More than 80 percent of Americans live in cities and suburbs—and this number is skyrocketing.

NRDC programs help create strong, just, and resilient communities—making cities healthier, more sustainable places to live. We work to lower energy bills, reduce flooding, improve access to healthier food, and make it cheaper and easier for everyone to get around. And when polluters threaten communities, our lawyers go to court on their behalf. 

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Protecting Communities

Low-income communities are disproportionately affected by health problems associated with fossil fuels.

Sustainable Cities

More than 80 percent of the U.S. population lives in and around cities.

Energy-Efficient Buildings

Buildings are the single-biggest source of carbon pollution in most U.S. cities.

Climate-Resilient Cities

Thanks to better efficiency standards, Los Angeles now uses only as much water it did in the 1970s.

Local Food Systems

A typical American meal contains ingredients from five foreign countries.

What's at Stake

What you can do

5 ways city dwellers can spur climate action

What is your city doing about climate change? Ask your local leaders these five questions.

How to tackle fracking in your community

Take recycling to the next level—at home, at work, and in your community

How to protect your community from crude oil "bomb trains"

7 ways to flood-proof your house

More sustainable (and beautiful) alternatives to a grass lawn

How to call Congress

Ways to make change globally by acting locally

A step-by-step guide to protecting your community from dirty development projects

Keep the KXL tar sands pipeline out of Nebraska

Urge your governor to lead on climate action

Tell Trump we won't stop fighting global climate change

Cities Talk Boldly About Taking Action in the Face of Storms
Shelley Poticha

Tough talk about meeting the challenges of climate change abounded among city leaders at a C40 event marking Climate Week NYC this week, with city leaders staking a claim as first responders in the face of growing alarm over powerful hurricanes and other deadly effects of warming temperatures.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio declared himself humbled in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, the likes of which he wished on no mayor, while acknowledging many more of his peers will face such deadly tests—as has already been demonstrated this hurricane season in Texas, Florida and the Caribbean. New York, he said, has taken the lead nationally in cutting emissions from its biggest offender—big buildings.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel proclaimed he would make his city the epicenter of water research in the United States, pointing out that areas in the world hardest hit by climate change are also those suffering the most civil unrest.

The mayor of Austin, Steve Adler, described his city’s focus on renewable energy, green jobs and the environment generally as part of the reason business is flocking there. “We have companies that come to Austin because the people who work for that company want to live in Austin,” he said.

More than 25 cities in 17 states, with populations totaling more than 5 million have adopted resolutions that will enable them to get 100 percent of their electricity from renewable sources like wind and solar—Atlanta being among the latest, last spring.

De Blasio, Emanuel, Adler, other mayors from around the world, Patricia Espinosa, executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, and other U.S. and international leaders were meeting to strategize on next steps for the Paris climate accord for the first time since President Trump announced the United States would withdraw from the agreement.

A formal commitment

They were resolute in their commitment, restating the claim that if enough cities adopt the Paris goal of holding global warming below 2 degrees Celsius by 2050 on their own, they could push the world to 40 percent compliance. More than 350 U.S. mayors have pledged to commit to the goals laid out in Paris to reduce emissions by 80% by 2050, and many more intend to go farther.

C40 Cities

The C40 steering group cities announced plans to share detailed blueprints to turn the Paris agreement “from aspiration into action,” with Boston, Durban, London, Los Angeles, Melbourne, Mexico City, New York City and Paris leading the way.

Espinosa said cities must:

  • Incorporate climate change into what they are doing right now, with infrastructure, expanding transit to include electric buses, making buildings more efficient and promoting green infrastructure investments such as green bond markets.
  • Incorporate climate change and sustainability into future planning, making growth smarter and more sustainable and being proactive instead of reactive while driving innovation and a dynamic economy.
  • Communicate with citizens in ways that matter to them to overcome assumptions and roadblocks and help them understand how resilient cities are cleaner, safer and more prosperous. “You can’t hit people over the head with doom and gloom,” she said.

