August 29, 2008

Schwarzenegger & Redford on Global Warming, at Sundance, via ex-Mayor of Boulder Mark Ruzzin.

“The Short Answer is Yes,” from our Autumn 2005 issue by then-Mayor of Boulder, Mark Ruzzin.

It may not yet be so famous as his line from The Terminator—“I’ll be back”—but in June, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Republican governor of California, uttered four simple words as he committed his great-big state to meeting aggressive greenhouse gas [GHG] emissions reduction goals: “The debate is over.”

This debate is one of science, which shows that global temperatures are rising, and that human activity—primarily the burning of fossil fuels—is contributing to the collection of unparalleled levels of heat-trapping gasses in our earth’s atmosphere. The international scientific community has rallied around the research and analysis—much done by laboratories based in our Boulder, Colorado—that demonstrates that global warming is real, is happening now and will have unprecedented social, economic and environmental impacts to the planet and billions of people.

Governor Schwarzenegger followed his proclamation with these words: “We know the science. We see the threat. And we know the time for action is now.” And act he did, signing Executive Order Number S-3-05, committing California to reducing GHG emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.

Can it be done? The short answer is yes, and examples abound. Six great-big companies—IBM, DuPont, British Telecom, Alcan-UK, NorskeCanada, and Bayer—have cut GHG emissions by 60% since the 1990s while saving more than $4 billion. These reductions surpass those required in the Kyoto Protocol, the international accord designed to curb GHG emissions. These efforts, and those of other companies including Alcoa, 3M, Kodak, Shell, and BP put the lie to President George W. Bush’s recent claim to a Danish reporter that signing Kyoto “would have wrecked our economy.” On the public sector side, cities and towns around the planet are taking climate change seriously—and some of the most progressive and far-thinking are right here in the United States. Chicago, Seattle, Salt Lake City, Austin, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Madison, Aspen, Denver, Santa Monica and Burlington—to name just a few—are all implementing energy efficiency, renewable energy and transportation programs that will save energy and taxpayer dollars and reduce GHG emissions.

Perhaps the brightest star in this emerging galaxy is Portland, Oregon. Through a comprehensive series of
actions involving energy efficiency, green building, bicycle and pedestrian improvements and additional transit lines, Portland has reduced its GHG emissions to below 1990 levels. Monetary savings come with these efforts: changing traffic signals to high-efficiency LED lighting alone saves the city $500,000 a year (for corporate and municipal case studies).

But we’re not letting Portland have all the fun. Boulder adopted the Kyoto Protocol in 2002, and last year appropriated $516,000 for 2005 and 2006 for a variety of energy efficiency and conservation programs. Our municipal government and community are working together to develop an ongoing, sustainable GHG emissions reduction program, one that will get us to Kyoto, and beyond.

Speaking of municipal action on climate change, I recently had the honor of attending the inaugural Sundance Summit. Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson and actor Robert Redford invited mayors from across the country to Redford’s Sundance Resort to discuss actions local governments can take to address climate change. 46 mayors, representing 10 million Americans, spent two days laying out strategies for a grassroots national effort to combat the head-in-the-sand stance of our federal government (and yes, I did meet Mr. Redford).

Why mayors? As we’ve seen, our federal government has abdicated its responsibility to be a world leader on this issue. If we agree with Governor Schwarzenegger that the time to act is now, before things get worse, then action must come from the grassroots. After all, the impacts of climate change will be felt in our backyards—whether you are a coastal community facing the perils of rising sea levels or a mountain town that may see its annual water supply fall as rain rather than snow. Patrick McCrory, the mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina, put it nicely: “We are the ones building roads, designing mass transit, buying the police cars and dump trucks. We’re the ones lighting up the earth when you look at pictures from space. Together we have huge purchasing power, and if we invest wisely, that can have huge implications for the environment.”

As of August 1st, 174 mayors have signed onto the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, committing to meeting or beating Kyoto’s emission goals. While Kyoto is no global warming panacea, it is a vital first step—so this commitment is nothing short of wonderful.

One lesson we can draw from history is that the collective action of individuals, groups, cities, etc. can move mountains. Added together these efforts make a huge impact and change the course of history. It is with this in mind that American cities are banding together to address climate change. “Think globally, act locally” is our mantra. And we’ll take that call to action seriously, again and again, working in our own backyard to make the world a better place.

Mark Ruzzin is the former mayor of Boulder.

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