Taking local action

Minneapolis Skyline

Over at Grist, David Roberts lays down the brutal logic of climate change:

With immediate, concerted action at global scale, we have a slim chance to halt climate change at the extremely dangerous level of 2 degrees C. If we delay even a decade — waiting for better technology or a more amenable political situation or whatever — we will have no chance.

And what’s so special about 2 degrees C?  Well, that may be something like a point of no return.

The thing is, if 2 degrees C is extremely dangerous, 4 degrees C is absolutely catastrophic. In fact, according to the latest science, says Anderson, “a 4 degrees C future is incompatible with an organized global community, is likely to be beyond ‘adaptation’, is devastating to the majority of ecosystems, and has a high probability of not being stable.”

Roberts is citing the work of Kevin Anderson, former head of the UK’s leading climate research institution.  Other scientists are making similar predictions.  James Hanson, director of Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, says, “The target of 2C… is a prescription for long-term disaster“.  Increasingly, you don’t have to look far to find words like “apocalyptic” being used to describe the path we’re on.

So we need to reverse course on emissions by 2015, and in dramatic fashion.  But the latest round of international talks seem to be on shaky ground.  All US climate bills have so far failed.  So what’s a local planner or public official to do?  Decry the problem as global in scope and thus unsolvable? Shrug shoulders and pour a stiff drink?  While I have a healthy amount of skepticism about the ability of one jurisdiction or even one state to have a measurable impact on the global trendline, I think we absolutely must be making our best efforts now, for a number of reasons:

Locals may be the only ones willing to act

I think Minneapolis Mayor RT Rybak was being slightly hyperbolic when he said “City governments are the last standing functional form of government in the United States and possibly the world,” but in terms of climate action, he is almost right.

Over 140 cities in the US have adopted climate action plans, typically tied to emissions reductions targets, while no federal legislation dealing comprehensively with climate change has been passed.

24 states plus the District of Columbia have renewable energy standards, mandating some level of renewable energy in local utilities energy mix.  Our largest local utility, Xcel Energy, has achieved significant reductions in the carbon intensity of the electricity they produce.  In 2010, carbon intensity dropped 8% over 2009 levels.  This reduction started in 2007, the year Minnesota’s renewable energy standard was signed into law.

Other states, like California, and other cities, like Seattle, are taking impressive steps to reduce emissions and are not waiting for global or federal actions.  The actions of these local governments alone may not bend the curve, many local governments acting in concert can.

Locals have the tools

Transportation and land use plans, capital improvement project lists, building codes, utility franchise agreements, water and wastewater systems and waste collection services are all developed and provided by local governments.  And the systems they effect have major impacts on emissions.

While regulation may not be as efficient as something like an economy-wide carbon tax, it’s the second best tool we have to address the externalities of carbon-emitting energy production.  And local governments control these policy levers.

What’s our legacy going to be?

I know it’s hackneyed – “what will you tell your children?”, “how will we be remembered?”, “what kind of world are we passing on?” – but to me it’s serious.  Fatherhood has definitely amplified my feelings of future angst, but I think most civic-minded people share this feeling to some degree.  Even though I find myself feeling totally hopeless about the issue much of the time, I know I’ll feel a hell of a lot worse in twenty or fifty years when things are really in the crapper and I think back about the things I didn’t do, even if they felt slightly uncomfortable or like drops in the bucket at the time.

So I’ll borrow another hackneyed phrase to describe my philosophical approach as someone working in local government: keep calm and carry on.  Try to do the most I can as soon as possible, and try not to let growing angst paralyze me or make me cynical.

What’s next?

Because I think this idea of local action on climate change is important, I’ll spend the next few posts reviewing some significant responses local governments are taking and discussing how they might apply in our region.

Cross-posted at streets.mn

3 thoughts on “Taking local action

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