Former EPA Administrator William K. Reilly: On Climate Change, Cities May "Save Us From the Ideological Gridlock in Washington"

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William K. Reilly, Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (1989-1992) under President George H.W. Bush, on Tuesday (8 November 2011) said that cities in America and the rest of the world face "an urgent need for adaptation and renewal. Speaking at the National Building Museum (Washington, DC) after receiving its Vincent Scully Prize, he said that "the degree to which those cities are planned for long-term sustainability in the face of now-certain climate change may affect their very survival."

William K. ReillyReilly, who presently is Chairman Emeritus of the Board of WWF, said in a lecture [PDF] he presented at the event that the "paramount themes in urban policy throughout the late 1960s and 1970s" were poverty alleviation and civil rights. "Today, we confront another, even more transforming determinant of our lives and culture," he added. "Harbingers of climate change are undeniable. It may seem that climate change is last year’s news—forgotten and overtaken by understandable preoccupations with the economy. But inexorably, measurably, it is progressing even as the Congress and the country sleepwalk through it."

"It has seemed to me that if Castro were to threaten to take even a small portion of the Florida shoreline compared to what sea-level rise portends, the mobilization of resources to repel the incursion would be limitless," Reilly said.  "Yet in Florida, as in many parts of the country, mention of climate change or global warming is politically incorrect.

Nevertheless, he said, "[w]e are beginning to see action in industry and state and local governments. Once again, a very promising response is evident in many cities."  Citing Chicago as a leader among cities that are both curbing their greenhouse gases and preparing for the impacts of climate change, Reilly said:  "This is promising, this is progress. This is how practical leaders do what they can while the country and the world wait for the United States government to make carbon reduction and climate mitigation a priority."

Here in detail is what Reilly had to say about what he termed "The New Global Challenge to Place" (with emphasis added in some passages):

...I want to address a challenge that America and the entire world confront: an urgent need for adaptation and renewal. There are several dimensions to the challenge. Most dramatic are those confronting China and India, where 80 percent or more of the buildings extant in 2030 have yet to be built. The design choices, the quality of that new development, will affect the enjoyment, health, and productivity of tens of millions for decades to come. But even more important, the degree to which those cities are planned for long-term sustainability in the face of now-certain climate change may affect their very survival.

Climate Works, whose board I chair, is active in China, working through the Energy Foundation and its China Sustainable Energy Program. China has embraced carbon reduction and energy efficiency in recent years and is increasingly attentive to proposals to reduce carbon emissions and also pollution, while saving energy. And as we all know, China is experiencing a great surge of urbanization. Part of China’s response to the great rural-to-urban migration is to plan to accommodate 350 million more people in cities, or roughly the equivalent of the population of the United States, in the next few decades. Recent preferences in urban development in China’s larger cities have favored massive blocks of buildings stretching for hundreds of meters on the periphery, and surrounding large interior spaces big enough to contain a number of free-standing houses. The streetscape resulting from such buildings would invite Holly Whyte’s sharp criticism were he alive. Long walls of impenetrable concrete, no variation of use or design fronting the sidewalks, a single gated entryway and even interior courtyard distances daunting to the pedestrian or the bicyclist—none of that responds to human scale or to sensible transit.

When the city of Kunming began work on an addition with the superblock plan, the Energy Foundation pointed out to the mayor the likely consequences: greater dependency on automobiles, a grid uncongenial to public transportation and discouraging to pedestrians. He halted work for 30 days while the Foundation developed a new plan. Jane Jacobs would have approved it: short blocks, development organized around bus rapid transit, mixed uses, more public green space, and larger corridors of shaded parks.

Nor is the challenge confined to urban design.  As the Chinese begin to come to terms with carbon emissions and climate change, they face a larger challenge than we do in the United States.  All of China’s new households aspire to have refrigerators and air conditioners, stoves and televisions, and very likely a car. The potential for incremental increases in carbon emissions in enormous. Seen in this light, the carbon reductions China has committed to in its new 5-Year Plan are ambitious and laudable.

