The City of Minneapolis has declared a climate emergency. What does it mean to be in a state of emergency? If you’re having a health emergency, you ride in an ambulance with sirens blaring. The normal rules of the road are suspended as drivers get out of the way. When your house is on fire, a fire truck races towards you, blasting through red lights as you stop, drop and roll. An emergency means you drop what you’re doing and put all your efforts towards solving the problem at hand. It’s a pretty simple concept, right?
The climate emergency was on my mind when I received a letter in the mail that began with the ominous words “Dear Minneapolis taxpayer” and went on to inform me of a $7 million street resurfacing project in my neighborhood. This is the kind of letter that usually causes my eyes to glaze over. This time, though, I perked up. Wait a minute, I thought, we’re in the middle of a climate emergency and I’m paying to extend the status quo of asphalt-covered residential streets with free parking? Transportation is a huge contributor to climate breakdown in our city and in our state. All that pavement for driving and car storage contributes to the urban heat island effect and prevents rain water from seeping into the ground, making us more vulnerable as the temperature rises and rain storms become stronger and more frequent. The cars and trucks we drive on top of the pavement spew out noxious gases that harm our health while also warming the planet. The City of Minneapolis has included climate change in the Transportation Action Plan–the City knows that our transportation system is contributing to the climate crisis and making us vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Additionally, the City has declared that we’ve got a climate emergency on our hands that “demands a massive-scale mobilization to halt, reverse and address the consequences and causes of climate change.” So, where’s the stop, drop and roll?
Because my fear of the climate crisis is stronger than my dread of attending a potentially tedious public meeting, I headed over to my neighborhood recreation center for the street repaving informational session with Public Works. I waited as neighbors asked questions about coordination with utilities and such, and then I had a chance to ask my question. “Can you tell me about the climate impact of the street resurfacing program? I’m curious what the carbon cost of the project is, and how you might reduce that cost.” A city engineer stared at me as if I had asked my question in another language. “What? Can you repeat that?” he said, though I had spoken loudly and clearly. “The City of Minneapolis has declared a climate emergency. You’ve told us what the monetary cost of the project is, and I’d like to know the carbon cost,” I clarified. Still looking completely perplexed, he conferred with his fellow Public Works employees, and said “I have no idea. No one has ever asked me that before.” And then he moved onto the next question. A few neighbors gave me a thumbs up for asking the question, which made me feel a little less like a Martian in a skin suit.
We’ve got ten years to drastically cut our emissions, and we’re not going to get there by conducting business as usual like this. When your house is on fire, you don’t continue cooking dinner while you wait for the fire truck to arrive. You turn off the stove, grab your cat and run out of the house, and leave the stir fry for later.
In a way, it’s actually kind of exciting that the City does not appear to be considering the climate impact of routine public expenditures like my neighborhood street resurfacing program. Far from exhausting all our options in the fight against climate change, we have tons of untapped potential to cut our emissions and increase our resilience. The climate emergency doesn’t necessarily require a huge amount of new funding or an entirely new city department–instead, it requires us to bring climate considerations to the forefront of all the seemingly mundane work we’re already doing. Every time we spend a dollar (or $7 million) of public money, we have an opportunity and a moral imperative to respond to the climate emergency. We know our communal house is on fire, and it’s time we started taking that into account in all our decisions.