Let’s Hear It For New York: Climate Work in Our Backyard Is Still Outpacing Broader Efforts

April 30, 2012

Cooper Union Stock Photo

Patrick Robbins

It can sometimes feel thankless to be engaged with the climate crisis. But the last week has been a very good week indeed for climate wonks—that is, assuming you live in New York City.

Today, the City Council is expected to pass a whole package of groundbreaking revisions to the city’s zoning laws. These revisions will allow for greater energy efficiency retrofitting and will relax restrictions on rooftops, which will in turn spur greater growth of solar energy and rooftop farming. This is a particularly important step in the right direction for a city where building stock is estimated to account for 75% of total CO2 emissions.

This comes on the heels of a hearing for a bill that would mandate a monthly adaptation report, ensuring that local residents and policy makers have access to a steady stream of up-to-date information on climate adaptation issues. While the bill has not been voted on, a staffer with the City Council reports that the bill was received positively.

These are all reasons to celebrate. But before you put on your party hat, take a moment to appreciate how different the local scene is from developments on the national and global scale. On the global scale, climate policy seems halted at best: negotiations around mitigation are frustratingly predictable and predictably frustrating; adaptation efforts are paid a great deal of lip service but are far less effectual in practice, with richer nations routinely double counting the funding that goes to poorer nations as “adaptation aid.” While here in America, “national leadership is absent,” as FORTUNE editor Adam Lashinsky puts it in a recent article. In this article, he comes to the conclusion that “the action is in the states” (full article here).

All of these developments point to the importance of local action. Indeed, even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, whose traditional constituents are national and international actors, seems to have come around to this view. In its recently released report on climate extremes, it devotes a section entitled “Building Capacity at the Local Level for Risk Management in a Changing Climate” to the importance of tribal and family units in coping with natural disasters (that’s chapter five, section four if you’d like to look it up). Often these structures form the only social safety net in a given area, and are therefore pivotal for mitigating the damage when disasters strike. By contrast, national or international institutions don’t always have the on-the-ground knowledge to manage their resources effectively.

So by all means, let’s celebrate a good week. But let’s also learn from this week - if we want to effect change, then the local arena can yield important victories. And here in New York, there are plenty of places to start.

  • Founded by inventor, industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper in 1859, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art offers education in art, architecture and engineering, as well as courses in the humanities and social sciences.

  • “My feelings, my desires, my hopes, embrace humanity throughout the world,” Peter Cooper proclaimed in a speech in 1853. He looked forward to a time when, “knowledge shall cover the earth as waters cover the great deep.”

  • From its beginnings, Cooper Union was a unique institution, dedicated to founder Peter Cooper's proposition that education is the key not only to personal prosperity but to civic virtue and harmony.

  • Peter Cooper wanted his graduates to acquire the technical mastery and entrepreneurial skills, enrich their intellects and spark their creativity, and develop a sense of social justice that would translate into action.