Michael Berkowitz, 100 Resilient Cities: A new era in climate action

Michael Berkowitz 100 Resilient Cities
Michael Berkowitz, president of Rockefeller Foundation offshoot 100 Resilient Cities.

Look no further than Paris for an example of resilience in action. Back in 2014, the year before the city would host the momentous COP 21 United Nations climate talks, a laser focus on environmentalism pushed officials to apply for the Rockefeller Foundation offshoot 100 Resilient Cities.

"Then 2015 happened," recalled 100 Resilient Cities President Michael Berkowitz. "You had two terrorist attacks and a refugee crisis in Europe."

The city's high-profile struggle to stay on top of dual social and environmental challenges makes it a prime example of the interdisciplinary approach to planning 100 Resilient Cities has espoused in its first three years in operation, capped last year when 37 new cities brought the effort to its namesake 100 cities.

The nonprofit, which has staff in New York, London and Singapore, offers an initial two years of funding to hire a chief resilience officer to oversee creation of a strategic resilience plan, plus administrative support and access to other participating cities dealing with similar challenges. Now, however, the organization finds itself at the forefront of a global conversation about the role of local climate action, particularly as the presidency of Donald Trump threatens to roll back U.S. climate commitments.

In the meantime, the fundamental question of how to contend with fast-evolving international conflicts over issues such as refugee resettlement is also more relevant than ever.

"There have been a number of global events that have suggested that national governments are moving in one direction and local and city governments are moving in another," Berkowitz said. "The great thing about working with cities is that mayors are innovative and largely not as partisan. They focus on getting stuff done."

Exactly what's top of mind depends on where cities are in the process.

The 37 cities admitted in a third wave of 350 applications late last year are in the early stages of community meetings designed to help shape a comprehensive strategic plan. Meanwhile, an initial class of cities including New York, Rotterdam and Rio de Janeiro find themselves approaching a critical juncture, deciding if and how to continue funding chief resilience officer positions on their own as they move toward implementation of strategic plans.

"We’re trying to fundamentally change the way we govern cities," Berkowitz said. "You wouldn’t run a city without a chief resilience officer any more than you would a chief of police."

The Trump wild card

Given the broad nature of resilience, encompassing everything from disaster preparedness to affordable housing, how exactly the field stands to be affected by the recent inauguration of Trump as president isn't completely clear.

Particularly for American cities farther along in the planning phase, such as San Francisco and New Orleans, Berkowitz said organization and focus on particular projects could help navigate turbulent times.

"I think those cities are largely in a wait and see mode," Berkowitz said. "Really, at the core of it is what actual funding and policy changes get made or don’t? Within that will be both opportunities and risks."

So far, the Trump administration has moved to roll back environmental regulations on coal mining and revived stalled plans for the Dakota Access oil pipeline. Trump also has vowed to withdraw U.S. support for the Paris climate agreement, although others, in particular China, are signaling a willingness to help fill the void.

"At this critical juncture, America should not become a climate isolationist," wrote the World Resources Institute's Andrew Light and David Waskow in an ongoing series about the Trump presidency and climate change. "America's most steadfast allies and trade partners support the Paris Agreement."

That leaves 100 Resilient Cities at the head of the pack looking more closely at so-called "sub-national" climate action — looking to states and cities rather than federal governments.

More than 11,000 climate commitments have been made by cities, companies, investors, citizens and other non-state actors as of June, according to Yale University data. In addition to localized efforts such as 100 Resilient Cities, the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group focuses on reducing carbon emissions and mitigating climate risk in global megacities such as Nairobi, Seoul and Buenos Aires.

Although the balance of U.S. and international climate action in the years to come is an open question, state and local leaders have signaled that there may be workarounds to federal recalcitrance.

California Gov. Jerry Brown, for instance, reassured the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco late last year that the Trump administration's hostility to NASA's ongoing climate data collection could be overcome.

"If Trump turns off the satellites, California will launch its own damn satellite," Brown said.

What's next

Cities from Atlanta to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, were among those accepted in 100 Resilient Cities' most recent round of 37 new members. The milestone was a big one for the nonprofit, but one that also underscores the inherently longer-term efforts that resilience entails.

"It feels great to reach the 100 for which we were named, and yet really it’s such the tip of the iceberg," Berkowitz said. "In order to really help cities change themselves — to become more livable, sustainable, resilient — that is the work of a generation."

Since 100 Resilient Cities was launched in 2013, about 1,000 cities applied for the program's namesake 100 spots.

Part of the deal for those accepted, however, is that funding for a chief resilience officer only lasts two years, testing the level of resources cities are willing to commit to resilience efforts longer term. So far, Berkowitz said that 15 cities that have reached the two-year funding cliff have all opted to keep the position in city administration.

The organization's ability to help see through promising commitments being made in those cities and others will depend on its own longevity. The Rockefeller Foundation has invested $164 million in 100 Resilient Cities to date, but Berkowitz said the nonprofit is considering other ways to generate revenue and achieve long-term financial viability.

"If we can stay connected to cities over the longer term — not just a couple of years, but 10 years or 15 years or 20 years — that’s where we can help cities move the needle," he said. "Frankly, we’ll see if we’re able to do that."

In addition to more philanthropic funding from the Rockefeller Foundation or others, Berkowitz said resilience consulting or technical work in fields such as infrastructure financing could buoy the effort. Adding new cities to the program, or finding another way to tap into the other 900 or so cities that applied for the first 100 spots, could be another option.

While every city has its own local dynamics, Berkowitz said a few common themes have started to emerge. Water management, whether a place has too little or too much water, is one common issue that more cities are looking to address with strategic green infrastructure that either absorbs or helps contain water, he said.

Financial and political challenges aside, Berkowitz said the opportunity to confront the interconnected challenges in modern cities is too big to pass up.

"This is the opportunity of the next generation of infrastructure," he said. "It’s figuring out how to build social capital at the same time as we mitigate environmental risk."