Darker winters and blazing heatwaves, higher floods and months without rain. It’s undeniable that our climate is changing. But some American cities are lagging behind; only 59 percent have a mitigation plan, the lowest rate for any global region.
There are are bright spots, however, as some municipalities are adapting with the weather’s fluctuations — and their early efforts are showing results. Last year, for the the first time on record, the global economy grew without an accompanying rise in carbon dioxide emissions. Cleaner energy sources and conservation are proving more effective than even most experts predicted.
Here are several American projects leading the way into a new century of climate consciousness.
New York City
The largest metropolitan region — the Tri-state Area, which consists of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut and is home to nearly 20.1 million Americans — found itself taken off-guard by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The devastating, 13.88-foot storm surge flooded the city, shuttering the subways and leaving the New York Stock Exchange, along with most of Lower Manhattan, dark for several days. One hundred and six people died along the East Coast, and thousands were displaced from their homes. Spurred into action, the Big Apple took immediate measures to stave off destruction from another nor’easter. A few days after, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said, “Our climate is changing. And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it may be — given the devastation it is wreaking — should be enough to compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.”
Following suit from Southern cities like Galveston, Texas, and Miami, which have built storm barriers and restored wetlands, The City That Never Sleeps proposed a $20 billion, 430-page plan to protect its coastline. A central aspect involves beautifying neighborhoods with miles of parkland wrapping around the island, placing some buffer between city and sea. Offshore, oyster beds could break the storm surges, an innovation Kate Orff, a Columbia University architecture professor, calls “oyster-tecture” or “living breakwaters.” She was awarded a $60 million grant by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to plant millions of pearl-producers off Staten Island. The artificial reef is bringing biodiversity back to New York’s harbor and using the water as an advantage before the next storm strikes.
From the 1871 inferno that burned 3.3 square miles to the 1979 airline flight that crashed seconds after takeoff from O’Hare International Airport, Chicago has been no stranger to its own tragic disasters. But the Second City is taking proactive measures to prevent the next climate change crisis. As part of the Chicago Climate Action Plan started by Mayor Richard M. Daley in 2008, the city is preparing for hotter heat waves and wetter downpours. Researchers have studied ways to combat the “urban heat island” effect, a phenomenon that can increase temperatures by as much as 10 degrees during already scorching summers. In response, the city council passed ordinances requiring more trees in and around empty parking lots as well as reflective covers on most roofs. And at City Hall, landscapers planted nearly 20,000 plants in a rooftop garden.
When it comes to preventing floods, Chicago is once again at the forefront. Almost all public alleyways (and in some districts, concrete sidewalks) have been replaced with pervious pavement, concrete mixed with fine sand that enables water to flow straight through. Under heavy traffic, this paving deteriorates faster than normal, but it also reduces stormwater runoff into the city sewer system by 80 percent, preventing flooding and pesky potholes. Rain or shine, the Windy City’s ready.
El Paso, Texas
The pipes in this Southern city were running dry after years of drought, so researchers turned to another source: already-used water. Faced with an arid climate in the mountains along the border, El Paso launched the nation’s largest potable-reuse program. Derided by some critics as “toilet to tap,” the technology can seem icky, but most city residents were more worried about running out of water. “In an area where it doesn’t rain you have to explore every viable option, and that’s a viable option,” one resident said at a recent public meeting. While there are some worries about chemicals being poured down the drain, most experts say it’s completely safe since the water’s sent through a body of water, like a lake or aquifer, and then purified an additional time before being mixed in with the regular drinking water supply. The $82 million technology will be fully functional in 2018.
Los Angeles
This sprawling metropolis is far from the City of Lights, but it’s trying to emulate its European counterparts. Notorious for smog and light pollution dimming out the night sky across Southern California flatland, L.A. has established itself as the definitive leader in smart street lighting, drastically cutting its carbon emissions. In concert with the Clinton Climate Initiative, the city has replaced 157,000 lampposts, more than two-thirds of the total stock. The lights, which used to emit an orange glow from high-pressure sodium vapor, will now be powered by brighter, white light-emitting diodes, or LEDs.
The city has cut energy costs from lighting by 63.1 percent and is saving $8.3 million annually, according to recent figures. To put it another way, by changing out all the bulbs burning through the night, L.A. cut down 94.3 gigawatt-hours — the equivalent power of four dozen Hoover Dams. “It’s a shining example of how green technology can be both environmentally responsible and cost-effective,” says Ed Ebrahimian, the director of the Street Lighting Bureau. Even better? It’s making streets brighter and safer at night: overnight incidents like vehicle theft, theft and vandalism declined by nine percent.
Honolulu, Hawaii
Not only are its residents enjoying the constant sunshine, they’re also harnessing it for their electricity. The most populous city in the Hawaiian chain, Honolulu also claims the country’s highest per capita rate of homes outfitted with photovoltaic panels, with solar power being generated on at least 10 percent of rooftops.
Because much of Honolulu’s power currently comes from burning pricey diesel fuel, the savings from launching one’s own power source attracted many customers, so many in fact that the local utility fought to cap the energy customers could sell back to the grid. Lawmakers ensured solar power would continue to thrive by removing any caps. Last month, in a 74 to 2 vote, they approved a long-term plan that will have Hawaii running entirely on renewable energy by 2045.”Our state is spending $3 [billion] to $5 billion annually on importing dirty, fossil fuels, which is not good for the environment, our future sustainability, or our pocket books,” says Sen. Mike Gabbard, the bill’s sponsor. “Our islands are blessed with abundant, renewable energy. We should be using these resources for the benefit of our people.”