Sustainability Has Entered the Political Mainstream

    By Steven Cohen
    Executive Director, Columbia University’s Earth Insitute

    In the fall of 1975 I found myself sitting in Lester Milbrath’s Environmental Politics graduate seminar at SUNY Buffalo, talking to the teaching assistant, my now longtime friend and colleague Sheldon Kamieniecki.

    I distinctly remember thinking, how did we get here? Sheldon and I are from Brooklyn, so what does environmental policy have to do with the urban issues we care about?

    The environmental stuff seemed interesting, but Earth Day appeared to be a fad and the environment was, at best, a second-tier political issue. Still, despite its low priority on the political agenda, the more we analyzed the interconnected set of problems humanity faced, the more I was convinced that the environment was the central issue of our time.

    As a result, two years later I was helping to staff EPA’s working group on public participation in water programs and five years later I was working in EPA’s Superfund toxic waste cleanup program. There was a lot of work to be done and I found myself learning about the environment and public management from some of the most talented people I’ve ever known. Still, the environment remained a fringe issue. It wasn’t trivial, but it wasn’t one of those life-or-death issues appropriate for high-level decision making.

    But times have changed.

    Last week, former Vice President Al Gore, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, and Columbia University President Lee Bollinger shared a stage on campus as Governor Cuomo committed New York State to a set of ambitious carbon reduction goals. According to my Earth Institute colleague Kelsie DeFrancia, New York City and New York State have long been leaders in reducing greenhouse gases:

    Since 2005, New York City has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 19 percent, and is the largest city in the world committed to reducing emissions 80 percent by 2050. Earlier this year, New York [State] set an aggressive target to reduce emissions by 40 percent and increase electricity from renewable sources to 50 percent by 2030, as part of its 2015 State Energy Plan. Cuomo took that all a step further on Thursday. In front of an audience of over 700 Columbia University students, faculty and staff; local and state government officials; and environmental advocates, Cuomo and Gore signed the “Under 2 MOU.” By signing this “memorandum of understanding,” the governor joined 42 other jurisdictions worldwide in a commitment to prevent the global average temperature from rising 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-Industrial Age average.

    But climate change is not the only environmental issue that has attracted Governor Cuomo’s attention. Earlier this year, Cuomo continued the state’s moratorium on fracking for natural gas. The governor continues to question the risks associated with the Indian Point nuclear power plant. He has heavily invested state resources in making our shorelines more resilient and better able to adapt to the impact of climate change.

    Most significantly, he has committed the state to large-scale investments in solar power and nanotechnology research and development. The state is working to attract a solar industry to western New York. New York has established a Green Bank to help attract capital to the sustainability business sector. He may enjoy promoting Adirondack tourism, but the governor is not known to be a rabid environmentalist.

    All of these decisions are simply made in the interest of sound public governance, to promote the state’s economic development, and to ensure the health and safety of New York’s citizens. Environmental protection and economic development have been integrated into the single overarching idea of “sustainability.” These are centrist public policy positions in the mainstream of politics here in New York State.

    Sustainability policies are not distinct from the principles of good governance, and instead are increasingly central elements of those principles. Just as private and public organizations are integrating sustainability considerations into routine management decision making, governments are integrating sustainability issues into routine policy making.

    In the case of corporations, more and more are paying attention to their use of energy, water, and other raw materials. They are reducing their waste streams and the impact of their production, products and consumption on natural systems. This is not due to environmental idealism, but a reflection of sound business practices. When businesses don’t pay attention to sustainability issues (think BP and VW), the damages can run into the billions.

    In the case of government, strategic and competent public officials like Cuomo and former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg know that businesses and new residents are attracted to jurisdictions that understand the importance of modern and efficient energy, transport, water and waste management systems. It is difficult for businesses to thrive if their employees can’t get to work, can’t breathe or don’t want to raise their families in polluted places.

    When President Obama travels to India or China, he discusses climate change and environmental issues along with more traditional trade and security concerns. The environment is now a central issue in global diplomacy. When you add that to the policy making underway at the state and local level and the increased attention paid to the physical dimensions of sustainability by competent organizational managers, it is clear that the issue that I saw as a fringe issue 40 years ago has moved to the center of contemporary consciousness.

    Now the question is, what can we do with the world’s attention now that we have it? How do we bring about the transition to a renewable economy and just what is a renewable economy? First, we need to understand that a renewable economy will mainly be an urban economy. It is likely that by the middle of the century over 75 percent of the world will live in cities.

    These cities can be efficient, exciting, safe and environmentally sound, or they can be crowded, unplanned, dangerous and wasteful. Government must build the energy, transportation, water supply, sewage treatment and waste management systems needed to allow the world’s population to live in sustainable, densely-settled cities. Infrastructure investment is government’s responsibility; there is no alternative.

    The production of food, clothing, shelter, entertainment, culture, education and health care must follow the precepts of closed system industrial ecology. All wastes will need to be reused. All energy will need to be renewable. All production must move away from one-time use of finite resources that are consumed and then dumped into a hole in the ground. To accomplish these goals we will need public policy to regulate production and we will need to redefine the meaning of competent management. Just as a manager who can’t read a financial statement is incompetent, a manager ignorant of the cost and impact of an organization’s use of natural resources also lacks competence.

    The way we live will change, but it may well be better: healthier, more intellectually stimulated, more socially engaged, more community oriented and possibly more satisfying. The nature of work will continue to change: away from manual labor to professions relying more on brainpower and creativity.

    A sustainable economy need not be defined by limits, but by opportunity. The nature of consumption will change, but will not be reduced. This is well underway. How much of your day is now spent talking on a cell phone, surfing the web, communicating via social media, and gazing at video screens? How much attention do we pay to our diet, to exercise and to health, particularly when compared to previous generations? We spend our time differently than our parents and grandparents. The nature of consumption will continue to change from a throw-away society to something we cannot yet fully imagine.

    Governor Cuomo made his announcement at Columbia University in part because of the university’s commitment to environmental research and education, as evidenced by its two decade-long investment in the Earth Institute. Not bad for a fringe issue…

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