As in China, Americans today confront a new imperative to rethink how we live. After I finished my army tour, before going to CEQ, I worked for a group called Urban America. It aimed to further the vision of the City Beautiful Movement, but with a dimension that movement was criticized for overlooking: the dimension of poverty alleviation and civil rights. These became paramount themes in urban policy throughout the late 1960s and 1970s.

Today, we confront another, even more transforming determinant of our lives and culture. Harbingers of climate change are undeniable. It may seem that climate change is last year’s news—forgotten and overtaken by understandable preoccupations with the economy. But inexorably, measurably, it is progressing even as the Congress and the country sleepwalk through it.

One private-sector player that has expressed itself on the costs associated with climate change is the insurance industry. Swiss Re has estimated that if the shore communities of the four U.S. Gulf Coast states choose not to implement adaptation strategies, they could see annual climate change-related damages jump 65 percent a year to $23 billion by 2030. I moderated a panel at the Clinton Global Initiative and asked the then-CEO of Swiss Re to explain his concern about climate change. He said, we recognize that sea level rise is projected to inundate parts of Shanghai where we do business. And do you continue to insure buildings in Shanghai, I asked? “The tall ones,” he said.

We are beginning to see action in industry and state and local governments. Once again, a very promising response is evident in many cities. The foremost among them is Chicago, which under former Mayor Richard Daley considered its changing climate and moved to plan and prepare for it. A one-week heat wave in July 1995 killed 739 people, more than double the death toll from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The city mobilized its leadership and produced a comprehensive and detailed set of prescriptions to guide future development, the Chicago Climate Action Plan. Its assumptions regarding anticipated climate change are simply stunning. As someone who grew up in Illinois, it strikes me that within the lifetime of my grandchildren the place may be unrecognizable.

Consider the forecasts which so shocked Chicago’s city planners. Assuming worldwide carbon emissions continue, Chicago will have summers like the Deep South, with as many as 72 days over 90 degrees by the end of the century. The city averaged 15 such days in the 20th century. Under a high emissions scenario, the city can expect 45 to 85 days per year with temperatures over 95 degrees. By 2070 Chicago could expect 35 percent more precipitation in winter and spring, but 20 percent less in summer and fall. These conditions will have altered the area’s plant hardiness zone to that of Birmingham, Alabama. The city could see heat-related deaths of 1200 per year. Increasing incidents of freezes and thaws will add costs of millions more in road maintenance and repair, and termites previously controlled by Chicago’s winters will dine out on the city’s wooden-framed housing stock.

The policies adopted in the plan are significant. They require water-permeable paving that can catch 80 percent of runoff; greater tree cover that modulates and absorbs a good percentage of rainfall; light-reflecting pavement with rubbery additives that allow expansion without buckling; installation of air conditioning in schools. The city aims to double tree cover to 23 percent, up from 11 percent in 1991; remove 6 of the most common tree species from the arboretum and, as the city plants some 2,200 trees per year, ban the state tree—the white oak—and the Norway maple, substituting swamp white oaks and bald cypress familiar to the Deep South.

These responses to predictable climate change strike me as prudent and manageable. Retrofitting offices over the past few years has saved Chicago $6 million in energy costs. The Plan considers that their new initiatives will save them money. They have been developed by a practical, non-ideological mayor’s administration. Mayor Daley’s Chicago has led the cities in responding to climate change, but other cities, in fact more than 1,000 of them, have signed on to the Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement—among them Seattle and San Francisco, San Antonio and Little Rock, Phoenix and Newark, Los Angeles and Richmond, and Anchorage and Washington, DC. Few cities have gone as far as Chicago, but many, in the words of Melissa Stults, climate director for the mayors’ group, have followed a strategy of “discreetly integrating preparedness into traditional planning efforts.”

This is promising, this is progress. This is how practical leaders do what they can while the country and the world wait for the United States government to make carbon reduction and climate mitigation a priority. And though Chicago’s efforts aim to reduce carbon emissions from their city, their plan necessarily focuses more on adaptation than on mitigation of climate change.

