State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Resisting White House Chaos by Building Community

Steven Cohen, August 11, 2015 Photo by Bruce Gilbert
Read more from Executive Director Steven Cohen on the Huffington Post.

I started my professional career in the federal government, in the U.S. EPA. I was proud of our work in Washington and proud of our country. In the years since, I always thought our national government was capable of doing better, but mostly considered its dysfunction to be the result of conflicting interests and the role of money in politics and the media. I looked elsewhere for progress and found it everywhere. Then came President Trump. For most of the past seven months I’ve found the federal government disheartening and threatening, but unsurprising. Last week all of that was replaced with shame. I was deeply ashamed of the behavior of Donald Trump as he made excuses for the racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, and sexist fiends marching in Virginia. It was the worst behavior I have ever seen from an American president. The president is our head of state and our head of government. He is both King and Prime Minister. As the head of state, his job is to represent the American people and their values. Last week he failed in performing that function; he abdicated his position as head of state.

What do the rest of us do in the face of this onslaught? He is the duly elected president, and although how long he remains in office is difficult to predict, his legitimacy as president is real. Last week we saw a little bit of what we can do. Corporate leaders ran away from his advisory councils and even Republican elected leaders took him on. There will be more of this to come because Donald Trump’s greatest talent is calling attention to himself. He will do whatever it takes to get noticed and most of us cannot help but watch what he is doing. However, I am coming to the conclusion that our energies would be better spent elsewhere. The federal government is too important to ignore, and so we need to continue to stay engaged, but a higher proportion of our effort should be devoted to our communities, businesses, institutions, cities, and states.

The school year will soon begin and millions of American children will return to classrooms. Teachers will engage with students, coaches will inspire kids, and parents will cheer from the sidelines. Our hospitals will heal the sick with technology that continues to progress, smartphones will provide us with even more distractions than they do today, and new technology will help move us toward a renewable resource-based economy. In my home city, teenagers will help a mom carry her baby’s stroller up the subway stairs, someone will carry groceries to an apartment for an elderly neighbor, and people will see something and say something. We will try to keep each other safe and secure in a world that really is better than the media wants us to believe.

It also means that we need to stop waiting for the federal government to come to our rescue and fund the aging infrastructure that is crumbling in our communities. We will need to generate our own revenues to maintain subways, build bridges and tunnels, repave roads, build water and waste systems, modernize our electric grid, and expand air and seaports. This will require taxes, user fees, and public-private partnerships. Investing in the future means that we defer some gratification today so our children can benefit in the future. Extreme income inequality will not be addressed by the federal tax code and so whatever adjustments can be made will take place by the market and by state and local actions.

The absence of a federal government will make it more difficult for poorer states to invest in the future, unless they can develop a strategy that attracts capital and wealth from the outside. Here in New York City, we have the wealth needed to invest, but are suffering from political posturing and preening by our mayor and governor. Our need for a well-maintained subway system is now being held hostage to their national political ambitions. But despite their dispute, New Yorkers have the ability to generate the funds we need and our attention should be focused on crafting a deal that allows our mass transit system to be maintained and expanded.

While racists may march with torches in Virginia, we see the new multi-racial, multi-national America taking shape on our sidewalks, in our school yards, in social gatherings, and in all of our public spaces. Despite the efforts to turn back the clock to an imaginary America, our demography and mass social change have made this entire nation the “gorgeous mosaic” that my colleague Professor David Dinkins called New York City a quarter century ago. Most people have friends from different parts of the world and of different races and ethnic backgrounds. Most of our family stories are immigration stories. All four of my grandparents were immigrants. The global economy and world wide web have led to increased global travel and immigration. As a nation that still has a history of welcoming immigrants, America has become more diverse over the past half century. According to D’Vera Cohn and Andrea Caumont of the Pew Research Center:

“Americans are more racially and ethnically diverse than in the past, and the U.S. is projected to be even more diverse in the coming decades. By 2055, the U.S. will not have a single racial or ethnic majority. Much of this change has been (and will be) driven by immigration. Nearly 59 million immigrants have arrived in the U.S. in the past 50 years, mostly from Latin America and Asia. Today, a near-record 14% of the country’s population is foreign born compared with just 5% in 1965. Over the next five decades, the majority of U.S. population growth is projected to be linked to new Asian and Hispanic immigration. American attitudes about immigration and diversity are supportive of these changes for the most part. More Americans say immigrants strengthen the country than say they burden it, and most say the U.S.’s increasing ethnic diversity makes it a better place to live.”

The demonstrators in Virginia were seeking to resist this emerging reality and prevent this change from occurring, but most Americans and most communities embrace diversity. Immigration presents challenges, but American communities have always been built by people from different places coming together, finding common values and sharing the ideas, beliefs, food and customs they brought from their former home. Mayor Dinkins’ image of the gorgeous mosaic is appropriate here. Close up, each tile in the mosaic is distinct and identifiable, but when you step back and see how the tiles fit together you see a beautiful picture that has its own grace and logic. That is the American community that most of us see every day. It may not be visible from the penthouse of Trump Tower or the ballroom of Mar-a-Lago, but it is both the American dream and, for the most part, the American reality.

The recent effort to focus immigration on highly skilled workers misses the point. Yes, we want scientists and engineers from other nations. But we also want ambition, drive, daring and leadership. My grandfather, Ben Cohen, was a baker and a carpenter. He was not well-educated. But all five of his children turned out to be successful professionals. We’d like more Albert Einsteins but we need more Ben Cohens. In the coming decades, this nation can maintain its dynamism, as it has in the past, by being the last best hope of humanity. By being a gathering place for those “yearning to be free”. That was not the spirit of those carrying torches and chanting disgusting slogans, but it is the American spirit at its best. Despite the chaos that has enveloped the White House, we can take comfort in the day-to-day functioning of our American communities.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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