Last updated: 18 november, 2009 - 11:38 GMT

Climate connections: Chicago

Paul Adams in Chicago

Paul Adams is assessing how green Chicago's credentials really are

The BBC is visiting eight areas of the world to find how people are preparing for climate change. Paul Adams reports from the American city of Chicago.

click click See Paul Adams' photos from Chicago on Flickr


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Chicago skyscrapers seen from Millennium Park

Many of Chicago's skyscrapers are being "retrofitted" - but the impact can feel distant

The threatened blizzard seems to have slid off in some other direction, and the snow is melting under grey, drizzling skies.

I know the local, day-to-day weather is completely beside the point, but it surely makes it hard for many to contemplate the reality of a planet warming towards dangerous levels.

Just think about it: you're at native Chicagoan, possibly struggling as a consequence of the global economic downturn - something that's very tangible. It's snowing. You've just heard that a friend of a friend lost a brother in Afghanistan.

From far away come voices warning of dire global climatic scenarios, using highly technical terminology to describe something that, as far as you, here, now can actually see, isn’t happening.

To make matters worse, there are other voices - talking of leaked e-mails which suggest that the first voices might be trying to scare you unnecessarily. That it's all a big hoax.

You arrive at a store where it still seems that the energy saving light bulbs are more expensive and less bright than the ones you know and have used all your life. They’re supposed to last a "lifetime" (what does that mean?) and save you a bunch of money. Yeah, right. It’s a light bulb. It’ll blow by Christmas.

What do you do?

Ok. You get the point.

At the table

From our temporary headquarters at Chicago Public Radio, WBEZ, we broadcast a full day of material. As we hook up via London, Quentin Sommerville's vignettes from Chongqing fill our ears. LED street lights. A cement factory reducing its emissions.

Recycle bin in Millennium Park

Chicagoians are being urged to recycle more - but can they see the benefit?

Here in Chicago, we've toured one of the world's most famous skyscrapers, the Willis Tower - formerly known as the Sears Tower - and seen what the owners are trying to do to make it more environmentally friendly.

We’ve been out to the city's Green Technology Institute, where they run classes in how to build a "green roof" - photo-voltaic arrays, plants to insulate and reduce the heat given off - and fill your home with recycled materials.

We’ve talked to the city about its Climate Action Plan, which includes "retrofitting" 400,000 homes to make them more energy efficient.

Last night, I interviewed Michael Polsky, a local businessman who started off in gas and coal-fired power generation but whose company runs wind farms in the US and Poland. Despite the name, he's actually Russian by origin.

He says he's not a green ideologue, merely a businessman who sees the way the world is turning and wants to make sensible investments. He's encouraged by what he hears from Quentin in Qonching, and likens these various global developments it to the space race of the 1960s, with the US and Russia competing to reach the moon first.

But we've also heard from sceptics, who vehemently question the scientific evidence of global warming and scoff at reports that China and India are "at the table" in Copenhagen.


Robin Lustig

Chicago's buildings are responsible for some 70% of its carbon emissions

Chicago is known as the windy city, not just because it is windy, which at this time of year it certainly is, but also because its politicians often boast about their city's achievements.

Newshour's Robin Lustig examines their claim that Chicago is one of the greenest cities in America.

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click See photos from the Newshour team in Chicago on Flickr


To play this content JavaScript must be turned on and the latest Flash player installed.

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Big Belly trash compacter

Chicago's drive to be green is obvious in the city's Millennium Park

On Sunday morning, Chicago's glittering skyline was etched an ice blue winter sky. The sunlight was sharp and the city looked magnificent.

The billowing steel ribbons of Frank Gehry's pavilion and bridge were dazzling.

On a day like this, the air clean and crisp, I could believe almost anything about Chicago.

America's greenest city? Sure. Why not?

Had I already fallen for the Windy City’s green hype? Over dinner, an old Chicago friend warns me not to be taken in.

"Why do you think they close the beaches every summer?" he asked me, referring to the raw sewage that sometimes spews out of storm drains into Lake Michigan.

Well, I guess these things don’t happen over night. When it comes to environmentally-friendly living, a city's very population density can have its advantages. The infrastructure is close by, single buildings can accommodate many people - one useful Chicago fact: 70% of its carbon emissions comes from buildings - and a good mass transit system will get people out of their cars.

But it's still a city, generating huge carbon emissions, vast quantities of waste and plenty of problems.

Since arriving, I've met plenty of people working on solutions, from experts on sustainable development, volunteers teaching classes on building green homes, and the "father of carbon trading," Richard Sandor, who founded America's only voluntary carbon emissions and trading scheme, the Chicago Climate Exchange.

Sandor, a veteran of all manner of markets, is particularly impressive. He is passionate about the environment, but equally passionate in arguing that cap and trade is all about opportunity, less about cost.

Of course, we've come to Chicago looking for people who are in the business of establishing the city's green credentials, but chance encounters suggest that while Chicagoans aren’t exactly tree huggers, some of them do aspire to a greener life.

A taxi driver of Latvian origin extols the virtues of his hybrid car and says his heating bills are significantly lower, now that he's moved into a green building.

He takes us to the Science and Technology Museum (“the largest in the Western hemisphere”), where we tag along with the Kincaid family during a guided tour of The Smart Home, a complete, modular house in the grounds where recycled glass features in bathroom tiles and kitchen counters.

A "green roof" cools the house in summer, insulates in winter and retains rainwater. A tabletop composter is 100% recyclable - "you can compost the composter."

I ask Kevin if he feels inspired by what he's seen.

"Probably more convicted than inspired," he admits, with commendable honesty. His wife, Dawn, wonders just how much it would cost to buy all these clever, recycled products.

"Although in the end it's good for the environment, how much is it going to cost me on the short end to choose the recycled glass counter-top, versus some other material?"

And that's the problem in a nutshell. More and more people are wondering if they should "go green", but everyone – families, cities, nations – is wondering whether the investment is going to be worth it.

After Sunday’s sunshine, Monday brought the first winter snow to the Windy City. And all this is about global warming, right?


Chicago during Earth Hour

Chicago took part in Earth Hour in 2008 - but how green can the city become?

For a very long tme now, the US has been the world's worst polluter. So the world is looking to Washington for leadership.

Here is the conundrum. At Copenhagen, the United States will not sign up to any emission reductions treaty it knows it cannot ratify. And no other nation will sign a treaty not signed by the United States.

The climate change bill before the US Senate seeks to reduce emissions by 17% from 2005 levels by 2020 and more than 80 percent by 2050.

But it faces fierce opposition, and could be watered down. It may not pass at all.

And many say far greater cuts are needed anyway.

During the Bush years, it was American states and cities which took the lead. Chicago, with the nation's only climate exchange, is vying to be one of America's greenest cities.

But Chicago is also home to some of the world's greatest climate change sceptics - who also question the city's green credentials.

The Climate Connection

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