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Henry Cisneros: We're Hitting 'Point Of No Return' On Climate Change

Image: Henry Cisneros takes part in a panel discussion titled \"Fixer-Upper: Repairing the U.S. Housing Market\" at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California
Henry Cisneros, Executive Chairman, City View, former Secretary, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and former San Antonio Mayor, takes part in a panel discussion titled "Fixer-Upper: Repairing the U.S. Housing Market" at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California May 1, 2012. REUTERS/Danny Moloshok (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS) - RTR31H7M© Danny Moloshok / Reuters / REUTERS

Henry Cisneros, who served as housing secretary in the Clinton administration and mayor of San Antonio, has taken to “evangelizing” about climate change to a distinct group - the business sector. While it may seem contradictory to his years spent as an urban developer, growing San Antonio into a major metropolis and shepherding housing ownership, Cisneros told NBC News Latino that the two areas marry up well and there is urgent need to consider them jointly. He elaborated in the interview below, which has been edited and condensed.

NBC: You were part of a group of three businessmen who issued a report last summer about climate change. Tell me about the significance of that report and why you did it with the others.

CISNEROS: I have spent most of my life working on urban and city and housing matters. The case has been made to me in recent years on how those things are going to be impacted by the problems of climate change and it’s very real. My expertise tends to be in the real estate area and here was just ample evidence that climate change is going to impact cities and real estate - issues like rising sea levels and their impact for inundation for particular American cities like Miami and Norfolk.

You’ll see more evidence of "Hurricane Sandys." However the most vulnerable areas to that kind of violent inundation are on the Gulf Coast, New Orleans and Houston with the energy refineries along the Houston Ship Channel.

Other climate impacts that you can trace in the same way are the increasing temperatures -like the ones you get in Arizona, now reaching farther into the Midwest and indeed, even the upper Midwest. Places that might have a dozen days over 100 degrees or over 95 will have 40 or 60, several months worth of heat of that magnitude, with implications for issues like droughts and their impact on agriculture, as well as the price of water, permitting of water for development, implications for energy prices because of the air conditioning requirements and implications for things like worker activity and how many hours workers can put in in the course of a day working construction on the top of a hot roof.

NBC: It’s been six months since that report was released, we have a new Congress that is Republican-controlled, one of the first issues up is Keystone XL pipeline, one thing talked about preceding the new Congress is rolling back EPA standards … Are the findings of your report having an impact?

CISNEROS: This task force took a different approach than the norm, which was to cite scientific evidence and hope that people notice. This went one step further, which was to take that scientific evidence and focus on industries with the cost implications for those industries.

The hope is that when business people pay attention, when this is starkly drawn for them, that their economic motives will kick in and suddenly it will not be a conversation about the environment, it will not be a conversation about the science, it will not be a conversation about the ripeness of it, the moral issues, but it will be a conversation about practical business.

This is going to cost us. It’s clear that business people need to be making decisions, at which point business people become interested in the policy issues, because now we are talking money. Always, when business weighs in, public opinion is influenced.

NBC: Are you doing anything to keep up the drumbeat, because you know how we newspeople are, we do it one time and we move on?

CISNEROS: I’ve done a number of speeches on the subject to business groups and decision-making groups. I spoke to the mayors of the Mississippi River Valley cities all the way from Minneapolis-St. Paul in the north, to St. Louis in the Midwest to cities like Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

The core group is still active and indeed there’s been talk about continuation of the project to talk about other aspects that need to be publicized.

NBC: With this coming election and with pressure to achieve something in this Congress, are you afraid that things such as rolling back EPA or clean water standards or Clean Water could get ahead of what you are hoping to get done?

CISNEROS: I’m disappointed in the fact that some of the basic questions have become politicized. Today it’s not possible for many Republicans to talk about the impact of climate change, as obvious as it is, because it’s been made into one of those litmus test issues for Republicans who will then be judged as soft on conservative values if they then adopt some climate change conclusions.

One of the verbal frameworks being used is conservatives answer the question about climate change by starting with the phrase, 'I’m not a scientist so I can’t judge the scientific evidence.' That’s the slip for not having to talk about it, even though with every week that passes, with every month that passes, with every year that passes, the implications get more and more serious.

We’re moving toward points of no return where the cumulative effect of the damage becomes a spiral downward from which the systems cannot recover, so issues like rising sea levels or exorbitant heating or historic level droughts take on multiple dimensions beyond the initial and that’s the danger of trying to duck the conversation the way many are trying to do today.

NBC: How do you reconcile your work on climate change and your work in urban development?

CISNEROS: It’s not hard at all because cities can be places where energy is conserved, where carbon emissions are reduced and the impact on climate change is minimized, diminished.

There’s things we can do along the lines of public transit; there’s things we can do along the lines of sustainable buildings with the proper use of building materials. There’s things we can do along the lines of density - reduce the amount of water needed for common spaces or the amount of energy by creating energy efficient buildings with more people in them.

For the first time in the history of humankind, more people live in cities than in rural areas in our world and that’s an irreversible pattern. Given that’s the reality before us and ahead of us, we need to be attentive to the climate change implications of cities.

NBC: Some cities are moving in that direction already.

CISNEROS: Some cities are doing better than others. Cities that are younger, tend to do better, [they] have an outdoor history, a tradition of environmental values. Those are examples where real progress is being made: everything from the way bicycle lanes are laid out to electric car supports to conservation measures of all kinds, to the nature of building configurations and then people’s expectations of each other not to drive the most gas guzzling vehicles, for example.

NBC: Do you think the Obama administration has moved that forward?

CISNEROS: The president has done a great deal to indicate this is a serious issue and a priority and has done some things he can do with his own powers, for example the emissions issues related to power plants.

But I think one of the most important things a national administration can do is to set the climate of incentives, to set the framework of incentives, so we can multiply what the federal government can do with initiatives at the local level. That’s where the real action is going to be. That’s where the multiplication factor can come in. That’s where the mass action can occur, when this goes viral at the local level.

That’s where the cities come in. We can make some of the greatest progress toward global carbon emissions goals through the initiatives of cities.

NBC: So what does the average person do?

CISNEROS: One: Gets informed about the issues, because we need an informed public. Two: Take some measures on one’s own, in one’s own life that are responsible, related to the use of vehicular use, transportation and building materials and use of space. Three: Participate in things that are part of political consciousness, raising public awareness and being part of those things that establish a culture of responsibility with respect to the environment.

NBC: Are you going to support a Hillary Clinton candidacy (for 2016 presidential race) if that happens?

CISNEROS: I expect to. I feel like, as close to a blood brother to Bill Clinton as I could be and therefore that would make her my sister-in-law.

NBC: Do you think if someone like Jeb Bush with his level of Spanish ....

CISNEROS: I think it'll make it a very tough race. I think the toughest possible opponent is Jeb Bush. It would be a very worrisome and competitive campaign. He'd be the toughest, without a doubt.