What we heard at the Global Climate Summit—and what we wish we’d heard

Last week, I served as a delegate to the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco. I walked away invigorated by the scores of bold pledges to decarbonize our economy. But it also left me wanting more.

Giant steps

As the world’s top business, governmental, and civic leaders gathered under one roof to declare their climate commitments, the Summit marked a global pivot. We’re turning away from a carbon-based economy.

Among the many pledges made, over 70 big cities have now committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. This means that cities that are home to 425 million people, from Accra to Los Angeles, Mexico City to Tokyo, aim to remove as much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they emit.

I don’t know about you, but that fills me with hope.

My-daughter-asthma-climate

Thinking beyond carbon

But ClimatePlan’s vision has always been bigger than decarbonization. Our partners work in public health, land conservation, equity, environmental justice, housing, transportation, and more. We care about all these issues, how they intersect, and how they affect our lives.

ClimatePlan envisions a California that is not only more sustainable but also healthier and more equitable, where all people have the opportunity to thrive. That’s why we don’t just advocate for land use and transportation strategies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We promote strategies that ensure all Californians—especially people excluded or burdened by our current transportation system and patterns of development—have access to healthy, sustainable, equitable communities.

Here’s what we mean: we seek to build communities where people of all races and income levels can get around easily, with convenient buses and comfortable trains, wide sidewalks, and safe bike lanes. Where they can find affordable homes near good jobs. Where they can enjoy all the benefits of nearby protected farmland and natural areas.

Communities like that are not only great for the climate, they’re the kinds of communities we’d all want to be a part of.

Starting to put the puzzle together

We did see a few bright spots at the Summit: Medellín Mayor Gutiérrez described removing parking spaces downtown, Warsaw Mayor Aboutaleb discussed exponential growth in his city’s bicycle infrastructure, and Los Angeles Mayor Garcetti spoke up for building affordable housing along transit lines.

But otherwise, the Global Climate Summit largely overlooked this broad vision and its potential for improving health, equity, and quality of life. Housing wasn’t really even on the agenda.

Fortunately, California legislators are leading on this. They understand the need to address land use if we want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Two days before the summit, Senator Weiner published an article on Medium: “A Climate Agenda Without A Housing Agenda Is Incomplete.” In it, he said, “Housing, and land use patterns generally, are an essential component of any comprehensive climate strategy.”

Yes!

Where and how we build directly impacts our climate. The more sprawling our development, the more people must drive to work, school, and play. This in turn increases greenhouse gas emissions and accelerates climate change.

Senator Wiener ended his article with his solution: “We need to approve housing faster and ensure we are building plenty of housing affordable to low income people.”

Yes, and….

That’s part of the solution, but not all of it. We also need to address the impact of new development on households, commercial enterprises, and community spaces. We need to craft a housing policy that addresses displacement. We also need to address the historic and persistent exclusion of households from certain neighborhoods due to race, income, or other factors. Bills like AB 686 (Santiago) (to support fair housing by dismantling segregation) and AB 1771 (Bloom) (to better meet regional housing needs) are moving us in the right direction. Housing policy must build on these efforts to ensure new housing is fairer housing.

Who’s at the table

Finally, I found most inspiring the brave voices of climate justice leaders. Their presence was felt in protests outside the Summit, protests inside the Summit, and through (regretfully few) stand-out panels and presentations.

Just as a climate agenda is incomplete without addressing housing, so is a climate agenda that does not address equity and meaningfully engage the community. Climate change is exacerbating existing inequities; it is already hitting the most vulnerable communities the hardest.

If community leaders aren’t at the table, any solution, including housing strategies, could continue the legacy of harming communities of color and low-income communities. One of the biggest missed opportunities of the summit, I thought, was the lack of partnership and collaboration between global leaders and community residents, and the failure to develop climate strategies that both address community needs and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Looking ahead

This week, Summit delegates returned home to begin the hard work of meeting their climate pledges. At ClimatePlan, we’ll be sure to continue the momentum. Inspired by the climate justice leaders, I’m more committed than ever to our mission to provide all Californians the opportunity to live healthy, sustainable lives.


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