A climate expert this week urged the nation's urban and regional planners to help slow global warming, as the levels of greenhouse gas emissions continue to trend upward.
Dr. Andrew Weaver, a lead author of a United Nations report on climate change, addressed several thousand members of the American Planning Association in his opening keynote speech on Sunday at the organization's national conference in Los Angeles.
"It is so important that planning organizations in America and elsewhere in the world get engaged," said the University of Victoria professor to the audience, "because you are setting the infrastructure and policies in place for the generations of tomorrow."
As global levels of carbon dioxide emissions increase, the Earth's average surface temperature will grow warmer, he said. The effects – such as a rise in sea levels, higher probability of floods and drought, and more species extinctions – are described in his book, Generation Us.
The later generations will bear the economic and social consequences of our current actions, he said. In his presentation, he showed a climate model that projects three different outcomes of global warming over several decades, from slight to severe increases in temperature. (See Figure 1)
"The global warming that lies at the end of the century is dramatically different depending on the decisions and policy path that we set in place today," he said.
While social equity was a phrase defined by some planners at the conference as taking into account the needs of disadvantaged populations, Weaver raised the issue of intergenerational equity.
"It really begs the following question: Do we, the present generation, owe anything to future generations in terms of quality of life, the environment, or economic stability?" he said. "Because if we do believe it, frankly, this (current) pathway is quite unacceptable."
But the issue of global warming has become politicized and under attack by those who discredit it as a farce, he said. An opinion poll has shown that party lines may attribute to the public division. A larger portion of believers are more likely to be Democrats (think Al Gore and An Inconvenient Truth) than Republican.
Will a paradigm shift in the way the White House views global warming come just in time to tackle greenhouse gas emissions head-on?
In the case of the Copenhagen Accord, the United States pledged to reduce the country's emissions 17 percent relative to 2005 levels by 2020. Other countries have set targets as well. But Weaver said even with the voluntary targets, the remaining level of greenhouse gas emissions does not enable us to meet the actual intended goal.
Preventing the Earth's temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels has been an international goal, including at the United Nations climate-change talks in Cancun.
Weaver has calculated figures projecting how much more carbon dioxide the Earth can absorb – and showing that additional increases diminish the probability of staying below the threshold of 2 degrees Celsius.
But at a press conference in December, U.S. special envoy for climate change Todd Stern said the two degrees threshold is more of a "guidepost" and less of an "operational cap that you must meet and that if you see yourself off of it based on science that then you have some kind of mandatory obligation," he said.
Whether the U.S. is on track to meet its voluntary reduction in emissions by 2020 is hard to say (the targets are non-binding). Today our country ranks as the world's second largest emitter of carbon dioxide behind China, accounting for about 17.6 percent of the pie. The largest sources of carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. are coal (used to generate electricity) and vehicle transportation. (See Figure 2)
The American Planning Association states the federal government has the ability to provide an international and national framework to address global warming. And it can "provide leadership, funding, research and baseline regulation and policy on many topics related to climate change, such as motor vehicle fuel efficiency standards and energy policy." For example, reducing reliance on coal-fired electricity plants and increasing the use of solar panels.
But planners have a role too. The APA suggests, at the state and local level, planners can reduce greenhouse gases through:
* land use
* sustainable development
* natural resources management
* economic development
* hazards management
* public health
* public infrastructure
Suggested practices are explained in the climate change policy guide of the American Planning Association available online.