Climate report: lives are at stake. Urbanism matters now more than ever.

Darin Givens
Nov 24, 2018 · 5 min read

To be clear, the CNN article titled “Climate change will shrink US economy and kill thousands” is based on an actual government report and is not hyperbole.

The U.S. Global Change Research Program, which created the report, was established by the senior Bush administration in 1989 and it’s been collecting/analyzing climate data since then. The dire warnings inside are not things that can be written off as liberal-biased pseudo science. They’re very real, and there are clear connections between the findings, how our urban places are shaped, and how we move around in them.

Here’s a quote from the report:

Coming from the US Global Change Research Program, a team of 13 federal agencies, the Fourth National Climate Assessment was put together with the help of 1,000 people, including 300 leading scientists, roughly half from outside the government.

It's the second of two volumes. The first, released in November 2017, concluded that there is "no convincing alternative explanation" for the changing climate other than "human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases."

There are many startling findings inside, but I want to pull out two that emphasize the time crunch:

  1. Climate-related deaths will be apparent in parts of the world by 2050.
  2. The effect on the U.S. population will be seen via thousands of premature deaths annually, as early as 2090.

If that doesn’t grab your attention, I don’t know what will. The human activities that are contributing to this dire situation involve things that we’re doing (and not doing) in cities like Atlanta. We’re already playing a part in the the problem — it’s time for us to play a major role in the fix.

Accept this as real, stop squabbling, and move to action

The crucial takeaway is that, since human activities have helped cause the problem, human activities can be part of a solution. Every local policy in Atlanta and other cities that relates to C02 (vehicles are currently the biggest producer of it in the U.S.) is urgently important as of today, with no room for error.

No more petty arguments about a “war on cars.” Cars have won a war on us and it’s time to fight back.

Every local policy that relates to the preservation of true, natural forests (a major study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last year found that large healthy forests, as opposed to backyard trees, help to curb climate change) – and to the protection of them from urban sprawl – is crucial now.

No more squabbling about how many people might prefer exurbs as a neighborhood choice and how we should respect that preference with new construction permits. That’s not a valid argument in 2018, not with lives at stake.

“Think globally, act locally” has never meant so much as it does today, and all of our voices matter.

In the Atlanta region, car-centric places have higher per-household carbon footprints

To help bring urbanism’s connection to climate goals home to Atlanta, let’s turn to this interactive map at the Cool Climate Network site that lets you see the variation in carbon footprints across the US, by Zip Code. The map coincides with a paper from University of California, Berkeley researchers that explores the way suburbanization undermines the greenhouse gas benefits of population density.

Above, I’ve created an image that shows the map’s visualization of Metro Atlanta — I’ve overlaid the interstates and city names so that it’s a little easier to read. The red zip codes are bigger per-household producers of greenhouse gas emissions.

Here’s a little info about how the data was gathered, from the site:

Using national household surveys, we developed econometric models of demand for energy, transportation, food, goods, and services that were used to derive average household carbon footprints.

As you can see in the Atlanta image, the ‘greenest’ zip codes are ones in and around the city center — places with the most transit service and the most density in walkable forms, with jobs and amenities nearby — whereas the suburbs, with their form that demand more car use, are the reddest. There’s also an interesting economic element in the mix: in central cities, population density lowers carbon footprints, regardless of income.

The suburbs (which account for nearly 50% of the U.S. population), are not reducing vehicle emissions sufficiently. People still travel long distances to reach central cities, or to travel within large suburban areas.

Geography is not to blame here. The suburbs have no topographic disadvantage with walkability. This is completely about the way places are built.

Also of note: there are faults near the city center. As you can see in that dark red area in the northwestern part part of the ITP (Inside the Perimeter of I-285) circle, there’s a big carbon-producing monster in intown Atlanta — roughly, this is the West Buckhead neighborhood which is filled with large, luxurious homes in a car-centric form.

In most of the redder areas, it’s safe to assume the culprits to be:

  • larger houses (more energy used to heat and cool),
  • fewer apartments (multifamily structures use less energy due to the lower heat/cool loss by way of shared walls),
  • more car driving to jobs and destinations

…which all equals a larger carbon footprint. The answer is obviously focusing new development in a more sustainable pattern, with an eye on generating new trips by walking, cycling, and transit as population grows (and all predictions show that Atlanta population will continue to rise).

Two things to end now:

1. Car-dependent, forest-damaging urban sprawl.
2. Anything that causes a net increase in car trips, while undermining the ability of greener mobility types to compete.

We can do this. Political will for bold change is not a static resource. Political will is perception, and that can shift faster than you may think.

Darin Givens

Written by

ThreadATL co-founder: || Advocacy for good urbanism in Atlanta || atlurbanist -at-

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