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Book Review: Why cities, not states, must take the lead in fighting climate change

Empowered by concerned citizens, cities have the energy and the resolve to achieve environmental sustainability.

News channels are vying for ever-shrinking TV audiences with powerful visuals and aggressive story lines. We can follow breaking stories as they happen on our smartphones but is this intense focus on the moment making us lose our sense of perspective? We are forgetting our priorities and are seemingly unaware that human survival is at stake. Inequality, a lack of opportunities and poverty are triggering social unrest, leading to oppression, wars, genocide and massive migration.
Climate-focused scientists agree that global warming and climate change are issues that should be addressed at the topmost levels of government and in the public forum. Yet most of us believe that the consequences of climate changes are too far off to bear any real impact. Moreover, the countries which govern the planet have been conspicuously ineffective in addressing this looming environmental crisis.
What is the problem? Why is the decision making process so slow? Why is there such an acute lack of environmental awareness? Is it that people have become too self-centered and narcissistic to care about the common good of our planet?
“The science is clear but the politics are decisive,” claims author Benjamin R. Barber in his book “Cool Cities: Urban Sovereignty and the Fix for Global Warming.” He believes that politics — the realm of human will, human interest, human power and human action — is the arena in which we make collective decisions to deal with the public consequences of our private actions.
Our planet has entered a new geological era which environmentalist Bill McKibben has coined as the Anthropocene era. This era began with the industrial revolution and it is characterized by a blatant disregard for nature in the name of private interests. The Anthropocene era refers to Earth’s most recent geologic time period, an era during which man has become the major factor causing planetary change. Chris Rapley, a scientist at University College London explains that since the planet is our life support, “we are essentially the crew of a largish spaceship and interference with its functioning at this level and on this scale is highly significant. The shift into the Anthropocene tells us that we are playing with fire, a potentially reckless mode of behavior which we are likely to come to regret unless we get a grip on the situation.”
Nation states have failed to adequately address the environmental crisis which is threatening the sustainability of Earth. The author convincingly argues that traditional politics must gave way to “a politics of participation that devolves power back to people closer to where they actually live — back to cities. Shift the focus down to municipalities and over to civil society… Hope for the future lies with the politics of the city.”
Mayors are not only pragmatic but they also have the capacity to implement a program of sustainable policies for a world that is getting warmer.
“On a hot planet, cities are cool,” claims Barber and a host of mayors, former mayors and key political figures share his thoughts. Michael Bloomberg, New York’s former mayor, has stated that “cities have played a more important role in shaping the world than empires” and also that “cities can be the engine of social equity and economic opportunity. They can help us reduce our carbon footprint and protect the global environment.”
The world is connected as it never was before. However, globalization has affected sovereign nations. They have become less effective and even dysfunctional when it comes to global governance. People not only aspire to live in sustainable cities but they are also expected to play an increasing role in safeguarding the sustainability of our planet.
Concerned citizens in Beirut have created a powerful urban political movement known as “Beirut Madinati,” which translates to mean Beirut, my city. A group of motivated residents decided to take on Lebanon’s old guard for the control of Beirut’s municipal council. They launched Beirut Madinati, a Western-style political party financed by crowd-funding. Although they did not win local elections, it has sent a powerful message which shows that cities empowered by citizens can act and achieve their goals faster than states.
“When national governments fail to act on crucial issues like climate change, cities have to do so,” Bill de Blasio, the current mayor of New York, said.
Sadiq Khan, London’s mayor, demonstrated strong resolve following Britain’s vote to exit the EU. He insisted on sticking to the country’s green commitments, saying: “Leaving the EU should not be the first step of us going back to being known as the dirty man of Europe.”
Prime examples
Oslo, the capital of Norway, is at the forefront of sustainable urban development. Almost all of Norway’s energy is currently provided by hydroelectric power. Almost all of its oil and gas revenues feed into Norway’s sovereign fund.
Oslo is also aiming to be a city of electric vehicles. Visitors coming to Oslo might be surprised to find a fleet of electric taxis ready to ferry them around the city. There are plenty of charging stations all over the city too.
It is not only big cities that deal with climate change effectively. The US town of Bridgeport, with a population of less than 150,000, set up a program of environmental policies under the leadership of former mayor, Bill Finch.
Bridgeport succeeded in removing 600 tons of contaminated soils from an industrial site, invested a million dollars to provide low-income communities with access to waterfront parks and contracted businesses to create vegetated rain gardens to control storm runoff. These measures show that when you combine imagination, resilience and strong resolve, a city can create an environmentally-friendly atmosphere
With a rising global population and states failing to secure sustainability, the world has reached a turning point. Barber argues that cities have a new role to play. They can and they must take the lead in fighting climate change. Empowered by concerned citizens, cities have the energy and the resolve to achieve sustainability. Cities have a crucial role to play in global governance and they are the key to our survival.

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