Small steps forward, small steps back: Louisville inches along on climate protection

Dec 4, 2007 at 8:56 pm

When it became clear that Presidents Clinton and then Bush would not sway with the winds of change that had governments worldwide promising to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at Kyoto, Japan, city mayors decided to act. Our own Mayor Jerry Abramson was an early signatory among the 740 who have signed the Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, pledging to lead the city in ways the president, Congress and big business have failed to lead the country.

Yet since Abramson signed the agreement more than two years ago, it’s hard to say Louisville has made the progress it could. The simple one-page document contains a dozen suggestions of changes that would help cities meet or beat the Kyoto Protocol goal of reducing greenhouse gases to 7 percent below 1990 levels within the next five years. Louisville had already created the Partnership for a Green City in 2004, a collaboration among Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS), Metro government and the University of Louisville, with committees meant to address issues such as environmental education, public health, waste management and green purchasing.

Since then, the partnership has pursued programs like joint purchasing of recycled paper, light bulb recycling services and a host of similar money-saving arrangements. They’ve ended needless lighting in vending machines, realizing that sugary pick-me-ups are enticing enough, and contributed to a month-long Natural Resource Academy for minority youth in Jefferson County. The city’s Strategic Toxic Air Reduction program, or STAR, won an award from the Environmental Protection Agency last summer.

Such steps are certainly signs of progress, but they are not necessarily progressive, as many in Louisville want to believe. Whenever talk of substantial change arises, an overarching attachment to the status quo rears its head.

Take, for instance, the 8664 campaign. Regardless of how anyone feels about it, at its core 8664 is a major move toward changing the city’s car culture (rather than creating the space for even more vehicles on the road) and literally changing the focus of land use. Opponents — like the mayor — reject the plan wholesale, apparently without considering that reduced traffic capacity is possibly a good environmental move that could be incorporated into other revitalization plans. Never mind the psychological implications of bringing riverfront traffic down the level of the land and the water, rather than above it.

This kind of oversight is symptomatic of a city reluctant to make changes that would usher in sweeping reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, even as reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change become increasingly dire, pointing the finger of blame squarely in the direction of humans. In response, Louisville has done things like fueling the fleet of JCPS buses with “biosdiesel.” The switch sounds like a dramatic leap forward, until you consider that only 2 percent of the wonderfuel is made from plant materials — when blends of up to 10 times that much are available. The problem is that thunderous applause over every minor change gives the impression that the city is charging ahead on the road to greenhouse gas reduction when, in fact, it’s more like we’re strolling, compared to some other cities.

It’s not only greenhouse gases, but it seems any environmental improvement that would affect daily life — alternate transportation, pricier but less harmful energy sources — meets blasé skepticism, if it’s not simply ignored. Although he has not actually proposed an ordinance, Councilman Jim King, D-10, would like to see plastic bag recycling, which would mean people returning their bags to stores. But his aide, Rob Holtzmann, said that would likely have to start with a dialogue and education campaign about the bags’ impact on the environment, putting us just a step or two behind developing countries like Rwanda and Tanzania, which have educated their citizens and banned the bags altogether.

“Even the Partnership (for a Green City) is about incremental change,” said David Wicks, head of environmental education at JCPS. “We’re pleased that we’re recycling white paper; we’re not necessarily reducing how much paper we use.”

Wicks said working with children helps keep his eye on the future in a different way from those who might faun over every new efficient traffic light. While tactical fixes are good for making the status quo more sustainable, they alone won’t generate real change.

“It’s about developing an alternative vision to how we live and work,” Wicks said. “It’s not necessarily about tweaking individual projects or initiative. I’m not saying that’s not part of it of course, but it is really about visualizing a different future.”

This week, the Partnership’s first program manager started on the job. That may be just what Louisville needs — “someone who will wake up thinking about these initiatives and will provide some of that follow-through,” as Wicks put it.

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