Former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's Task Force on Adaptation, and his Blue Ribbon Task Force on the California Delta—the rivers that flow through Sacramento into San Francisco Bay—on both of which I served, concluded that the incidence of severe storms, the loss of shorelines to wave action and sea-level rise of 55 inches by the century's end, together with an increase in forest fires as temperatures rise just one or two degrees, portend significant changes in the life circumstances of the state's people. For example, such a sea-level rise will inundate 1,100 miles of levees that protect some 150,000 people in the Delta. One member of our task force who had overseen the National Academy of Engineering's after-action review of Hurricane Katrina, Ray Seed, predicted that the coincidence of a major storm and water surge in the Delta would cost more lives than Katrina. This prompted our Delta commissioners to recommend in our report that every new home in the area be required to have a door opening to the roof. We decided against recommending that each new home be required to have a boat in the front yard, which Ray Seed proposed based on the Katrina history where neighbors with boats saved more people than the official rescuers did. Rising sea level will confront states like Florida and Alaska with especially serious decisions regarding relocation, armoring the shorelines, whether to build big levee systems, and so on. It has seemed to me that if Castro were to threaten to take even a small portion of the Florida shoreline compared to what sea-level rise portends, the mobilization of resources to repel the incursion would be limitless. Yet in Florida, as in many parts of the country, mention of climate change or global warming is politically incorrect.

Cities across the country, and especially in the Southwest, will have to rethink water use. Some of them have done it before. Los Angeles, Seattle and San Antonio have added millions of new residents while maintaining water use constant. Not just new roads and bridges and airports may be needed, but elevated airport runways and sewage treatment plants, air-conditioned schools, energy-efficient and sun-reflecting buildings, water catchment and green roofs.

The City Beautiful Movement, early in the last century, was born of a concern to counter the ugliness of a frenzy of urban growth. Its proponents—progressives with standards and a desire to both clean up city governments and improve building design—had a far-ranging impact.

Today, it is time for Americans to unite behind a new cause, the City Sustainable, an effective and galvanizing successor to the City Beautiful Movement. Its stirrings have already begun in Chicago and many other cities. Its demands for reduced water use and greater energy efficiency, for better insulation and green roofs, for reflective paving and climate-appropriate vegetation, and more tree cover and a more congenial environment for pedestrians, bicyclists, and for public transportation—all of this can be accomplished.  In fact, it is being done. Its success may save us from the ideological gridlock in Washington.

I joined Urban America, Inc., right out of planning school because of its mission to modernize and promote the City Beautiful Movement with attention to civil rights and poverty. America needs a revival of the progressive energies and the creative vision that characterized that movement. A moment of vast and transforming change is now underway. The broad lines of that change are generally understood, though their precise character is unpredictable. And their ramifications can be profound.

For America, as we transform and armor our cities against severe floods and extended droughts, against killing heat waves and snap cold spells and winter storms, against water scarcity and stressed power generation, we have choices. We can learn the lessons of successful placemaking and combine them with the imperatives of preparing for a new climate. These are not insuperable challenges.

As I look around America now I am struck by how powerful are the portents of change, and how Americans’ responses to those portents can be so different. All of this will require new urban policies. Our response to climate change is not solely the province of environmental or energy policy. It is very much place-based policy, in the best sense. And it will require a change not just of city planning but of the culture of cities, supported by citizens and all of the wisdom and creativity of the public and private sectors alike. "

In a press release (National Building Museum Awards Vincent Scully Prize to Influential Conservationist William K. Reilly), the National Building Museum noted Reilly's "lifetime work promoting sustainability and design," adding:

Under his leadership, the Environmental Protection Agency increased the national profile of environmental concerns. As president of World Wildlife Fund, he helped to preserve open space and critical habitats around the world. And as a Presidentially-appointed member of the Presidio Trust, he worked to successfully transform this historic property into a national park in the heart of San Francisco.

Online Resources

Full text of William K. Reilly's 2011 Vincent Scully Lecture [PDF]

National Building Museum Awards Vincent Scully Prize to Influential Conservationist William K. Reilly.  Press release (2 November 2011) from the National Building Museum.

 

 

 

 

 

White House Reports on Climate Change Adaptation, as Communities Face Rising Impacts Without National Strategy. WWF Climate Change Blog, 1 November 2011.

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