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  Global Viewpoint


Rebuilding Green and Smart Cities Is Best Path to Recovery

Leonardo DiCaprio is an actor and activist who serves on the boards of Global Green USA (, the U.S. arm of Green Cross International, and the National Resources Defense Council. Matt Petersen is president and CEO of Global Green USA.

By Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Petersen

LOS ANGELES — To the 50 percent of us on this planet who are urban dwellers, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have proven our cities are not immune from seemingly faraway natural calamities. Clearly, the future of our urban centers and the global environment are inextricably linked.

Nearly 150 million Americans live on the coasts, where rapid development has overwhelmed wetlands and other natural protections against tidal storm surge, leaving cities and towns more vulnerable to storms and natural disasters than ever. The scientific consensus is that global warming is causing sea levels to rise, increasing erosion, storm surges and flooding. Cities like Miami and Houston — and even parts of New York and Los Angeles — could end up routinely flooded as global warming increases. 

Some signs of global warming are more clear than ever. Greenland is melting at an alarming rate. Chunks of ice the size of Rhode Island are breaking off from Antarctica. One recent report estimates that the Arctic Ice Cap could disappear this century. While these developments may appear distant for now, their impact will one day be felt hardest in cities, with poor, at-risk citizens in low-lying flood areas suffering the most.

And there is growing evidence from scientists at MIT, the World Meteorological Organization, and Georgia Tech, and from other experts, that global warming could be increasing the intensity of storms by adding to their power source: the warmth of the oceans.

Because of oil shortages caused by Rita knocking out refining capacity, President George W. Bush urged conservation as part of our nation's response, and we must all do our part. Unfortunately, this short-term call for conservation is not enough, and rolling back environmental protections and drilling for more oil will only make things worse down the road.

Any effective response to climate change must, of course, involve significant advances in energy efficiency, investment in mass transit and alternative energy, as well as binding agreements to curb greenhouse gases. Despite bipartisan leadership in Washington pushing for action on global warming, that has not been enough to push the agenda forward.

However, there is hope from America's cities. One hundred seventy five U.S. mayors in 38 states representing nearly 40 million Americans have adopted the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement. Cities across the U.S. — including Chicago, Atlanta and Seattle — are embracing renewable energy, energy efficiency and green building. Nearly 40 percent of our nation's energy use and greenhouse gas emissions result from the construction and operations of buildings.

Therefore, how and where we build, and rebuild, our cities in the Gulf Coast region is critical. Federal, state and local governments along with humanitarian and community groups can demand that all new and reconstructed housing — as well as schools, hospitals and other public buildings — require improved indoor air quality, healthier building standards, disaster resistance, and increased energy efficiency.

Lowering monthly electricity bills for low-income families and increasing public transit options is a big deal: Energy and transportation costs are the second-highest monthly expense for low-income families, and rising energy costs are squeezing families even more. Because of Hurricane Katrina, the Enterprise Foundation calculated nearly 1 million homes need to be rebuilt or significantly repaired. The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimated 71 percent of the units lost in Katrina were low-income.

If we embrace green, high-performance buildings, there are other benefits as well: natural lighting and ventilation, healthier materials that don't cause asthma or make it worse, improved indoor air quality and reduced water use. It can also help create new high-tech, clean jobs — technologies like solar can create up to two to three times more jobs than other energy sources. And studies show that students in “green” classrooms, with good day lighting and natural ventilation, score higher on tests and even have fewer absences.

New Orleans and the Gulf Coast can become a shining example of not just human resilience, but smarter neighborhoods, disaster-resistant urban planning, healthier homes, cleaner energy sources and improved public transportation as well. Community development organizations, religious groups and environmental nonprofits are already coming together to offer help and support to local leaders and citizens to help create healthy homes and smart neighborhoods.

Rebuilding a greener, smarter New Orleans and Gulf Coast can be an example to the world and the nation that we are capable of making great strides in reducing our dependency on oil, decreasing energy use and combating global warming.

Rita and Katrina have shown that our cities are on the front line of climate shifts. America, the most powerful democracy on the globe, can set an example for the rest of world by protecting our cities, and protecting ourselves. As evidence of global warming mounts, now is the time for American leadership to pre-empt global warming.