Bay Area, California —
Welcome back to The Planet You Save, a weekly newsletter on local climate action. I'm Taylor Kate Brown and thanks for reading - it's been encouraging to see so many people opening — and responding — to this work. I shared some of your responses to the train journey newsletter at the end of the newsletter. As always, consider forwarding an email you really liked to someone who's interested and sharing the sign up link.
An event as big — and as hyped up — as the UN climate change conference known as COP is a double-edged sword. There's a lot of attention to global warming within these two weeks, but also a lot of opinions, many just wishful guesses, about what this conference all means. At COP pledges are announced, deals are made, but it's the work that goes into meeting those targets I'm most interested in.
City mayors were among those in attendance this year, and I wanted to take a look at some of those who went, and what their cities are doing.
Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie attended as the representative for the Local Governments for Sustainability group. Des Moines made a net-zero commitment earlier this year, but their interim goals are more interesting: 45% emissions reductions by 2030 and "24/7" 100% renewable energy by 2035. As Dan Gearino from InsideClimate News writes, that makes Des Moines "probably the first city in the United States... to pass a plan that emphasizes a target of relying solely on clean energy around-the-clock,"
The city is buying electric vehicles for its own fleet and pushing for more electric bus transportation, but that renewable energy target will be highly dependent on how fast Des Moines can move its utility, part of Berkshire Hathaway Energy, to zero emissions.
Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, and Miami Mayor Francis Suarez went to COP — as the Florida state government declined. Levine Cava announced Miami-Dade's own net-zero target — and a freshly re-elected Suarez talked to WBUR about why cities are important, the city's new "anti-climate gentrification" fund, and frankly, an odd answer about squaring his love for cryptocurrency and focus on climate action.
Kriseman, who is leaving office a the end of the year, said he had spoken to Biden administration officials about direct climate funding for cities, bypassing state legislatures.
"As mayors, we are really the ones doing the front-line work," he told local station WTSP. "You know, there’s not a whole lot that we’re seeing from the state governments."
Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego was also in Glasgow and told the Arizona Republic she was excited to talk about the city's cool pavement program and other new investments in adaptation efforts. The city recently updated its own climate action plan, which covers the whole city and has a 50% reduction by 2030 target.
But Curbed argues America's most important climate mayor may not been at COP at all - because she's just been elected: Incoming Boston Mayor Michelle Wu has long been an aggressive transit advocate (and uses it herself), including the "Free the T" campaign she ran on:
Many cities, including New York, have co-opted the “Green New Deal” terminology as a way to frame their own climate initiatives. But few of their mayors are willing (or empowered) to make big changes to their local transit systems...For the eight years he’s been in office, Bill de Blasio has talked about climate goals but balked at the necessary reallocations of road space to bus lanes and bike lanes... Anne Hidalgo, who has been mayor of Paris the same length of time, has made transformative changes that have dramatically decreased car use. Too many so-called climate mayors are unable to see the gulf between the transportation policies they propose and whom they’re serving when actually put into practice. Mayor Wu, if she keeps to her principles, will be for the bus — and on the bus.
Have you been following COP at all? What coverage interested you the most? Let me know by replying to this email.
A few weeks ago I asked readers to share their climate questions they felt they should already know or were too embarrassed to ask. Here's our first question:
Does all pollution contribute to climate change, or just certain types? As an environmentalist, what's the best way to think about pollution in general (which may have many negative consequences separate from the climate, e.g. polluted rivers), versus those emissions that directly contribute to our climate crisis?
When we're talking pollution that warms the earth to dangerous levels, we're talking about greenhouse gases (GHGs) emitted through human activities.
There's four major ones when it comes to global warming: Carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and industrial gases like hydrofluorocarbons. Carbon dioxide is by far the most common, but the other three have stronger warming effects. The EPA has a fairly good description of specific sources and human influence on each kind of greenhouse gas, but here's the spoiler alert: a lot of it is burning fossil fuels.
GHGs contribute to the greenhouse effect, which traps some of the energy from the sun in the earth's atmosphere, warming both surface and air. For most of human history, this effect has kept Earth warm enough for a variety of life — including us! — to flourish.
But when it comes to global warming, it's not the presence of GHGs, but the concentration of them that matters. You may have seen references to 350 ppm or 400 ppm. That's referring to the overall concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Carbon dioxide concentrations are historically and seasonally cyclical, but as humans started adding more than the carbon cycle could absorb each year, we've blown way past historical cycles. Last year's annual average is was 412.5 ppm, a new record that we keep on beating.
And here is where the math is so brutal: carbon dioxide lasts for at least a few hundred years in the atmosphere, so even as last year emissions were down, any new emissions are still adding to the overall problem of higher concentrations. (Methane, with a much higher warming potential in the shorter term, but a lifetime of just over a decade in the atmosphere, has been a particular focus this year). We've effectively taken the heating system that keeps our house warm in the winter, set it to 90 degrees Fahrenheit and then broken the thermostat.
To the second question: I don't know if it's the best way, but one of the ways I think about climate pollution and environmental pollution is where it overlaps and where it doesn't.
In the first category are the non-greenhouse effects of greenhouse emissions: breathing in nitrious oxide can aggravate existing respiratory diseases and makes people who live closer to concentrated sources more susceptible to developing asthma and respiratory infections. Coal ash cleanups are among the most contested and expensive public health issue happening in local areas. Chemicals produced through oil refineries can increase cancer risk, especially in neighborhoods that have multiple sources of industrial pollution nearby.
The second category is pollution that's related but where the local impacts are far more immediately damaging. This would include things like oil spills — fossil fuels on their way to being transported elsewhere — or extensive methane leaks from pipes can lead to deadly explosions if ignited.
The third category is pollution that doesn't have a greenhouse gas connection. This might be health risks from another type of nearby industrial plant, contamination concerns from the storage of waste left over from running nuclear plants or things like lead water pipes making drinking water dangerous.
Do you have a question about climate change you're too embarrassed to ask? Let me know and I'll answer it. Anonymity - for this at least — guaranteed.
My last newsletter on my cross-country train journey went on a policy detour and readers had some thoughts:
Eric Blom has used already used trains and buses across the upper Midwest and says he'd been interested in better service from Indiana to places like Minneapolis, Detroit and Cincinnati. "Your point about arriving downtown in cities rung true with me," he said. "That is a huge benefit of buses and trains." Blom also thinks adding good wifi on longer-trains would reduce the expectation to arrive at plane travel speed.
Alyssa Harad thinks the real reason there isn't a bigger train build out in the U.S. is fear of how that would change politics in isolated parts of vast states like Texas.
I’ve lived in Austin since 1994 and I firmly believe that the reason we don’t have decent train service in Texas —especially train service that would make it easier for people to travel from far West Texas and the Rio Grande Valley to the capital and other major cities— is that it would dramatically change the politics of the state... isolation is key to many of the terrible things that happen here—limited abortion access, concentration camps along the border and the culture of Border Patrol specific to Texas... of course the oil lobby is VIP number one here, but underlying all that is the need for the GOP to keep the corners of the state under their control. Linking up our four big cities would be great, especially if paired with an investment in public transit within the cities... but the real shit will happen when someone from El Paso can take a high speed train to Austin and return the same day.
Mike Kruger, who is the CEO of the Colorado Solar & Storage Association, says he's been making the two-hour drive each way between Denver and Pueblo recently. He'd love to take a train instead, but it's one of several transit projects in the state that have been promised, but delayed. "The current plan to connect Denver to Pueblo by train is a long time away. They just figured out how to pay for it" (NB: This particular plan would eventually connect Colorado's entire Front Range via train)