by Lena Liu
Climate change is affecting the globe. Left unaddressed, it will be harmful to wildlife, detrimental to low-income communities worldwide, and catastrophic for people affected by more frequent and severe natural disasters. In the United States, proposed federal legislation under the banner of the “Green New Deal” strives to address climate change and economic inequality, but is only a tentative response to the country’s annual emissions of over 6.5 billion metric tons of climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). While national politicians will influence the deal, but cities have some stake too. Many cities see the effects of climate change as a potential threat to the well-being of their inhabitants. Hurricane Katrina displaced hundreds of residents along the Gulf Coast, and other coastal cities are also at risk of flooding. Other impacts range from wildfires to water shortages to human health consequences.
Given these risks, cities are considering mitigation and preparation for the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change. The potential impacts can be measured by the amount of climate change-related preparation. Cities’ mitigation efforts are important because they can protect residents, especially vulnerable groups, from adverse climate change effects. Cities are populous and autonomous enough to leverage for change and encourage other regions to make similar preparations. This paper profiles the preparations underway in Oakland, asking what can be done and how effective it can be.
Cities and Climate Change
Cities started responding to climate change in the 1990s after the shift in viewpoint of who and what contributes to excess GHG emissions. Climate change was first prominently covered in scientific and political agendas in the 1980s. In the following decade cities optimistically utilized their resources to address social and environmental justice. Increasing economic disparity means that the harms of climate change disproportionately harm lower income people. Some cities also realized that they were the main emitters of GHGs. These emissions were starting to impact cities’ wellbeing. Abnormal heatwaves were a particular concern as wildfires displaced residents.
The government plays a significant role in setting the stage for cities to practice and add to their political agenda. Cities currently focus on the development of the physical environment but are better served if they also consider the social and economic impacts of climate change. This consideration is particularly important for cities that have limited funding for climate change mitigation. For the past two decades, cities have significantly participated in challenging climate change by advocating for reduction of GHGs, increasing public transportation options, and ensuring new buildings meet local energy efficient codes and regulations. Urban governments, including Oakland, are willingly undertaking projects such as energy-efficient buildings, improving public transportation, or shifting to more renewable sources of energy.
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) brought together interested mayors in discussing and remedying climate change (Bassett 2010; Rosweig et al. 2010; Bulkeley 2013). The IPCC is used to discuss and initiate different strategies. U.S. cities vary in their range of government. These differences may entail “full realization of economic, social and cultural rights to the maximum extent of available resources,” which varies by city and county (Pillay 2013, 255). Mayors are one of many parties that play an important role in maintaining the well-being of their own cities. Mayors can support things already happening in the city such as improving transportation systems, building new infrastructure, and constructing efficient buildings.
This is where the idea of “think locally, act locally” evolves into action. Action is reflected upon the motivation to be able to do something about existing strategies or operations. But cities also face limitations in responding to climate change, including financial constraints, the inability to update ineffectual programs, and a lack of capacity for GHG monitoring. Cities also rely on other local and state programs for resources or leadership (Betsill 2001).
Bulkeley (2012) asserts “most of the literature on climate change adaptation and cities is focusing on what should be done, not on what is being done (because too little is being done)” (163). Cities must share their efforts and findings to improve best practices for challenging climate change at the city level. Current assessments suggest that cities have a good start in planning what to do in response to climate changes at the local level but lack a full understanding of how to adapt to those conditions. This includes natural disaster preparation, such as wildfires, earthquakes, and major flooding or storms requiring immediate attention and vigilance. A local example is PG & E power shutoffs in response to increased wildfire conditions. These shutoffs disproportionately harm people who need electricity for medical devices. The current model for responding to droughts and fires in California is neither successful nor equitable.
Oakland’s Climate Action Plans
Climate Action Plans are a tool that cities use to draft climate regulations and shape policies for cities and their ways of development. Oakland began drafting its Climate Action Plan in 2010. It was later curated into the Equitable Climate Action Plan which is open to public comment. The Oakland CAP prioritizes housing issues, ease of transportation, land use, building green jobs, and community empowerment. Oakland updates the ECAP every two to four years and makes minor edits whenever appropriate.
Public transportation is believed to reduce the amount of GHG emissions, assuming people choose to ride transit instead of driving. Transportation of construction and building materials, such as lumber or steel equipment loaded on trains or commercial trucks and vehicles, can directly impact the cities’ air quality. According to the EPA, 14 percent of global GHG emissions come from transportation derived from petroleum-based fuels and from burning fossil fuels to power road, rail, air, and marine transportation. Oakland’s ECAP (Equitable Climate Action Plan) draft calls for adding electric buses to communities with the greatest need of public transportation (Draft ECAP).
