As Climate Struggle Gets Real, Cities Stand on Front Line

October 17, 2018

TipSheet: As Climate Struggle Gets Real, Cities Stand on Front Line

As a new report from top scientists says that without drastic and immediate action climate change will radically change our world, U.S. cities and states are grabbing the reins of leadership. That means climate action is probably a story in your own city or state.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, drawing on the world’s top climate scientists, published a report Oct. 8 on what it would take to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees centigrade. Short answer: total change in the world’s energy infrastructure. One readout of the IPCC report is that local action on climate is more urgent than ever.

Too often the response to climate change is written about as a matter of national or global policy. It’s often a sad story. But the story can brighten at the state and local level. If federal government is deadlocked on the issue, that may makes states and cities the last, best hope.

For instance, even as the report was making headlines, Washington, D.C.’s city council was taking up a bill mandating (may require subscription) the city convert to 100 percent renewable energy by 2032.

D.C. is hardly alone. The state of California back in August voted to move to 100 percent climate-friendly, carbon-free energy by 2045. That bill was sponsored by state Sen. Kevin de León. In California, such plans are seen as not only an economic boon, but a political one (de León is challenging Sen. Dianne Feinstein in the state’s upcoming Democratic primary).

And it’s not just bastions of urban liberalism. Iowa City, Iowa, made a similar move in September. The city rolled out a draft climate action plan that would reduce emissions by 80 percent by 2050.

A lot more cities are doing their own versions of a climate action plan: Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York and San Francisco to name a few more.

And it’s not just the big cities. There are currently climate action stories unfolding in Flagstaff, Ariz.; San Antonio, Texas; Corvallis, Ore., and Encinitas, Calif. Some resources for tracking local climate action plans are here and here.

Cities face climate-related damage

Iowa City, Iowa, in September rolled out a draft climate action plan that would reduce emissions by 80 percent by 2050. It’s one of many cities developing climate action plans, including large ones like Atlanta, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles, as well as smaller cities in the Southwest, Pacific Northwest and elsewhere. Image: Courtesy, Iowa City Climate Action Today Project. Click to enlarge.

So as the federal government — at least the Trump administration and Congressional Republicans — are working hard to resist or undo climate action, cities and states are taking up the slack. Some are declaring their allegiance to the Paris Accord that Trump has disavowed.

One reason for the momentum is that many cities are today experiencing or facing harms from climate change. Those may include flooding, storm damage, heat waves, air pollution and more.

But cities actually started organizing to address climate long before Trump became a candidate. Before former President Barack Obama, even.

As far back as 2005, some 141 mayors had signed the Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, organized via the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Cities have continued signing since then.

Another nexus is a group known as ICLEI, Local Governments for Sustainability.  As time has gone on, they have joined with cities abroad to form a global movement, via groups like the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy or the C40 Cities.

You can find some of the background in this previous SEJ TipSheet and backgrounder.

The way to attack this story is to check on your local and state governments and their agencies. At the local level, there are some important questions to ask:

  • Does your city or municipality have a “Climate Action Plan?” Get a copy and read it.
  • What are the unique vulnerabilities of your city related to climate change?
  • What are the dominant greenhouse emissions sources in your city?
  • Has there been an inventory of local greenhouse emissions?
  • What municipal ordinances currently address climate? What ordinances are in the works?
  • How do your city’s transportation policies address climate change?
  • How about development plans, zoning and building codes?
  • Is the plan adequately funded? Will the funding be stable?
  • Are local businesses helped or harmed by climate change? Are they helping or hindering climate action?
  • What positions are local officials and candidates for office taking on climate action?

States on forefront of regulatory, legal battles

State governments can play a different role than cities. In some cases, that role is partisan obstruction — for example, Florida Gov. Rick Scott has forbidden state agencies to use the term “climate change.” This in a state that will be one of the earliest to be flooded by rising seas and assaulted by intensified hurricanes.

But states also play a role engaging federal climate policy. One way they do this is via lawsuits and regulatory struggles.

Witness California. Fifty years ago, smog in Southern California was making breathing there a dangerous activity. For some 50 years, as the federal Clean Air Act evolved, California set emissions standards (e.g., for vehicles) more stringent than national standards, of necessity and with federal blessing. Now the Trump administration wants to quash California’s emission limits. California is fighting back.

As the Trump Environmental Protection Agency mounts its rollbacks of environmental protections, an alliance (may require subscription) of blue-state attorneys general is going to court to block them. The lawsuits are numerous (may require subscription). Many have been successful, at least in slowing the pace of rollbacks.

But not all of the state suits succeed. Some of the unsuccessful ones involved “climate liability” suits from states like New York, Washington and California against oil companies for damages from climate change.

States also can have climate action plans. One place to track state plans is here and another is here.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 3, No. 37. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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