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Grand Rapids and Global Warming

February 10, 2011

Last Saturday during his State of the City address, Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell did what some politicians won’t do…..he acknowledged that global warming is a serious problem.

The Mayor states, “The earth’s temperature has already increased and will continue to

rise.” Heartwell went on to raise important questions about the effects of global warming and how the city should respond:

“First, higher temperature means increased evaporation and more rainfall.  Here are the questions for the city:

  • Can our storm water management systems handle this increased precipitation?
  • Are we prepared for increasing accumulations of snow (yes, global warming means greater snow precipitation over a shorter season, counter-intuitive as that may seem)?
  • Are there areas of the city that will become more susceptible to flooding and what can we do to protect those neighborhoods?

Second, climate change translates into extreme heat events:

  • Who are the vulnerable people in Grand Rapids when temperatures push toward 100 degrees and stay there for a week or more?
  • How do we find them to protect them?
  • What will the impact be on our power grid when tens of thousands of air conditioning units are sucking up power?
  • How will our roads handle the heat?

Third, climate change translates into extreme weather events.  More storms, high winds, and tornados:

  • Are we equipped to recover from a major storm?
  • How quickly can we clear major roads, repair damaged power infrastructure, and respond to emergency medical demands?
  • Do we have a rapid response system to re-house people displaced through storm damage?
  • How about reaching those isolated and without services?”

Taking these kinds of public positions shows that Heartwell is willing to take some risks, considering the current level of denial that exists in the US around the issue of global warming. Even in this community there have been people who have taken a swipe at the Mayor for his public stance on global warming.

The most recent person to criticize Mayor Heartwell is WOOD TV 8 meteorologist Bill Steffen. Steffen said on a recent blog post, “Global temperature, which was well above average both here in G.R. and globally in 2010 because of the recent El Nino, has now fallen to slightly below average. So, it’s very likely that 2011 will be cooler than 2010 both globally and here in G.R.” This claim by Steffen flies in the face of what many scientists and scientific organizations are saying, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which claim that 2010 has been the hottest year on record for the globe. This is also the conclusion of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the international body of scientists, which believe that for humans to survive we need to reduce current carbon emission levels by 80% before 2050.

Grand Rapids Plan for Reducing Carbon Emissions

However, when one reads what the Mayor has proposed to reduce carbon emissions it raises a whole different set of questions. Heartwell stated that he is committed to planting more trees throughout the city, supporting the May 2011 Transit Millage, have energy audits in 1,500 homes in the next year and see investment to reduce energy consumption in the privately owned buildings in downtown Grand Rapids.

Each of these stated goals are in some ways a step in the right direction and the Mayor should be applauded. However, if we are going to be honest about the need to have global reduction of the current levels of carbon emissions by 80% no later than 2050, these proposals at the local level are woefully inadequate.

First, while improving the mass transit system in this community is always a welcomed action the majority of people still commute to work and transport themselves in cars and trucks at an alarming rate. Grand Rapids, like most US cities, is not designed to facilitate people moving about on foot and it is still a highly dangerous city to be riding bicycle in.

The dependency that most area residents have on cars results in an ongoing battle for more parking space, which contributes to ecological destruction and climate change. It also contributes to air and water pollution and a host of other social costs, such as insurance costs, injuries and deaths from traffic accidents. If we are serious about meeting the goal of 80% carbon reduction then incremental mass transit improvements will not be adequate.

Second, planting more trees throughout the city is extremely important, but the proposed number is not enough in terms of having adequate green space within the city. We need to not only plant more trees, but remove significant amounts of the existing concrete and asphalt which covers the soil. An aggressive and massive shift to urban agriculture would be necessary to not only reduce carbon emissions locally it would provide people with more fresh food, employment opportunities and ways to reduce their budget needs. Massive urban agriculture would especially be of benefit in poor neighborhoods of color, all of which are faced with limited access to healthy and fresh foods where they live.

Third, making buildings more energy efficient is important in that is can reduce our levels of fossil fuels. However, I don’t understand why the Mayor wants to assist the privately owned downtown property owners in reducing energy consumption. Are we always told that the private sector wants the government to stay out of their affairs? More importantly, just saying you want to reduce the energy consumption in the building in downtown Grand Rapids avoid having any discussion about what happens in those buildings and their connection to an economic system that is antithetical to reducing carbon emissions.

Some of those privately owned buildings house large commercial banks, many of which invest in economic practices that contribute to global warming. There are also brokerage firms, PR firms, law offices and a whole host of other business entities that are committed to promoting and expanding Capitalist growth that is in no way committed to reducing carbon emissions. You also have entities like the Acton Institute, a religious organization which has received significant amounts of funding from Exxon/Mobil to deny global warming is a problem.

The Problem is Bigger Than Grand Rapids

However, let’s just say for the sake of argument that Grand Rapids would be able to achieve an 80% reduction of carbon emissions by 2050. It won’t mean much if the rest of the world doesn’t do the same.

Certainly, we only have immediate control over what happens in our own bioregion, but we cannot not afford to ignore what role the people and institutions of Grand Rapids play in affecting the rest of the world.

One of the largest contributing factors to global warming is global militarism, with the US being the main culprit in producing, selling and tracking in weapons. If we are serious about reducing global carbon emissions, then we must connect our ecological efforts to anti-war and anti-militarism efforts. (See Barry Sander’s book, Green Zone: The Environmental Costs of Militarism.)

As of today, the total amount of money that has left this community to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is over $602 million dollars according to the National Priorities Project. Imagine if that money stayed in this community and was used for efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

However, an even bigger challenge is the need to radically restructure our economic system in such a way that is truly sustainable. We cannot afford to piece meal the reduction of carbon emissions or apply change in ways that do not seriously address systemic change. This of course means that it will not be easy, but we are talking about the future of humanity and unless we are willing to have serious conversation followed by serious action then I don’t see how we can avoid major catastrophe.

 

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Dave permalink
    February 10, 2011 8:23 pm

    I think that a lot of the adaptation and mitigation that will happen over the next decade will be done at the local and regional level, so I’m glad that George is looking at the future with eyes wide open. A vital urban core is critical in reducing greenhouse emissions, but I would be a bit leery about large scale agriculture in the city, with all of the possible ground contaminants. Also, those capitalists would love to make money saving the planet, and some already are. We have a perverse tax code and accountant system that ignores many of the costs of current business practices, creating many tragedies on the commons.

  2. February 10, 2011 8:26 pm

    Dave, I agree that ground contaminants is an issue, but that doesn’t preclude raised beds and we could generate a whole lot more organic matter if the city had an aggressive composting policy. I think Cuba has done some amazing things with urban ag, so I think it could be explored.

  3. Dave permalink
    February 10, 2011 8:39 pm

    I am sure it can be done, I just want to make sure it is done right.

  4. February 10, 2011 8:46 pm

    absolutely…….

  5. December 13, 2011 11:49 am

    Perfect answer! That ralely gets to the heart of it!

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