In the wake of Pres. Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accords, many mayors and governors have stepped up their rhetoric on climate change. Will their actions match their words?
On June 1, President Trump announced that he would withdraw the United States from the international climate accords agreed to in Paris in 2015. The move produced denunciations and opposition from around the world. As a symbol of protest, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo had the city’s iconic Hotel de Ville illuminated in a stark, green light. Mexico City and Montreal bathed their civic monuments in green as well. Mayors around the US did the same. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo–with no apparent sense of irony–had the Pulaski highway bridge greenlighted as well.
In Oregon, one of the nation’s greenest states, the reaction to the Paris withdrawal was swift and predictable. Oregon’s Governor, Kate Brown tweeted:
Similarly, Portland’s Mayor, Ted Wheeler, tweeted:
Its comforting to many environmentalists to hear that progressive cities and some states will still adhere to the spirit of the Paris accords. But it’s one thing to strike a bold rhetorical position, it’s still another to back it up with policy decisions and spending priorities.
To their credit, Oregon and Portland have both adopted their own greenhouse gas reduction goals. Oregon’s goal (enacted by the Legislature a decade ago) is to reduce the state’s carbon pollution by 10 percent from 1990 levels by 2020, and by 75 percent by 2050. The City of Portland’s stated climate goal is to reduce 40 percent by 2030.
But goal setting (and tweeting) are easy and policy and implementation are hard. And in Oregon’s case, where the rubber hits the road* is how the state spends its limited resources. Just the day before Trump announced the pull out from the Paris Climate Accords, the Oregon Legislature released the first public version of legislation spelling out the terms of a new transportation funding package. Key among its provisions: pledging upwards of a billion dollars for three freeway widening projects in the Portland metropolitan area. The bill would also impose additional registration fees on electric and other clean vehicles, as well as a sales tax on bicycles.
The proposal to spend more on road widening comes just after the Legislature has received a report from its official global warming commission (yes, Oregon has one), examining the state’s progress to meeting its legally adopted greenhouse gas reduction goal. And the news was not good: after several years of progress, Oregon’s greenhouse gas emissions surged upward in 2014, primarily due to an increase in driving associated with the fall in gasoline prices. There’s now virtually no way the state will meet its adopted 2020 goal.
One of the most consistent findings in transportation research is the principal of induced demand: providing more roadway capacity in congested urban locations induces more trip-making and more driving, which automatically means more carbon pollution. The phenomenon is now so well documented that its called “The Fundamental Law of Congestion.” If we really care about climate change, the last thing we should be doing is building new or wider roads.
Ultimately, its going to take more than green lighting and glowing rhetoric to tackle the climate problem. Local and state leaders who profess a continuing commitment to the Paris accords have to match their lofty words with their everyday actions. Building more road capacity makes greenhouse gas emissions rise. Mayors and governors who want to show their commitment to the Paris agreement can start simply by applying a green version of the Hippocratic oath: First do no harm. Not wasting scarce public funds on roadway expansion is a far more powerful symbol of your city’s commitment to protect the environment than a green lantern.
* – Sorry.