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Bloomberg's Climate Challenge
The former New York City mayor, now a U.N. special envoy, talks about the vital role our cities play in the climate fight with one of the nation's foremost environmental journalists.

Michael R. Bloomberg has been one of the most vocal leaders, at any level of government, when it comes to sounding the alarm about what climate change is doing, and will continue to do, to our planet—including exposing the deep vulnerability that human communities face from climate extremes and coastal flooding. As the mayor of New York City during Hurricane Sandy, he was tasked with handling not just one but two disasters of epic proportions: the hurricane itself, which caused hundreds of deaths and cost the city billions in damages, and the aftermath, in which it became abundantly clear that New York—for all of its wealth and resilience—was sorely unprepared for the next climate change-related event that is, inevitably, coming its way.

Next week New York will host hundreds of thousands of concerned global citizens for Sunday’s People’s Climate March, followed by a special United Nations Climate Summit, where Bloomberg, recently named U.N. special envoy for cities and climate change, will address world leaders on the topic of cities and resilience. OnEarth asked me to interview the former mayor for its upcoming issue on cities and climate change, which will be published in October. Few individuals are better equipped to discuss the particular challenges that cities now face in our new, climate-altered reality—or, for that matter, the many opportunities cities can capitalize on as they marshal their unique energies to meet that reality head-on.

Andrew Revkin: On the energy and resilience fronts, it's pretty clear that the challenges facing mature, developed-nation cities like New York or London are different from the ones being faced by fast-growing metropolises in developing nations—like Ho Chi Minh City or Guangzhou. As your administration found, for instance, 80 percent of the buildings in New York City today will still be in use in 2050, meaning that a push for energy thrift is largely one of retrofitting. In Asia and Africa, by comparison, much of the urban infrastructure has yet to be built, and there may be less capital and capacity for making energy-smart investments.

What are the most glaring opportunities for sharp cuts in fossil-generated energy in these two situations?

Michael Bloomberg: In fast-growing cities that are still taking shape, smart city planning can make a big difference. Cities can build sustainability into their fabric as they grow. They can incorporate energy-efficient building practices from the beginning. They can embrace density and mass transit, instead of sprawl and highways. It’s true that some of these policies require significant up-front investments, but they pay off in the long run by lowering energy costs, improving public health, and making a city more attractive to people—who, in turn, help attract investment. Creating a place people want to live in is the best way to create a city businesses want to invest in.

For the most part, older big cities have two main areas they can focus on to significantly reduce emissions: buildings and transportation. On the buildings side, retrofits can make a big difference. So can checking and adjusting a building’s systems to make sure they are working as efficiently and effectively as they should be. This was one of the single most effective things we did to reduce New York’s carbon footprint. On the transportation side, expanding mass transit to reduce congestion is critically important, and by “mass transit,” I mean anything from subways and commuter rails to buses and bikes. Electric vehicles also represent a big opportunity—both private and city-owned vehicles. Cities can help build out the infrastructure to speed the transition, which is also something we did in New York.

AR: As for resilience in the face of rising seas and storm surges, you gave a creditable speech on climate-change adaptation in your final year in office, but it had a classic no retreattheme, centering on this line:

“[A]s New Yorkers, we cannot and will not abandon our waterfront.

It’s one of our greatest assets. We must protect it, not retreat from it.”

Nearly all the scientists and engineers I've interviewed in 25 years of writing on global warming see the hardening of shorelines as an inevitable failure, given the forecast of centuries of rising seas. At the same time, I recognize there's no way—yet—that a mayor could stay in office with a campaign saying, “We will ____ retreat,” regardless of what adverb filled that gap (for example, “smartly”).

Do you think it's possible to create a political environment that truly reflects our coastal realities in the coming decades?

MB: Remember, four out of every five New York City residents live on an island. Manhattan is entirely surrounded by water. So is Staten Island. Brooklyn and Queens are on an island. And the Bronx is surrounded by water on three sides. So I was stating what should be obvious: We’re a waterfront city, and we must learn to live with rising sea levels.

And we can. If you look at what happened during Sandy, buildings built according to modern, higher construction standards fared far better than those that weren’t. Something like 95 percent of the buildings destroyed or severely damaged during Sandy were built more than 50 years ago, before modern building code standards. New infrastructure—including parks we built along the waterfront that took climate risks into account—suffered relatively little damage, or even no damage.

The future of waterfront cities, whether it’s New York or Miami, or anywhere else—and most of the world’s major cities are coastal ones—depends on our ability to adapt to rising sea levels and climate change. You can’t pick up Manhattan and move it inland, but you can adopt policies that better protect it from storms.

AR: You’ve spoken of the capacity of mayors to lead on climate change because they have executive powers, but when it comes to energy, no city is an island (even those, like New York, that are mostly on islands). Power is mostly obtained through a grid—from fossil, nuclear, renewable, or other sources—and land is at a premium, so it’s hard to build energy-generation capacity within city boundaries. What are some of the least-appreciated ways in which executive power, exercised at the city level, can make a difference on a global problem like the atmospheric buildup of greenhouse gases?

MB: Even if cities don’t generate their own energy, mayors do have some control over how cities use energy. That includes regulating the way energy gets used in buildings. Mayors can mandate a certain level of energy efficiency, then they can create programs to help building owners get there. In New York, we banned the most polluting kinds of heating fuel, and that not only shrunk our carbon footprint, but it also helped clean our air. New York City’s air is cleaner now than it’s been in 50 years. Smart climate-change policies are also smart public-health policies, and the more we can get people to understand that—and to see that the benefits of carbon-reduction policies are immediate—the more success we’ll have fighting climate change.

