Institution found that climate-related costs would not impact all parts of the nation equally. Researchers estimate that by 2080 climate-related costs could increase by 10 percent to 30 percent in counties throughout the South, mostly located along the Gulf Coast. The northern tier of the nation, meanwhile, could actually see climate-related costs fall by as much as 13 percent.

Brookings has given some thought to possible strategies, which include better aligning the location of jobs, housing and services to reduce driving; reducing urban development on environmentally risky land; and improving land use policy and overall governance to save money and lives.

The fact is, climate change will hit everyone hard, but cities will be the first responders when it comes to adaptation. Coastal cities will be dealing with sea rise and erosion, while interior cities will be faced with greater amounts of precipitation in some areas and intensifying drought in others. The necessary policy choices will be critical. The demands on local infrastructure will only increase. How will cities respond?

Resiliency, in my opinion, is the name of the game. Density and transit are often presented as lifestyle options that cities can elect to choose. But with climate change, they may become integral features of effective adaptation. More land may have to be given over to stormwater retention and detention, and smaller lot sizes and an expanded range of housing options may be the only solution. Localities and companies in drought-stricken areas may lead the way in innovation and technology to produce water, or to transfer water from wetter locations to drier ones.

Over the last 30 years we’ve seen significant and unprecedented revitalization in our large cities. But as we enter the 2020s, we’ll see if cities can make the changes necessary to adapt and thrive in a world impacted by climate change.