This week President Obama delivered his State of the Union address, where he highlighted the importance of addressing Climate Change right now. His message was unambiguous. Climate Change poses an immediate threat and we should act in a way that is equal to the threat.
“2014 was the planet’s warmest year on record. Now, one year doesn’t make a trend, but this does: 14 of the 15 warmest years on record have all fallen in the first 15 years of this century. I’ve heard some folks try to dodge the evidence by saying they’re not scientists; that we don’t have enough information to act. Well, I’m not a scientist, either. But you know what, I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA, and at NOAA, and at our major universities. And the best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate, and if we don’t act forcefully, we’ll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration and conflict and hunger around the globe. The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security. We should act like it.” (President Obama, State of the Union 2015, January 20, 2015)
(Watch ABC’s short video version of the above transcript State of the Union 2015: Obama Wants Climate Change Addressed as Security Risk)
Rochester, NY (and every other community on Earth for that matter) should be addressing Climate Change on a level and speed that corresponds to the threat. As reported in this week’s local news, Rochester, NY is starting to put together a Climate Action Plan. It’s very milquetoast, but it’s a start.
Rochester to undertake citywide climate inventory The City of Rochester will hire a consultant to help it put together a Climate Action Plan — a step that an official says builds on other projects and programs helping to make Rochester a more sustainable and, therefore, more desirable city. "You want to be in a community that's somewhat progressive in sustainability areas. People like that," says Anne Spaulding, the city's energy and sustainability manager. "It's a place where people kind of like to live and like to be." The plan will essentially be a blueprint that will include goals, actions, and strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the city, she says. The city will accept proposals from interested consultants until January 30. (January 21, 2015 Rochester City Newspaper)
It seems to be the City’s goal to quietly address Climate Change using the ‘no regrets’ strategy, which is to say actions that can be justified economically, socially, and environmentally whether Climate Change is real or not. This is not leadership on an issue posing an immediate threat; this is hedging your bets politically.
Although the City is doing many things on the climate front, few know about these efforts. Number one on its to-do climate action list should be ‘community engagement’. That is not happening. Even in the City’s bicycle projects (bikeROCHESTER), a fantastic effort which constitutes one of the City’s strongest adaptation strategies (as 27% of greenhouse gas emission come from the transportation sector), ‘Climate Change’ or even ‘greenhouse gases’ are not mentioned.
You cannot lead by quietly setting an example that nobody knows about. You lead by continually educating the public so that they will understand the threat, by updating our various infrastructures so they will be resilient and robust enough to tolerate more frequent extreme weather, and by asking the public to become engaged in viewing and acting on all our local issues through the lens of Climate Change—election year after election year.
Also this week, the City conducted a summit on downtown parking.
Parking summit leads to wider wish list A public meeting Wednesday night on parking downtown had very little to do with parking lots or garages. Instead, city planners and citizens at the city's parking summit focused much more on making downtown an easier and more attractive place to get around by foot, bike, public transit or some kind of shuttle service — not necessarily by car. No one in the crowd of a few dozen people suggested paving over more of downtown for new parking lots, but several people suggested ways to better manage the spots that the city already has. (January 21, 2015) Rochester Democrat and Chronicle
But instead of a call for more parking (which the majority of Rochesterians would most likely prefer) the City got a surprise. Folks asked, why not increase active transportation (walking and bicycling)? Why not manage the parking lots we have better so we don’t have to pave over downtown completely? (A lot, really a lot, of downtown is already paved over.) Why not make public transportation better, develop parking apps to find unused parking spots, and make park-and-rides more desirable?
Paving over downtown with even more impermeable surfaces, which (while very friendly to resting cars) is not friendly to our environment. Paved surfaces suffocate our soil, make flooding worse, and create more stormwater surges that are more likely to carry more pollution to our streams, rivers, and lakes. Not to mention that more paved surfaces renders the urban heat island effect more intense.
Admittedly, not creating more parking lots in Rochester will be a hard sell. We love our cars and our cars love parking lots—free, convenient, and secure asphalt cribs of auto desire.
The trouble is that our life support system doesn’t like parking lots—any more than we’d like to have a plastic bag put over our head.
This all matters because it is at the point of transportation planning that Rochester must connect the dots between Climate Change and demonstrating its intention to act. By far most of our transportation tax dollars are gobbled up by bridge and road repair, so adapting our existing infrastructure to accommodate low or no GHG emissions when getting around town is relatively low-hanging fruit, financially. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions by using alternatives to gas guzzlers as much as possible may be the most effective Climate Change strategy Rochester has in its toolbox. Fewer vehicles, less need for parking them. But when we have surveys and public discussions about our transportation future, we do not mention ‘Climate Change'. It is still unfashionable to connect the climate crisis with our Rochester lifestyle.
If we planned our local transportation strategies so that the public believed there was a shared effort in addressing this worldwide crisis, wouldn’t they be more likely to do their part? Someone who must use a car might be more likely to tolerate those who don’t—and share the freaking road.
Community engagement with Climate Change should include baking Climate Change into our transportation plans. More Rochesterians would move out of their comfort zones to make more sustainable transportation modes work if they believed they were a necessary part of the solution to Climate Change. This will take leadership.
Climate Change is happening. We here in Rochester should act like it.