We need more cities on board to help national governments meet the goals of stopping climate change, she added, noting that putting the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals at the heart of the world’s economic strategy could open up $12 trillion in opportunity and create 380 million jobs by 2030.

“Nowhere are people more prepared to capture some of [climate change’s] most important opportunities” than in cities, she said.

The local solution

A question repeatedly raised in media and other arenas is whether it’s realistic to believe local action can be the catalyst for real change, especially with the lack of commitment at the U.S. federal level. The answer is, yes, it can.

California Gov. Jerry Brown and Tom Steyer, founder of NextGen America, told their Climate Week audience it’s the grassroots that will spur politicians to make the policy to ignite business, markets and an economic revolution.

“The iceburg of denial is cracking,” said Brown, with the United States’ official hardline and “preposterous” claims against climate change actually sparking stronger opposition in favor of action.

We agree but rebuilding after storms with green infrastructure, clean energy and transit, and green investment alone isn’t enough. We have to look at the environment and culture because that is where climate change and social equity collide, and that is where I am feeling the real urgency resides. Without looking at the underlying social structures that feed inequality in our cities, we risk repeating the same mistakes. Ask those displaced from their homes in Houston and Jacksonville and they will say time is running out.

We know that the lowest-income and most underserved communities face the worst consequences of climate change, and Houston and some Florida cities are prime examples because their growing populations are fueled by cheap land and lower housing costs.

But as I said recently, the cost of flooding wasn’t taken into account in property values in so-called affordable property.

Both Houston and many Florida cities have built homes, businesses and entire industries on flood-prone land with little regard to mitigating for their vulnerability in the path of hurricanes supercharged by warming seas.

The most vulnerable

If we don’t take into account the fundamental problems with that approach, we ignore the fact that those most vulnerable to having their lives disrupted or even destroyed may be pushed into even worse conditions, causing more social division and repeating costly mistakes.

As The New Yorker recently put it, the most important lesson of the latest hurricanes “is how close to the margins many Americans are now living.”

Thousands of low-income residents in Houston, for example, were relegated to living near chemical plants and refineries and now the water and land under their homes may be horribly contaminated and unsafe. To add insult to injury, those who may even want to return are now being served with eviction notices for failing to pay rent on homes and apartments that are uninhabitable. It’s a growing problem of displacement that’s predictable but devastating for families, and there are few responses from public officials.

A call to action

I told Global Citizen in a recent article, the mashup with Harvey and Irma coming so close together could be a wake-up call for coastal communities to start a real conversation about whether they can continue to just allow people to rebuild in the same places and in the same ways, potentially leaving those at the margins behind.

Steyer put it this way to the C40 leaders, saying we “can’t separate climate from everything else” because how we deal with it as an issue is a “symbol of the people we want to be.”

The public, said Emanuel, is in a different place than it was five years ago when it comes to climate change. “They’re asking for leaders to stand up. What we do in 2-3 years will determine what our cities look like in 30 years.”

Climate change is talked about everywhere as the evidence of its effects become more obvious and deadly. I even read about a mother referring to climate change worries as a reason the millennial generation may hold back from embracing adulthood. Talk and concern may spur some action, but its policy change stoked by grassroots urgency that will be the engine that drives it.

Elisheva
Mittelman

As part of NRDC's Climate team, Elisheva Mittelman supports efforts to reduce carbon pollution and encourage the transition to renewable energy sources. She is interested in clean energy policy, renewable energy technologies, and issues related to improving climate resilience. She previously served as an intern with NOAA’s National Ocean Service, the Department of Justice Environment and Natural Resources Division, and the National Council for Science and the Environment. Mittelman holds a bachelor’s degree in environmental science and policy from the University of Maryland, College Park. She is based in the New York office. 