Mayors can also change the ways city streets are used, even when the mayors don’t control transportation systems directly. They can make them safer for pedestrians and bicyclists, which helps make walking or biking a viable alternative to driving. They can create dedicated lanes for buses, which make them a more attractive alternative to driving. And they can redirect traffic in ways that reduce congestion. We took all those steps in New York, and we also planted more than 800,000 trees in partnership with a group Bette Midler runs. Those trees are not only carbon dioxide sinks, they also make the city a more attractive place to live.

Mayors can also improve the energy efficiency of city services. In New York, we set a goal of reducing carbon emissions from city operations by 30 percent by 2017—then we challenged members of the private sector to match that goal. Many cities have had success converting their municipal fleets to electric and hybrid, including New York, which has the biggest city fleet in the nation.

Cities can also make government operations more efficient in general. Around the world, garbage is handled at the municipal level. For many growing cities in less wealthy countries, waste is a big emitter of methane and other greenhouse gases. Those cities can improve the way that waste is collected and processed. A lot of those places, in fact, are now converting waste at their landfills into clean energy. Mayors can help reduce waste through recycling and composting, and they can ensure that landfill gases are captured and reused. We did all those things in New York.

AR: In your travels to other cities—either in the United States or overseas—what specific innovations that are related to sustainable energy menus or resilience have most excited you? I’ll prime the pump with two examples from Asia: Kuala Lumpur’s remarkable, privately-financed SMART storm-water drainage system that doubles as a toll tunnel under the city’s congested core, and Seoul’s Cheonggyecheon project, which restored a historic stream that had been hidden under highway overpasses for decades.

MB: Let me give you another example. Earlier this year I was in Medellín, Colombia, which built a cable car to connect poor communities in the hills above the city to the business district where the jobs and services are. The project gets attention for helping drive down unemployment and crime. But it also deserves attention as a way to accommodate growth and to create opportunity without putting a lot more carbon into the atmosphere. The city could have invested in more traditional transportation—more roads and cars—but that would have had a negative impact on the air and on the city’s carbon footprint, and it wouldn’t have proven anywhere near as positive a benefit for the poor. They chose a much smarter solution.

AR: One of the least appreciated aspects of urban life that offers real promise in cutting climate change risks is the ability to create a new generation of energy and climate problem solvers within city schools at all levels. In the Bronx earlier this year, I was thrilled to tag along with students on a “field trip” to the boiler room at the public High School for Energy and Technology, where the custodian and teachers revealed the energy choices that make a school—or any other building—run.

Boiler room at High School for Energy and Technology

What innovations in education have you witnessed that you feel will give cities, and society more generally, the capacity to thrive in this changing environment?

MB: A great example with a similar focus to the one you’ve just described is Energy Tech, one of the six-year high schools we created to connect students directly to 21st-century industries. We teamed up with Con Ed, National Grid, and CUNY [City University of New York] to create it. The kids who go there get to take college-level classes and get hands-on internship experience at two of the biggest energy-utility companies in the nation, where they’ll be exposed to many of the major challenges surrounding energy and climate. After six years, they graduate with an associate’s degree, as well as a high-school diploma. Then they can decide whether they want to continue with college or enter the workforce.

A high-school diploma is no longer the ticket into the middle class that it was when I was growing up. We have to give students the skills the global economy demands, and the cities that do the best job of that will be well-positioned to grow and thrive.

AR: Ultimately, the fact that human beings share the earth’s atmosphere makes global warming a particularly daunting challenge. As China moves to clean its urban air by shutting down coal plants in many cities, some coal plants are responding by simply moving out of town. While this will benefit urban air quality significantly, experts worry there will be little climate benefit from such energy shifts. What can urban communities, and especially urban leaders, do to build a truly global commitment to limiting emissions in a world that clearly needs more energy services?

MB: Some of China’s most important economic engines are on its coasts. Shenzen and Guangzhou face very serious economic risks from climate change. The experts are right: Shifting the geography of emissions does nothing to reduce the risks those cities face; it just kicks the can down the road. Most mayors—in China and around the world—recognize this. And they’re not just crossing their fingers and hoping for the best. They’re doing things to reduce emissions and adapt to risks, and they’re also nudging their national governments to do more. Mayors can’t do it all alone, but they can lead by example—and they can help show national leaders just how much is at stake for their cities.

AR: I wrote a while back that the U.N.’s laudable mission of developing goals, which have mostly been aimed at ending deep poverty and its attendant ills, might now need to be expanded such that new goals were being developed for, and pursued by, the world’s most prosperous communities as well. (The piece was titled “Do the Top Billion Need New Goals?”) Clearly, we’ll never live in a world where everybody on the planet occupies some happy median, but nevertheless, do you similarly believe we need to embrace a new definition of “success” in this coming century of planetary constraints?

MB: The greatest engine for reducing poverty and disease has been capitalism, and the rise in living standards that has accompanied it. We shouldn’t turn our back on that. And at the same time, as our technology advances, our method of producing and consuming things is becoming more efficient, and it will continue to. So we don’t have to choose between raising living standards and saving the planet. In New York City, we were able to create a record number of jobs while also driving down our carbon footprint by 19 percent. Between 2005 and 2013, the city’s population grew by about a quarter-million people—but our overall energy consumption stayed essentially the same. Progress like this is happening in cities all around the world, and as cities learn which policies and technologies are most effective, their progress is accelerating. The world’s cities are growing fast. And that’s a good thing for our planet.

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image of Andrew Revkin
Andrew Revkin is a long-time environmental reporter for the New York Times who now blogs at Dot Earth. He is also a senior fellow for environmental understanding at Pace University. MORE STORIES ➔