The recent United Nations global summit meeting on climate change has disappointed many climate policy advocates. According to the New York Times, in many of the speeches at the summit, presidents and prime ministers spoke with hefty promises about the importance of confronting the problem for future generations. However, the Times noted that when it came down to the nuts-and-bolts promises of what they were prepared to do in the next decade, experts and analysts were disappointed that there were no bold new proposals, particularly from the United States.
While the Obama administration seems to consider tackling climate change a much higher priority than the preceeding administration did, the lack of concrete commitment from the federal government during these talks may speak to the President’s awareness of just how difficult it will be to pass a strong climate bill this year. Getting Congress and the Senate to understand and act on the issue in proportion to its seriousness seems a lost cause. As much as many planet lovers (ie. lovers of life on earth as we know it) would like to see Obama save the day in cape and tights, we must realize the role that structuring our own communities can play in making lower global emissions a reality.
In the United States, per capita emissions in dense urban centers are a fraction of what they are in sprawling suburbs. With the world’s population rapidly migrating towards cities, we have a great opportunity to make sure that the urban experience is one that can happen without a personal automobile. As the megacities of South America and South East Asia absorb more people into their already teeming boundaries, a car for every person becomes a frightening thought. It would not only render lower per capita carbon emissions a ridiculous notion, but also would mean severe traffic and air pollution for citizens around the world.
When climate talks resume in Copenhagen in December, we can be sure that developing countries will look to the actions of industrial nations to determine their seriousness in addressing climate change. Per capita emissions will be a big piece of this conversation. Undoubtedly our legislators will have to step up to the plate to achieve the kind of emissions reductions that are needed. However, we don’t have to wait for our legislators to act in order to create the kind of dense urban communities that will reduce emmissions per citizen to the levels needed for a stable climate. Such action sends a message to developing nations about what kind of development can work for them. If the developed world cannot achieve lower per capita emissions, we will fail in convincing developing countries that there is any pathway out of poverty beyond jammed freeways and urban sprawl.