EDITOR’S NOTE: Just days before his death this past April, the eminent theorist Benjamin Barber published his final book, Cool Cities: Urban Sovereignty and the Fix for Global Warming. The book is a passionate call to action, a nudge to cities to claim their rightful place in the fight against climate change. When it was published, it felt like a smart, idealistic argument. Today, in the wake of Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement—followed by a surge of US cities vowing to honor the agreement—it feels prescient. What follows is a brief excerpt.
The science of human survival is political science. Survival depends on sustainability and resilience, and the means to sustainability and resilience are political. It is for survival (security) that naturally free human beings enter into a social contract and bind themselves to obey the sovereign governing bodies they establish.
Centuries ago, when the idea of a social contract was established in the West, the sovereign governing bodies able to secure life and liberty were conceived as nation-states. But as the world has become more global and interdependent, sovereign nations and their international networks have grown less effective, sometimes even dysfunctional. Survival—a sustainable world—depends more and more on citizens acting locally in the name of global goods, of which climate change and decarbonization are prime examples. Sustainability today entails glocality, action that is simultaneously local and global. Municipal policies must be crafted with an eye on their impact not over months or even years but over generations, as well as among communities and peoples across the interdependent planet.
Of the many threats to a sustainable world, none is more dramatic and perilous than human-induced climate change and its consequences, which include global warming, sea-level rise, and extreme weather. The collective impact of these consequences is putting civilization at risk—indeed, perhaps putting life on earth at risk. For even though as Lynn Margulis liked to say, “Gaia is a tough bitch,” whether the planet is tough enough to deal with our species’ hubris is yet to be seen.
I propose in this volume to address climate change by focusing on municipal approaches to renewable energy and a non-carbon economy, to decarbonization in a metropolitan setting. Cities can do decarbonization, and when they act interdependently, they can do it on a scale relevant to global warming.
The agency and actions needed are urban and local rather than national. Cities are home to more than half of the human population and more than three-quarters of the population of developed nations. They generate 80 percent of global GDP as well as 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. They also suffer the lion’s share of the economic damage from extreme weather events and sea-level rise. Along with agriculture, they consume much of the planet’s water, and the metropolitan regions they define house the factories and plants that run on carbon energy and account for a preponderance of carbon emissions. Private-sector automobiles and trucks are massively polluting, and public transit systems, unless they are upgraded and electrified, make things worse. The density and lack of green space in cities make them an environmental problem from the get go. Yet density also gives them a smaller collective carbon footprint per capita than suburbs or rural regions.