Monday, May 23, 2011

The Warm and Windy City

An extraordinary article in The New York Times describes how urban planners in Chicago are taking steps now in anticipation of the city's climate becoming more like today's Birmingham, Alabama than the Windy City of today:
CHICAGO — The Windy City is preparing for a heat wave — a permanent one.

Climate scientists have told city planners that based on current trends, Chicago will feel more like Baton Rouge than a Northern metropolis before the end of this century.

So, Chicago is getting ready for a wetter, steamier future. Public alleyways are being repaved with materials that are permeable to water. The white oak, the state tree of Illinois, has been banned from city planting lists, and swamp oaks and sweet gum trees from the South have been given new priority. Thermal radar is being used to map the city’s hottest spots, which are then targets for pavement removal and the addition of vegetation to roofs. And air-conditioners are being considered for all 750 public schools, which until now have been heated but rarely cooled.

“Cities adapt or they go away,” said Aaron N. Durnbaugh, deputy commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Environment. “Climate change is happening in both real and dramatic ways, but also in slow, pervasive ways. We can handle it, but we do need to acknowledge it. We are on a 50-year cycle, but we need to get going.”
So basically, the fact that we are cooking the planet is being treated as a fait accompli by competent planners and technocrats around the world, and strategies are actively being developed to mitigate the effects. I'm speechless. And in Washington DC, as the article notes, Climate Change is still being denied at the national level by "Conservative" legislators (the better tern would be reactionary). There is a terrific article in Slate about how the Republican Party has basically turned into a movement of almost insane reality denial. The masthead for the article reads:

The Planet isn't warming
The President isn't American
Evolution didn't happen
Have the Republicans lost their minds?

The article begins:
At a press conference last week, someone asked Chris Christie for his views on evolution vs. creationism. "That's none of your business," the New Jersey governor barked in response.

This minor incident, which barely rated as news for a few political blogs, offers a glimpse of Christie's personality, which seems increasingly grumpy and snappish. But it says even more about the current state of the national Republican Party, where magical thinking trumps rationality, and even to acknowledge basic realities about the world we live in runs the risk of damaging one's political future.

Christie is not part of the natural constituency for Darwin-denial. He's an intelligent man, a lawyer, a fiscal rather than a social conservative. But Christie is also someone who might want to run for president someday, or be selected as someone's running mate. For those purposes, he must constantly ask himself the question: Am I about to say something to which a white, evangelical, socially conservative, gun-owning, Obama-despising, pro-Tea Party, GOP primary voter in rural South Carolina might object? By this standard, simple acceptance of the theory of evolution becomes a risky stance. To lie or to duck? Christie chose the option of ducking while signaling his annoyance at being put in this ridiculous predicament.

Moments like this point to a growing asymmetry in our politics. One party, the Democrats, suffers from the usual range of institutional blind spots, historical foibles, and constituency-driven evasions. The other, the Republicans, has moved to a mental Shangri-La, where unwanted problems (climate change, the need to pay the costs of running the government) can be wished away, prejudice trumps fact (Obama might just be Kenyan-born or a Muslim), expertise is evidence of error, and reality itself comes to be regarded as some kind of elitist plot
Remember, the Republicans are not some out-there fringe party like the BNP in England of the Communists in Italy. This is one of the United States' two ruling parties. This party controls the House of Representatives, half the Senate, numerous governorships, etc. Is these any other country in the developed world where a candidate must remain mum on whether the world was created in seven days for fear of being unable to attain higher office?

Treehugger also notes the contrast between local governments all over the country, and even the US military making preparations for climate change, and the denialism present in the Republican Party. This feeds in to my thesis that city governments will be the only functioning governments in the future, as national governments lose their funding and legitimacy, or, in the case of the United States, their sanity. City governments are closest to the people, and cannot afford to ignore pressing crises, as national governments have done for decades-they must respond. That is the message of the article.

This continues to turn my interests toward urban planning. If I'm right, this will become the most important administrative job of the next century. I should also not the irony that this article about a tropical Chicago appears when we in Milwaukee have barely experienced temperatures over 55 degrees for the entire month of May. I could go for some of those tropical temperatures myself!

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