The message was clear: Limiting carbon emissions isn’t a choice, it’s a necessity.
Several leaders representing drought-stricken areas and cities that have been victim to severe weather events stood on stage at The New School in New York City Thursday and pledged to do what they can to build a more sustainable economy. For 14 cities, provinces and state-equivalents, that meant signing onto the “Under 2 MOU,” a document that calls for a dramatic drop in greenhouse gas emissions. The memorandum of understanding is an agreement among sub-national units — and one country, as Italy signed on at the ceremony — to bring per-capita carbon dioxide emissions below two metric tons by the half-century mark. That’s the level the United Nations has identified as necessary to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, a benchmark intended to prevent the worst climactic changes from occurring.
The new signatories were Italy; New York City and San Francisco; Vancouver and the Northwest Territories, Canada; Mexico City; the Azores and Madeira, Portugal; Guédiawaye-Dakar, Senegal; Nampula, Mozambique; Kathmandu Valley, Nepal; Gifu Prefecture, Japan; Ucayali, Peru; and Greater Manchester, UK. That brings the total number of signatures to the MOU up to 38 spread across 17 countries and five continents.
“We are mere subnational units. That’s not a very glorious title, to be a subnational. Sounds a little bit underground,” California Gov. Jerry Brown, one of the main proponents behind the MOU, said at the event. “But nevertheless, there is a certain flexibility to being a state or a region as opposed to being a full-bore nation.”
That will be important, he said, because the goals of the MOU are daunting. The per-capita CO2 emissions in the U.S., for example, is 17 metric tons, according to The World Bank — so meeting the demands of the document would mean cutting emissions by almost 90 percent in the next 35 years.
“We live and benefit and have grown up with carbon and with fossil fuels, and with oil and gas and coal that make almost the entire modern world run,” Brown said. “This building, the transportation to get here … it’s all about fossil fuel.”
To upend that model within the timeframe he’s suggesting might take a miracle, he told the crowd. However, he said, the effort has to begin somewhere, and a push from what he called “the periphery” — that is, cities and other sub-national governments — will lead full countries in the same direction.
That will take political will as well as scientific and engineering acumen, Brown said. But for California’s part, he was adamant that the state would meet the goals of the MOU.
“No opposition, however well-financed, however credible, will stop California from reaching the sustainable goals that we commit to tonight,” he declared.
The event also featured several world leaders pledging support for the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, the focus of the General Assembly’s meeting beginning Sept. 25. The goals call for the world to treat climate change as being linked to many other world problems like poverty, hunger and disease.
“The health impacts from environmental pollution and ecosystem degradation are borne, to the largest extent, by disadvantaged and vulnerable populations, including children and the poor,” a paper published in support of the UN’s goals reads. “Meanwhile, the reduction of key environmental risks could help to prevent up to a quarter of the total burden of diseases, including a large proportion of childhood deaths.”
Mitch Landrieu, mayor of New Orleans, offered up an example of the need to take serious action on climate change: Hurricane Katrina. Now 10 years in the past, Landrieu said the image of corpses floating in the streets of a city known for its colorful parades is still a painful image for Americans.
“It revealed a very simple fact: That we are all vulnerable,” he said.
Since Katrina, Landrieu said the city has made strides in cutting carbon emissions. It has raised the bar for energy efficiency standards in its buildings, added more bicycling lanes to its streets and built itself up as one of the top solar-powered cities in the country in terms of photovoltaic capacity.
“There’s no other city in the world that really understands the importance of the sustainable development goals more than the city of New Orleans,” Lanrieu said during the event.
Others spoke up about how climate change has impacted the places they live as well. Brown, as well as the mayor of Kingston, Jamaica, spoke about how drought is threatening agriculture. The mayor of Banda Aceh, Indonesia, spoke about the 2004 earthquake and tsunami that wreaked havoc on her city.
And Glen Murray, minister of the environment and climate change in Ontario, Canada, pointed out ominous signs developing in the northern parts of the world. Murray became emotional as he spoke on stage about the possible impacts of warming on the Northwest Territories, which signed onto the MOU remotely.
“That jurisdiction is most of the arctic. They are already past 2 degrees Celsius (in warming),” he said. “They will hit 7 degrees.”
In Ontario, he said farmers are losing most of their apple crops because of changes in the weather. In British Columbia, strawberries are growing too early in the year and dying.
“Go and look at what two or three degrees looks like in northern communities," he said, "and you’ll see why it’s so important to turn it around."
Ben Miller is the business beat staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.