04/04/2014 03:06 pm ET Updated Jun 04, 2014

Get Real on Climate Change

Earth Day is upon us and that means attention is focused on cleaner water and air, along with a more recent emphasis on climate change - perhaps this century's greatest challenge. It's appalling we are wasting time debating whether or not climate change is real. Instead, we should be talking about solutions.

In March, two reports were issued that make clear - yet again - the problems of climate change are real and getting more severe. First, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the largest scientific organization in the world, declared that the planet is now seeing the impact of climate change and that the consequences could be catastrophic. Most ominous, the association said the window for effective action is swiftly closing.

Then, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations organization that for 15 years has been warning us about the awful costs of a hotter Earth, released its most dire report yet. Melting polar ice caps, extended droughts and massive floods are getting worse - at an increasing rate. What's more, unless we reduce our fossil fuel dependency, the report concludes we are sure to face climbing temperatures, rising seas, species loss and dwindling agricultural yields for decades, if not centuries. The damage will be particularly severe in coastal communities.

As former Vice President Al Gore recently wrote in the New York Times about climate change, "the extra heat is also absorbed in the top layer of the seas, which makes ocean-based storms more destructive. Just before Hurricane Sandy, the area of the Atlantic immediately windward from New York City and New Jersey was up to nine degrees warmer than normal."

As Mayor of Jersey City, a riverfront city devastated by Sandy, these impacts aren't hypothetical. They are real and cannot be ignored.

The Obama administration has made important changes to slow the impact of climate change by increasing fuel efficiency requirements. In addition, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is moving forward to require carbon reductions at all proposed and existing fossil fuel power plants.

Unfortunately, more significant action won't be coming from Washington any time soon. It is a tragic fact that Congress is stuck still talking about whether climate change is real or not. Tea Party Republicans refuse to acknowledge that climate change is a serious threat that can't be ignored.

For those of use who are in the real world, the term think globally act locally could not be more true.

Mayors are now the leaders in recognizing and acting on the impact of climate change by incorporating resiliency into building codes and zoning decisions. For instance, in Jersey City, where a good portion of our homes are built on landfill barely above sea level, we have changed zoning ordinances to raise homes by up to five feet and have raised intersections that were especially susceptible to flooding. We have also installed a technologically-advanced high speed and high volume drainage pump system at significant cost to the city. Other mayors are following similar approaches.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has partnered with Stevens Institute of Technology to model storm surges and the barriers needed to protect Jersey City. It will serve as a model for future protection of coastal cities. Of course, the costs for this protection are astronomical.

That's why to truly protect the planet behavior must change. Energy efficiency improvements in all public buildings are essential. Cities need to be leaders as well by moving to hybrid and electric fleets of cars and trucks. And perhaps most important - and relatively easier to achieve - cities must reverse the current trend and boost recycling, which saves energy. In addition, cities must focus on turning brownfields back to productive uses, cleaning the properties for parks and energy saving modern buildings. As an example, Jersey City is turning a heavily polluted site into a clean, six acre park.

What's more, we must develop our cities around transit and invest in more and enhanced public transportation. In Jersey City, we are focusing our next wave of residential and commercial development on our city center in Journal Square, which is a hub for both bus and PATH train service. We are also advocating at the state and federal level for funding to increase service to accommodate the thousands of new residents expected in the coming years.

All of these initiatives are achievable and cities must lead the way as Congress will not be acting in the near term. Quite literally, acting locally is the start to achieving global protection. Climate change is real. We must act or suffer the horrible consequences if we don't.


Steven Fulop is Mayor of Jersey City, NJ.