Planning for environmental concerns in DC: What are we waiting for?

When the new Washington, DC Planning Director, Harriet Tregoning, appeared before the DC Environmental Planning Network last spring, she was facing a friendly audience. Prior to taking the job in DC, she had been working for the Smart Growth Leadersh…

When the new Washington, DC Planning Director, Harriet Tregoning, appeared before the DC Environmental Planning Network last spring, she was facing a friendly audience. Prior to taking the job in DC, she had been working for the Smart Growth Leadership Institute, and before that, she played a similar role for the State of Maryland and the US EPA. What big juicy initiatives did she have in store for us?

Well, how about a voluntary initiative for DC hotel guests to contribute to a greenhouse gas offset fund? Hmmm, so, that microcosm of the global population who feel compelled to offset their contribution to global warming caused by their travel to DC can throw some money to the pot that we’re in. However, here in Washington we don’t have any high profile elected leaders challenging business as usual to address the threat of global warming. The only headlines that the District’s Mayor makes pertain to the sea level rise in Washington? Does it perhaps justify bumping up global warming into the top ten priorities for a mayor (any mayor)? The DC City Council has made some recent progress addressing energy use and conservation with passage of green building law (PDF) in the last session, and a California-like Clean Car Law (PDF) in this session (blocked by the US EPA). They are now considering an energy bill (PDF) to provide for a new utility that will promote renewable energy and conservation in the District. Does it sound petulant if I say that this is hardly enough?

A more comprehensive list of initiatives was recommended to Mayor Fenty when he took office by his Environment Transition Team. Other municipalities have worked much more aggressively to address the problem, and that gold mine of best practices is inventoried in the Conference of Mayor’s 2007 Climate Change Summit. Most of the progress being made in addressing the frightful rise in greenhouse gas emissions is being made by municipalities. This is particularly interesting because it’s hard to argue that the work of one jurisdiction is going to add up to much when matched against the immense scale of global emissions. Somehow, though, the message isn’t coming across that way at all — it’s unexpectedly refreshing: “We’re all in this together, and we need to act now, here, together.”

The DC based Cool Capital Challengeexplicitly takes up this idea and puts the ways and means into the hands of the District’s denizens. The Challenge is about a quarter of the way to its target of cutting 1 billion pounds of CO2 from the emission inventory of the Washington region by Earthday 2008. But even if the DC area manages a 250 Million pound reduction in CO2, it is not much more than window-dressing. A much more aggressive approach is necessary to respond to the challenge.

At the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco this past December, Cassandra spoke (aka James Hansen). Hansen, an atmospheric scientist at NASA, first sounded the CO2 alarm (PDF) before Congress twenty years ago, saying the Earth was warming and people were the cause. Then, it was just a concept, now it is unfolding as you read. In pre-industrial times the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere was about 275 parts per million (ppm). Now, it is 385ppm and rising. What is considered the point of serious climate destabilization and may have gone from being a few years out to maybe a few years back, reported Hansen. Recent history has had the European Union and major environmental organizations trying to put the brakes on CO2 emissions to curtail growth at 450ppm; recognizing that even that level will result in measurable warming with socioeconomic consequences. That might have given us another decade or so to increase our auto mileage standards, put up a few more wind machines and some green roofs. Now, along comes Hansen with his latest projections – Earth appears to be responding much faster to the rapid rise in CO2 than our climate models predicted. Scientists have noted that Arctic glacial melting has been proceeding much faster than anticipated. Dr. Hansen suggests that our target was not 450ppm, but instead 350ppm, and my friends, we just blew by it. It comes as no surprise that 2007 was among the seven hottest years on record, all of which occurred since 1998. Anybody feel a sense of urgency?

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