The Oregonian guest opinion: Spreading the word on Portland's climate progress
Author: Jonathan Fink
Posted: May 28, 2013

Read the original article in The Oregonian here.

The news this month that carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere are approaching 400 parts per million for the first time in 3 million years elicited predictable responses: Climate change deniers pooh-poohed it, scientists were scared by it and most Americans ignored it.

In Portland, where municipal policies and public actions have slowed the growth of carbon emissions over the past two decades, the reaction should be different. Our success raises the hope that cities not only might reduce the damage they cause to the atmosphere, but also could actually help repair it.

For this to happen, we would need to overcome the widespread belief that cities like Portland are "too quirky" to be relevant elsewhere. Instead, the Portlands of the world need to become signposts to the future.

The prospect of catastrophic climate change is simply too depressing for most people to deal with. What we need are examples of how living a low-carbon lifestyle can be enjoyable and economically viable, not a sacrificial descent into pre-industrial drudgery.

Over the past decade, cities around the world have emerged as the most effective actors to address our looming climate crisis. Politically gridlocked national governments seem incapable of reaching serious agreement, as seen in failed climate talks in Copenhagen and Rio. On a micro level, actions taken by individuals, such as swapping light bulbs or recycling, are helpful but generally not enough.

In contrast, cities have shown a willingness to tackle climate change by marshaling their residents and setting new policies. Both the city of Portland and Multnomah County since 1993 have put in place several climate action plans that are now models for the rest of the nation. These agendas lowered carbon by increasing home insulation, getting more energy from renewable sources, encouraging use of bikes and mass transit, and reducing solid waste.

Total emissions in Multnomah County are now 8 percent lower than they were in 1990 (26 percent lower per person), despite a 27 percent increase in population over the same period. To put that into perspective, however, all cities would have to reduce carbon dioxide by at least 80 percent by 2050 to get the atmosphere close to what scientists consider safe.

Nobody is sure how to accomplish this kind of reduction, but we do know that it will take a combination of new low-carbon technology, economic incentives and behavior change by individuals, companies and governments. No one region, no matter how "green," can solve this puzzle alone. Leaders in Houston, Cleveland, Baltimore and other places will need to develop approaches that work for their cities, and their best practices will need to be evaluated and shared.

Those best practices will be part of the discussion next week at Portland State University, which is hosting an urban sustainability conference bringing together policymakers and experts from the National Academies of Science and Engineering to discuss ways to reduce carbon dioxide emissions nationwide. People will not be motivated to address climate change by scientific arguments, fear of impending catastrophe or guilt about their legacy. Instead, we need positive examples of how moving toward a zero-emissions world can be profitable, equitable and enjoyable. Portland's role as a pathfinder has never been more important.

Jonathan Fink is vice president for research and strategic partnerships at Portland State University.