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Our Climate Is Headed Toward 'Extremely Dangerous' or 'Catastrophic:' Here's Our Best Off Plan For Staving Off Total Disaster

Alex Steffen's new book "Carbon Zero" offers solutions on how to pull us back from the brink of disaster.

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Furthermore, the options that will be available to those thousands of emerging cities over the next 40 years largely depend on the choices we in the world’s wealthiest cities make today. The reason is that innovation and invention move slowly, yet are critical. When no new solution is available, business as usual is a given. Once a better solution to a given problem has been found, its spread can be hastened, though innovation diffusion still takes time. As the wealthier cities design away their own emissions, many excellent new solutions will be created, resulting in zero-emissions pathways poorer cities will be able to follow as they get wealthier.

There’s no time to lose. The costs of action will rise, not fall, with time. Many big investments have long life spans: They can operate for decades — and need to, in order to pay back the costs of their construction. This makes it politically very hard (and sometimes economically expensive) to shut down new infrastructure and industrial systems, even when those systems are producing unwanted results. What we build in the next two decades will probably be with us for decades more. Making new investments in old, dirty ways of doing things (like coal-fired power plants, highways, and suburban sprawl) retards change, and commits us either to continued pollution or to costly retrofits and replacements in the near future. But also, the longer we wait, the more the consequences of climate change already set in motion will hamper our progress and make us less able to act. All of the impacts of climate change have human costs, in many cases quite large. Few have any benefit at all. The longer we wait, the more our economic capacity for change will be damaged by droughts and floods, rising oceans and spreading diseases, climate refugees, and political instability. This is not even to mention the increasingly heart-wrenching human costs or the psychological trauma caused. Sandy was just a taste of what climate change could cost us.

Our cities as climate solutions

So, changing how our cities work proves to be a pretty vital job. Fortunately, our comparatively massive wealth has left us with a number of capacities the rest of the world simply doesn’t have: The majority of the world’s research universities, think tanks, engineering and design firms, advocacy groups, investment funds, venture capitalists, and so on, are all concentrated in the wealthiest cities — and even with China, India, and Brazil growing by leaps and bounds, this central fact of the concentration of the capacity for innovation in a relatively small number of rich cities is unlikely to change overnight.

Leading the way into a carbon zero future will be good for business. Cities that innovate in design, planning, policy, and products will equip their citizens with exportable skills and marketable experience before those in slower cities even know they exist. With thousands of large and small cities about to boom, the markets for urban innovations are almost inconceivably vast. There’s a 40-year boom on its way; cities that lead the way into a carbon zero future will be its great success stories.

Many of the most important kinds of innovations, policies, and plans needed to create such urban success stories are local — or are, at least, the kinds that don’t demand bold national action to succeed. In countries like the United States, where dirty energy companies have managed to clog the works of government, the ability to innovate meaningfully at a local level represents a huge advantage. Our major cities are small enough that committed people can actually change them, and large enough that changing them can produce big impacts.