Program Assistant, Climate & Clean Air program

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Out of the Darkness and into the Light
Sasha Stashwick

In vulnerable pockets across the globe, women are benefiting themselves, their children, and their larger communities by learning how to harness renewable energy.

The barefoot solar engineers of Tinginaput, India (from left): Talsa Miniaka, Pulka Wadeka, Meenakshi Dewan, Bundei Hidreka

©Abbie Trayler-Smith/Panos Pictures/Department for International Development

Proponents of traditional energy often point to coal and other fossil fuels as cheap while denigrating renewables like solar as expensive and unreliable. But despite being the principal mode of electricity production for well over a century, our traditional, fossil fuel–based system has failed to provide households in large swaths of the world with enough energy to power even a single light bulb.

The global phenomenon of energy poverty stands as a powerful indictment of the traditional energy system, which relies on big, centralized power plants burning enormous inputs of coal. Amazingly and disturbingly, more than 1.2 billion people—16 percent of the planet’s population—lack any access whatsoever to electricity.

Women and girls are particularly impacted by energy poverty. In those places where women are responsible for household chores—including time-intensive responsibilities such as processing food or walking long distances to collect water and wood for cooking—they are left with little time to allocate to education, income generation, and leisure. This time burden, often referred to as “time poverty,” can be greatly alleviated by access to even small amounts of electricity, enough to run basic appliances that make domestic life more efficient and less labor-intensive. Electricity access is also linked to increased employment opportunity and other income-generating activities for women. For example, the simple ability to charge a cell phone can improve a woman’s life immeasurably by connecting her to the marketplace and allowing her to share and receive information more easily.

A single household light bulb can also make working after dark possible, unlocking additional hours in the day for productive activity. With increased available time and lighting at night to complete homework, girls can better keep up with their studies and remain in school. The United Nations Development Programme has linked rural electrification, girls’ school enrollment rates, and women’s literacy—in Brazil, for instance, girls with access to electricity were found to be nearly 60 percent more likely to complete primary education.

In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, a schoolgirl is introduced to Little Sun, her first solar-powered light.

Merklit Mersha

Here in the United States, fossil fuels have utterly dominated our energy production for the past 100 years. With that monopoly, however, has come toxic air pollution and a rapidly changing climate that wreaks havoc on our communities by greatly intensifying the frequency and severity of droughts, floods, hurricanes, and other natural disasters.

In many parts of the world, families strain to access fossil fuels at even the smallest scale. More than 95 percent of those living in energy poverty reside in remote areas of sub-Saharan Africa and developing Asia. Families in these poor, largely rural communities are dependent on one fossil fuel in particular: kerosene, which they typically burn to light their lamps. Not only does burning kerosene create dangerous indoor air pollution and emit climate-warming black carbon, but for many households, spending on kerosene is one of their largest annual costs.

By contrast, renewables like solar offer a way out of the figurative and literal darkness. Recently, my NRDC colleague Kaitlin Brazill traveled to Tanzania to work with a local nonprofit called Barefoot College, which trains community members—and women, in particular—to be solar engineers. This inspiring organization teaches its enthusiastic recruits how to fabricate, install, and maintain household solar-electrification systems and portable solar-powered lanterns. These technologies are clean and cost-effective; even more important, they’re capable of reaching and serving the poor rural communities that have long been ignored or abandoned by the traditional energy system.

In India, an estimated 240 million people live without access to electricity. In the Gujarat desert, salt pan farmers bore wells and pump salt water in the remote Little Rann of Kutch, accounting for nearly 70 percent of India’s salt production. They work long, difficult days under the scorching desert sun, far from modern grid–connected electricity. They also spend up to 40 percent of their annual revenue on diesel fuel to power their water pumps. It’s here that a group known as the Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA) has piloted several pioneering off-grid energy projects designed to increase access to solar-powered pumps. NRDC, in partnership with SEWA, has evaluated these pilot projects and found that they have led to dramatic cost savings for participants and to a host of other socioeconomic, health, and environmental benefits.

