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Portland Tries a CAP-and-Prosper Plan for Climate Change

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I rode my bicycle to the first Town Hall on Portland, Oregon's new Climate Action Plan. So did the Mayor. This is relevant.

Bicycling is part of Portland's DNA. It's how many of us get around, stay fit, save money, boost our endorphins, and avoid parking hassles. Bicycling is also a key ingredient in our recipe for climate change solutions. As are some other surprising approaches that can apply to other cities.

Portland's new plan for shifting to a low-carbon future calls for more trees, bicycles and streetcars; vibrant, walkable neighborhoods; community gardens, farmers markets and green rooftops; and new living wage jobs based on clean industries and our creative culture.

In other words, the plan for climate stability is a blueprint for a better city. Period.

It's easy to think that solving climate change is about inventing the car of the future, or replacing coal plants with renewable energy. Yes, we need to do that and more. But it turns out that when we look closely at the climate challenge, we find that it's connected to every other aspect of our lives. Real climate solutions are about turning a dire threat into new opportunities for restoring stability and also creating new prosperity, economic and community health and well-being. It's about recognizing that the best solutions solve multiple problems.

Meeting the challenge also means shifting from a DIY do-it-yourself culture to a DIT do-it-together one. In addition to Portland, more than 950 cities from coal-town Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania to big cities like New York, Denver, and Los Angeles, have committed to aggressive action through the US Conference of Mayors' Climate Protection Agreement and to sharing info and best practices. The map of America's climate-leading cities is the true thousand points of light in a previously dark political landscape. (A true DIT effort, of course, also means we need Congress to catch up with these cities and get serious about capping US emissions to spur the shift to a clean energy economy as well as position us for international leadership at Copenhagen this year. )

As for Portland's plan, it's a far cry from government-speak. Here is the joint city-county vision for creating a low-carbon future -- verbatim from the Climate Action Plan or CAP:

Each resident lives in a walkable and bikeable neighborhood that includes retail businesses, schools, parks and jobs.

Green-collar jobs are a key component of the thriving regional economy, with products and services related to clean energy, green building, sustainable food and waste reuse and recovery providing living wage jobs throughout the community.

Homes, offices and other buildings are durable and highly efficient, healthy, comfortable and powered primarily by solar, wind and other renewable resources.

Urban forest, green roofs and swales help cover the community, reducing the urban heat island effect, sequestering carbon, providing wildlife habitat and cleaning the air and water.

Food and agriculture are central to the economic and cultural vitality of the community, with productive backyard and community gardens and thriving farmers markets. A large share of food comes from farms in the region, and residents eat healthily consuming more locally grown grains, vegetables and fruits.

That may sound excitingly or unbelievably Ecotopian. Either way, the Portland plan is the kind of integrated change necessary to get to climate stability and move towards energy independence.

Plus, it's built on a platform of achievement. We've been reducing our emissions since 1993, when Portland became the nation's first city to adopt a climate policy. While the nation's global warming pollution emissions have shot up 17 percent, Portland's dropped by one percent, even with a rising population. And a rising quality of life.

For numbers lovers, the new plan is a pathway to an 80% emissions reduction by 2050 with real interim benchmarks. Getting there will require a shift in financing, policies and perspective. For each of us and for every community, facing the climate challenge doesn't mean curtailing our options but expanding them. It means creating a path out of despair and to new possibilities that have multiple benefits. As Albert Einstein reminded us, "We can't solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them."

Diane Dulken served on Portland's Sustainable Development Commission from 1999 to 2002, and is a communications strategist who works with public interest organizations and businesses building a sustainable economy.

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