AC Transit is the major public transportation agency serving Oakland and surrounding communities in Alameda and Contra Costa Counties. It began shifting some of its bus fleet to hydrogen fuel and clean diesel in the early 2000s. Environmental sustainability goes together with AC Transit’s core mission of providing safe and efficient bus service. AC Transit states that “by adopting and developing the latest technologies, we are not only reducing our own emissions, we are also serving as a model transit agency for the entire country.”
From March 2006 through mid-2010, AC Transit operated a pilot project with three hydrogen fuel cell buses, carrying over 700,000 passengers. This has all been done with significantly greater overall energy efficiency than diesel buses. AC Transit strives to have more zero-emission hydrogen fuel cell buses on the road and to become the leading zero emission in the Bay Area. This would significantly help reduce emissions cities produce.
In certain communities or instances, buses do get delayed. With the invention of rideshare companies, such as Uber and Lyft, people have to decide between waiting for the bus and risk being late, or simply taking out their phones to book a ride (if they have enough money and are at least 18 years old of age). Buses still need to do better with scheduling and timing to ensure people get to work or school on time. Thus, this might reduce the number of rideshares and help reduce emissions. According to a 2019 study by San Francisco County Transportation Agency, Uber and Lyft have already created extra congestion on city streets, particularly in busy streets of Oakland and San Francisco. Sometimes the excess congestion is caused by improper pick ups or drop offs; it also interferes with bus stops if rideshares use them during busy commute hours.
Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), the regional commuter rail service, has been debuting their Fleet of the Future cars in the mass subway system. BART and AC Transit have worked together to offer free shuttles if a BART station were to shut down for maintenance. Both agencies have been following the current rates of inflation, with two fare increases each in the past six years. They have attempted to incentivize the Clipper card system, a pre-loaded card that quickly and conveniently pays for multiple transit agencies. This is paired with programs to decrease or eliminate paper tickets to limit environmental concerns. However, this measure is unpopular with riders and visitors.
Bulkeley (2013) mentions the “opportunities and limits investigation in urban responses to renewable energy are vital for understanding” (10). Natural gas, a common fuel in residential areas, creates GHG emissions when burned for fuel. It also poses a public health risk because it contributes to indoor air pollution. This issue is worse in older apartments and poorly ventilated spaces, posing an equity issue. Municipally funded retrofitting of existing residential buildings has improved their energy efficiency while also aiding working class or low income families who live in municipally owned buildings and could not afford these repairs on their own (Bulkeley 2013, 123).
The Oakland ECAP draft aims to reduce GHGs by 83 percent by 2050 (City of Oakland). The draft proposes all newer buildings not use natural gas. “A successful building electrification effort must be paired with energy efficiency and weatherization, to ensure that energy bills remain low and unnecessary power is not added to the grid” (Oakland ECAP 2018, 21).
Further ideas for Oakland could come from nearby cities like Fremont that have long engaged in tree planting efforts and has upgraded streetlights to LED to become more energy-efficient. More recently, Fremont has been working on making sure all fire stations are solar-powered. For its part, Oakland is a model for making sure its ECAP is equitable for its own residents, strongly emphasizing community feedback from residents, professionals, non-profit organizations, groups, and other organizations involved in environmental causes.
Climate change is an urgent and global issue that must be addressed at all scales. Efforts to address climate change must be consistent, efficient, and considerate of people, particularly communities in poverty or people of color. Cities like Oakland are leading climate change responses, particularly in addressing how cities themselves can adapt and mitigate changes. Issues of delegation, resources, and responsibility will continue to challenge cities and deserve more study. However, cities can showcase their successful programs. Oakland’s ECAP is an example of how a city can prioritize the needs of its populations while taking necessary steps in a changing world for the good of the environment and residents.
AC Transit website. “The HyRoad”. Accessed December 18, 2019. http://www.actransit.org/environment/the-hyroad/
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Bulkeley, Harriet and Broto, Vanesa Castan. 2013. “Government by experiment? Global cities and the governing of climate change?” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 38(3): 361-375. doi: 10.111/j.1475-5661.2012.0
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“Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions” Environmental Protection Agency. 2014. Accessed December 13, 2019. https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas emissions
Oakland Equitable Climate Action Plan PDF. Accessed on December 17 2019. Updated 2017.
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