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Campaign Blog

‘Climate Emergency’: A City-based Theory of Change

September 2019 San Francisco Youth Climate Strike

Communities on the frontlines of the climate crisis are increasingly coming to terms with the reality that current federal and state governments have no tangible plan to deliver us from climate evil.

Though presidential candidates such as Bernie Sanders proffer exceptional justice-oriented climate policies, even under the best of circumstances we are at least three years out from achieving a national political environment conducive to a habitable planet. At the same time, we are already two years into the twelve-year window for climate action, without having achieved much. 

While there is some virtue in tending one’s own garden, cities that have declared climate emergency are acting now knowing full well that they alone cannot turn the tide; a city with zero emissions makes a negligible dent on the global crisis. 

Instead, advocates believe that a single city’s legislative resolve against fossil fuel and environmental injustice might cause dominos to fall in other cities, bolstering a larger movement to drag, shame and compel higher legislative bodies with more authority and resources to do what must be done in the precious interim. 

In this way, the climate emergency is, in theory, the opposite of the fossil fuel industry’s calling card: denial. 

In addition, just as the United States is responsible for a disproportionate amount of greenhouse gas emissions and is ethically bound to lead in reducing emissions as compared to less profligate and wealthy countries, it stands to reason that cities of vast wealth and consumption, such as San Francisco, ought to respond accordingly. 

The Wellspring of the Climate Emergency: the Legislative Branch

San Francisco Climate Emergency Coalition celebrating passage of the SF Climate Emergency Resolution, April 2019
San Francisco Climate Emergency Coalition celebrating the introduction of the SF Climate Emergency Resolution, February 2019

This movement officially began in Darebin, Australia, the first municipality to declare a climate emergency, while Berkeley and Los Angeles led in California. 

Emergency declarations do nothing on their own. Unlike ordinances, they are typically non-binding resolutions that stop short of changing law or commanding budgetary resources. 

Just as firefighters need to be dispatched by 911, community members must dispatch their legislators. The legislative branch, in theory the closest to the people, remains the wellspring of action, no matter how dusty its levers. 

As in the case of San Francisco, community members, having dispatched their legislators, may yet find their leaders unwilling to turn the levers of the state. 

San Franciscans demanded their legislators to act on the Climate Emergency, successfully pushing their Board of Supervisors, on April 2, 2019, to unanimously pass a Climate Emergency Declaration. Tellingly, Mayor London Breed declined to sign. Nonetheless, the declaration’s first line ostensibly requires “immediate and accelerated action to address the climate crisis and limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.” 

SF Climate Emergency Declaration, Unsigned by Mayor Breed
SF Climate Emergency Declaration, Unsigned by Mayor Breed, April 2019

Rejecting the Market and Perception Management Approach to Climate Emergency

Ten months out from the unsigned declaration, the City is dragging its feet. Instead of actually addressing the root causes of crises, leaders often pride themselves on the appearance of bold action, while simultaneously prioritizing, and deferring to, market forces directly at odds with emissions reductions. In this way, if perceptions are managed, leaders wager that actual steps to mitigate the climate emergency are not necessary.

In one recent example, despite understanding the myriad dangers of tens of thousands of natural gas-powered private units in the construction pipeline, in December 2019 the Mayor and Board of Supervisors merely passed a weak market and incentive-based ordinance they claimed would persuade developers to opt for all-electric over gas despite experts in the building industry stating that the incentive would not be enough to push developers to build all-electric. In fact, many builders were already meeting the new requirements, rendering the new regulation ineffective.   

This coalition of environmental advocates fought to at the very least require the sufficient electric capacity and wiring needed to facilitate future electrification in these proposed units, yet that proposal was quashed in deference to developers expecting to build with gas. 

Here, the exigencies of the market won out over the public interest. But San Francisco leaders, ignoring reality, claimed that they were still climate champions. 

Ultimately, in a twisted irony, the effort to protect market forces from phantom burdens will cost builders and our climate dearly: City analysts established that all-electric design is less expensive than gas (without even including stranded-assets), while scientists established that methane is leaking precipitously across the entire gas supply chain and is poisoning our homes and air. 

This is the wicked reality of civic life in the twenty-first century, where markets are prioritized and crises are merely managed from a publicity perspective, but not declared or addressed.

As British documentarian Adam Curtis noted, the constant contradiction of political leaders proclaiming to grapple with crises juxtaposed with the reality of inaction has a dangerous tendency to sap the power of those trying to organize for rapid change:  

“It sums up the strange mood of our time, where nothing really makes any coherent sense. We live with a constant vaudeville of contradictory stories that makes it impossible for any real opposition to emerge, because they can’t counter it with any coherent narrative of their own.

And it means that we as individuals become ever more powerless, unable to challenge anything, because we live in a state of confusion and uncertainty. To which the response is: Oh dear. But that is what they want you to say.”

– Adam Curtis Oh Dear II (2014)

Fortunately, many see through the “hypernormalisation.” Indeed, a broad coalition hailing from across every inch between Bayview-Hunters Point to Sea Cliff, must continue to rise to navigate us through the eye of this storm: the legislative branch, known as the Board of Supervisors.  

Pushing them to equitably do all that is necessary to address the climate emergency, instead of managing perceptions and deferring to corporate power and money, must be the object of our organizing. 

What Does a Climate Emergency Response Look Like?

The concept is radically simple, even if the implementation is less so. The City must collaborate with its residents to swiftly and justly shift to clean energy sources, and banish natural gas and oil to the ground where it belongs. Municipal ordinances in San Francisco must halt new fossil fuel infrastructure, and allocate public funds to transition community members and workers to new infrastructure. 

Beyond eliminating gas, the Community Housing Act, possibly on the November 2020 ballot, represents one such intersection between the two great necessities of our time: social housing and a safe climate. In purposefully centering renovated or newly built gas-free housing around transit centers, and capping rents at 25% of household income so that residents pay what they can afford, its success could significantly increase housing security and reduce local carbon emissions. The Act would be funded through taxing the wealthiest corporations in San Francisco. 

To prioritize profit over human life, regardless of the fact that we face a certain existential crisis, is a crime. To fight a climate emergency, you first have to declare one. The community already has. When will the City act? 

Please join us by signing the petition, volunteering, and donating to support the campaign to win a gas ban in new buildings and a program of equitable retrofits for existing buildings. 

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