“Global Warming, Local Struggles: A Year after the US signals Paris Agreement Withdrawal”
One year ago — on June 1, 2017 — President Trump announced that the United States would seek to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. While the US can’t leave the climate deal until 2020, the aporia created has effectively made new space for unprecedented meaningful, democratic, and localized action to curb greenhouse gas emissions. With the “C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group” initiative providing means for coordinating climate change mitigation work between local municipalities on a global scale, the opportunity for participatory citizenries to enact necessary change has never been greater, even as climate-related precarity has never been higher. I believe in the potential of this work because I was in Paris when it started.
The timing of the withdrawal announcement was, for me, curious. The same day I was slated to give a guest lecture for an undergraduate course on “Art & Ecology.” I was invited to speak about my time in France during the COP21 Climate Summit. While in Paris, I studied public art produced for the ArtCOP21 festival. I wanted to understand the convergence between the exhibition of public art in cities and the development of global climate policy. Much of what I saw — like Olafur Eliasson’s Ice Watch Paris, which featured pieces of icebergs arranged in a melting clock-like formation in front of the Panthéon, crypt of the nation — struck me as profound. What I learned while engaging with installation art throughout the city informed what I told the students the same day that the U.S. signaled its intent to withdraw from the Paris Agreement: all was not lost.
Change is possible. Action can become local. Tactics can become municipal, realizable primarily through citizenries engaged in urban public space.
During my work on the festival as a researcher, I was pulled into the COP21 programming itself. The Maire de Paris partnered with Bloomberg Philanthropies to host the “Sommet des Élus Locaux pour Le Climat” — Summit for Local Elected Leaders — at the Hôtel de Ville. The event called for delegates representing global “youth” from each continent. As a resident at the Fondation des États-Unis, I was asked to speak as the North American representative. Primarily convening mayors, the summit illuminated city-based initiatives in curbing greenhouse gas emissions. Politicians including Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles and Mayor Ada Colau of Barcelona discussed the solutions they had sought in the perceived absence of certain binding cooperation at the national and international levels. Colau was unusually pointed, announcing that the Catalan capital would reduce greenhouse gas emissions 40% below 2005 levels by 2030. The message was clear, and the summit was successful. In the flux of international consensus for action on climate change, cities have the tools, speed, capital, and fluidity to advance meaningful progress.
Since 2015, it has been cities that have been at the vanguard of cutting greenhouse gas emissions across both the Global North and Global South. Rio de Janeiro is on track to become carbon-neutral by 2050. New York City began implementing a plan that introduces single-stream recycling and waste management systems that can divert all organic waste from landfills by 2019. It is also expanding its carbon-neutral transportation options; the City might achieve 80% reduction in carbon-related pollution ahead of 2050. As large populations elect progressive leaders committed to sound environmental policy and development, significant action on climate change becomes not just possible but inevitable, even in the face of massive and moneyed opposition at the national and multinational levels.
None of this is to say that vigorous and, at times, oppositional debate and engagement with city-based leadership will not be necessary. The benefits of carbon-mitigated and environmentally-revitalized cities must be designed for the wellbeing of the many, not the enrichment of the few. One needs only to look at the struggle over the $1-billion Los Angeles River project undertaken by the municipal government of Mayor Garcetti. Upon news of the Frank Gehry-led development, median prices in the adjacent Elysian Valley neighborhood jumped. Pressure from local groups has led the mayor’s office to create a “River Benefits Fund,” in part to provide financing to sustain affordable housing as a hedge against gentrification. New bike-commuting corridors should contribute directly to the wellbeing of the communities and neighborhoods in which they appear, as much as increasing numbers of commuting cyclists on paths and not roads. Public engagement and good-faith city planning in LA might act as a template for similar urban developments moving forward.
In the end, I remain optimistic. Communities of climate action will be effective in achieving neccessary reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, essential public investment in the new environmentally-oriented designs of cities will continue, and the development of more sustainable and interconnected climate futures will result. New ecological hegemonies of localized communities networked and working in solidarity and singularity are here. The results of their work are on the horizon.