Monday, November 17, 2014

IPCC Response Essay #10: The Bottom-Up Climate Consensus

 Stephen Miller

Stephen R. Miller, Associate Professor, University of Idaho College of Law

The largest mitigation opportunities with respect to human settlements are in rapidly urbanizing areas where urban form and infrastructure are not locked in, but where there are often limited governance, technical, financial, and institutional capacities. (IPCC AR5 WGIII SPM § 4.2.5.)

The IPCC is comprehensive in its scope and conclusive in its evidence for climate change. Why then has the report failed to be persuasive and, in fact, launched a counter-offensive against the idea of climate change generally? The backlash is a many-headed hydra, but at the local level, its growth is manifest in anti-Agenda 21 screeds increasingly heard against local climate action plans in town halls across the United States. It is easy to write off the climate change backlash as either political posturing or ignorance. That would be a mistake; engagement is necessary. What the IPCC process needs now is not more science to prove climate change exists; rather, it needs an approach to planning for climate change that builds consensus and engages diverse stakeholders at the local level where development decisions are made.

While state and federal laws have, within the last few decades, increasingly limited local control, cities still make the lion’s share of choices over the shape of development in the United States. This decentralization of land use decisionmaking is especially important in understanding consensus and climate change:  if there is no consensus to address climate change in these decentralized land use decisions, it will be very difficult for the country as a whole to achieve a viable climate policy.  

A brief review of the rise of cities makes their importance clear.[1] Around 2010, more than half of the world’s population was living in cities; by 2050, 70 percent of the world’s population will live in cities. The world is expected to add over 2 billion new people to the planet by 2050, which is the equivalent of building a new city of 1.4 million every week through the mid-century mark. Existing cities in industrialized nations, such as the United States, have “locked in” high energy use through high-energy infrastructure. The best chance of reducing greenhouse-gas emission growth is for future cities, in industrialized and developing countries, to build a low-carbon infrastructure. 

This infrastructure imperative is both an unprecedented opportunity and also an unprecedented challenge. It is an opportunity because, if we get city planning right in the twenty-first century, we can both have great places to live and mitigate and adapt to climate change. It is a challenge because the places where people are increasingly moving, in industrialized nations, are cities that are specifically seeking to grow economically by permitting inexpensive, but high greenhouse-gas, lifestyles. (In developing nations, not discussed here, different urbanization patterns arise, but also necessitate greater local consensus.) 

Consider the complexity of consensus-building among cities in the United States. According to the last census, the two fastest growing regions of the country were the Mountain West and the South. These are also states and cities that are deliberately luring in residents through policies promoting cheap living through easy, and largely unregulated, housing development. Such states and cities are equally luring businesses through concerted de-regulation and economic incentives from the American Northeast, western coastal states, and the industrial Midwest. The approach has proven remarkably successful in terms of short-term economic growth. The poster child for this approach is Texas, which has one of the fastest growing economies, but also spends $0.54 of every state dollar on economic development incentives to businesses, according to a New York Times study. In other words, the prospect of states like Texas, and most of the South and the Mountain West, depends upon providing an alternative to the regulatory strictures of places taking climate change seriously. The economic strategy of such locations is precisely to welcome climate change regulation refugees. Meaningful climate change consensus, then, requires a consensus among decentralized decisionmakers—such as states and cities—that climate change is important and skirting regulation cannot become an economic development tool. That will be a tough challenge.

Finding consensus on climate policy is not easy even in progressive bastions. Take, for instance, arguably the country’s most important effort to link land use and transportation planning to reduce climate change, the San Francisco region’s Plan Bay Area, which is the subject of four lawsuits by environmentalists, environmental justice advocates, “post-sustainability” anti-Agenda 21 groups, and a local real estate lobby.  Thus, even with consensus on climate change’s existence, there is difficulty in building consensus on the implementation of climate change planning and adaptation. 

To address climate change, places like the American South and Mountain West need want to build cities that are resource efficient, and even in progressive locales like San Francisco, implications of climate change policy must be more forthcoming. Consensus building must focus on detailing the day-to-day efforts necessary to mitigate and adapt to climate change. The need to facilitate local consensus on climate change has not been undertaken by the IPCC in any meaningful way. The IPCC reports acknowledges this deficiency, in some regards: buried deep in the IPCC Working Group II report is a call for “engaging stakeholders” in the process of climate change decisionmaking.[2] However, as an indicator of the failure to engage, the section notes a recent study finding only 40 percent of vulnerability mapping exercises included stakeholder participation, which “rais[ed] questions about the legitimacy and salience of contemporary approaches” to climate change planning.[3]

If we are to build, or re-build cities, to benefit the climate, we must start the planning process with stakeholders’ daily lives and daily choices.  The global impacts of small sacrifices must be clear; people need a vision of what it means to live a life that saves the planet in their own community. It is on the basis of those facts that consensus can be built, not just at the federal level, but in town halls where development decisions are made. The IPCC has historically been a document of collective scientific reportage. What is needed now is a bottom-up component to the process, one in which individuals acting locally understand the climate implications of local actions.   

When Hausmann was cutting imperial boulevards through Paris’ medieval core, Baudelaire wrote with solace, “The form of a city changes faster, alas, than the human heart.”  As our cities, and our climate, now change even faster than our hearts, we must find paths to consensus—locally, nationally, and internationally—that work politically from the bottom up, and which give all a reason to forsake immediate gains in favor of a better life for generations to come.



[1] See also several articles and book chapters I have written in the importance of cities to climate change:  The Sustainable, Inevitably Exploding City, 43 Envtl. L. Rep. 10342 (2013); Boundaries of Nature and the American City, inEnvironmental Law and Contrasting Ideas of Nature:  A Constructivist Approach (Keith Hirokawa ed., Cambridge Univ. Press) (2014); Sustainable Cities of Tomorrow:  A Land Use Response To Climate Change, in Rethinking Sustainability to Meet the Climate Change Challenge (Jessica Owley & Keith Hirokawa eds., Environmental Law Institute) (forthcoming 2015).

 [2] IPCC AR5 WGII § 8.4.2.1.

[3] Id.

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