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May 29, 2019
The Impact of Non-Federal Action on Mitigating Climate Change: An Insider’s Perspective
Chris Wheat of the Natural Resources Defense Council sat down with EPIC’s Amir Jina for a wide-ranging conversation on the role of cities and states in combatting climate change.
When President Trump announced the United States would withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord in June 2017, it set in motion a series of commitments to meet the goals of the agreement by cities, states, businesses, universities and others. Whether those commitments will be enough to keep the U.S. on track to meeting its Paris emissions goals remains to be seen.
To explore the ability of non-federal actors in the U.S. to mitigate climate change, the Phoenix Sustainability Initiative hosted a conversation with Chris Wheat, director of strategy and city engagement for the American Cities Climate Challenge at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) to a packed auditorium in the Saieh Hall for Economics on the University of Chicago campus. EPIC’s Amir Jina, an assistant professor at the Harris School of Public Policy, moderated the discussion.
Jina began the event with a brief presentation outlining key greenhouse gas emissions trends in the U.S. He also highlighted that cities occupy just 2 percent of the world’s land mass yet consume two-thirds of the world’s energy and emit more than 70 percent of global carbon emissions. Plus, most cities are near coasts, making them particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise.
“With so many cities on coasts and so many cities reeling from the effects of climate change, be it in Florida, be it New Orleans, be it New York, we’re often trying to build a 21st-century economy on 19th or 20th Century infrastructure,” said Wheat, “and that infrastructure was not planned and thought out for the ravenous effects of climate change.”
The most visible city infrastructure, buildings and transportation, account for the vast majority of cities’ carbon emissions. Reforming those sectors presents difficult tradeoffs for policymakers, however, as they try to reduce emissions without exacerbating inequality, Wheat said.
Wheat, who spent seven years in the office of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, including two as the city’s chief sustainability officer, used Chicago’s transportation system as an example. He said that while Chicago is better off than many cities it must reduce the number of single-occupancy cars on the road to have any hope of making a serious dent in emissions. Yet, access to public transit is already unequal and can only reach so far.
“What do you do on 81st and Halsted, or 120th street, where you are two miles at best from the Red Line [train]? Tell them they can’t have a car?” Wheat said. “They have to get to work. That is one of the things we continue to wrestle with. That’s what public policy is – it’s choices, and wrestling with those choices every day.”
The problem is perhaps even more acute when it comes to buildings, Wheat said.
“You could mandate today buildings adopt a net-zero building code,” meaning that new buildings must be carbon-neutral, “which has tremendous emissions benefits because for cities it’s really buildings and transportation,” he said. “That’s great – it’s super expensive today … Well, we have an affordable housing crisis in Chicago. So are you OK with less affordable housing being built while still meeting emissions targets?”
Wheat stressed that he was presenting absolute scenarios but argued they underscore the importance of thinking hard about the trade-offs among climate ambitions, competing policy priorities and limited resources. City governments constantly weigh these trade-offs, and aren’t afraid to steal good ideas from each other when they see one.
“One of the reasons (cities) ‘steal’ a lot in the climate space is that there’s only so much a city can do,” Wheat said. “When you think about jurisdictional issues, when you think about budgets, the number of choices a city is making on climate is far smaller than, say, the federal government.”
On the other hand, Wheat pointed out that cities are typically more nimble than the federal government at enacting new policies and serve as valuable testing grounds for each other, states and potentially the nation. He credit the first three cities (New York, Washington, D.C., and Austin, Texas) to enact energy benchmarking ordinances, which require certain buildings to track and report their energy use, for establishing a blueprint for other cities.
“We all learned from the work and the mistakes and successes that they have had as well,” Wheat said. It is also a strength that cities have a finite menu of climate policies available, he said, because “it actually creates opportunities to learn and iterate from each other in relatively quick order.”
Wheat pointed out that NRDC’s American Cities Climate Challenge is not limited to the biggest metropolitan areas. It includes lower-profile cities such as Albuquerque, New Mexico and Indianapolis, which he said demonstrates broad-based support for climate action.
Jina later asked about the actual impact on emissions of non-federal initiatives like the cities challenge and the U.S. Climate Alliance, a coalition of 24 states that have pledged to meet the Paris climate goals.
Acknowledging the limits of cities and states to reduce emissions, Wheat suggested they are not a substitute for robust federal action on climate change.
“We can’t abdicate the responsibility of the federal government in this work,” Wheat said. “But I do think that where cities, states, counties, companies and other entities are important is that it keeps the pressure on.”