In Tanzania, India, and elsewhere, women are being empowered as agents of change; they are at the forefront of these developments, helping to deploy renewable energy solutions and improve their lives. And not just their own lives are improving; their efforts have an enormous impact on the lives of their children and on the well-being of their larger communities. Evidence from countries as varied as Brazil, China, India, South Africa, and the United Kingdom shows that when women are empowered and control more of their household income, they invest that money in the next generation , benefiting children directly.

Fossil fuels have had more than a century to prove themselves the best way to provide us with energy. Back when they were our only means of generating electricity, they may have had a winning argument. But that argument is looking weaker and weaker. Not only is our fossil fuel–based system polluting the planet and causing it to warm, but it’s woefully insufficient to the task of providing electricity to everyone who needs it, leaving more than a billion people without power.

Thankfully, a better way is emerging—one that’s clean, affordable, and accessible to groups that have been disenfranchised for too long. The women of rural Tanzania and the Gujarat desert are showing the world what the future of energy production looks like in their communities. In our own communities, that transition may look different in terms of size and scale, but it’s no less overdue. It’s up to us to decide how quickly we make it.

Kaitlin Brazill contributed to this post.

Stand up to Trump’s climate-denial agenda

Health Agencies Need Help Preparing for Climate Change
Juanita Constible

Public health officials in the United States have their hands full responding to climate-related disasters, and there’s no end in sight. In the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, several southeastern states have public health emergencies due to sewage-laden floodwaters, debris covered in moldtoxic industrial air releases and chemical spills, and more. As the West burns, Montana’s Department of Public Health and Human Services is warning people about a “hideous brown [smoke] spiral of misery and despair.” At the same time, the Department must help cover the state’s fire suppression costs by proposing cuts to its own budget. And in San Francisco, health officials are investigating the recent heat deaths of three elderly people in order to develop better protection protocols.

The Texas National Guard and U.S. Coast Guard assisting a medical evacuee during Hurricane Harvey

Texas National Guard

The mounting strain on health agencies makes this news from Washington especially timely: The bicameral “Climate Change Health Protection and Promotion Act of 2017,’’ sponsored by Senator Ed Markey and Representative Matt Cartwright, “directs the Secretary of Health and Human Services to develop a national strategic action plan and program to assist health professionals in preparing for and responding to the public health effects of climate change.” 

Fully implemented, this commonsense bill would have several benefits.

  • Boosting the capacity of state and local health agencies. The Act encourages federal scientists and agencies to more widely and effectively share their vast technical knowledge with states and localities. At the same time, the Act promotes local workforce development.
  • Science-based decision-making. The Act recognizes the established science that climate change is real and bad for our health. It also recognizes, however, that officials need continued research and data collection to develop the best solutions to climate-related health problems.
  • Helping the most vulnerable. Rising seas, increasingly frequent heat waves, stronger storms, and more widespread diseases threaten all Americans, but we won’t all be equally harmed. The Act emphasizes protection for the communities and populations most sensitive to climate change, including children, pregnant women, and people in poverty.
Hurricane Irma evacuees from St. Maarten, Puerto Rico

New York National Guard

This legislation offers critical help to the many state and local health agencies lacking funding, knowledge, and specialized skills to prepare for a future surge in climate-related health problems. In fact, the level of preparedness at health agencies seems to have dropped in recent years, with one study finding a decline from 2008 to 2012 in the capacity to engage in climate adaptation programming.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt made headlines after Hurricane Irma by saying it’s "insensitive" to mention climate change as disasters unfold. But public health agencies can’t wait for a mythical perfect moment to plan. That’s particularly true against the backdrop of the Trump administration’s efforts to roll back health safeguards, reject established science, and weaken existing protections for communities in need. The Climate Change Health Protection and Promotion Act is an opportunity for Congress to support our hard-working health officials, and to make America a healthier nation—even as our climate gets hotter, wilder, and more dangerous.

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