Despite the spate of hefty price tags for government bailouts, military actions, and economic recovery, an effective climate change response at the grassroots level will require more than paltry budget leftovers.  This essential message is being echoed in towns and cities across America during “Local Climate Action Week”  (Dec. 8-15) by Climate Communities, a partnerhip of ICLEI USA and The Ferguson Group.

Post by Anne Polansky

More than 50 localities are holding press events this week, speaking out for serious federal and congressional support (over $32 billion) to reduce carbon emissions and better prepare for climate disruption impacts.  Each has endorsed “Empowering Local Government Climate Action— a Blueprint For President Obama & 111th Congress” (.pdf), a five-page brochure prepared by Climate Communities, a project initiated by the US chapter of ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability.  ICLEI (the acronym for the original name, International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives) is a membership association of local governments committed to advancing climate protection and sustainable development, according to the website, and has grown to include nearly 1,000 cities in the world, about 400 in the US.

Climate Communities has declared the week of December 8 through 15 “Local Climate Action Week” by encouraging participating communities endorsing the blueprint to hold press events in their cities and towns to raise awareness about the important role of the grassroots in dealing with global climate disruption. 

The blueprint begins:

Local government leadership and action is critical to addressing the climate change challenge.  Localities are in the best position to foster the innovation and new practices that will achieve building efficiency, cleaner transportation choices, new green jobs and businesses, green infrastructure and more sustainable communities. America’s local governments have been at the forefront of the movement to address climate change. Our citizens are demanding action, and continued leadership from localities is essential to solving the issue.

The blueprint notes that local governments are important on many fronts.  Localities have authority over the built environment (e.g. through zoning and building codes); they can implement smart growth initiatives and increase public transportation alternatives; they act as first responders for climate impacts; they deploy green infrastructure such as increasing land for open space and parks; and they drive green economies by offering tax relief and other incentives. 

Climate Communities calls for national leadership and support:

But the local government role in combating climate change and building a green economy cannot be fulfilled without strong national leadership from the President and Congress. The nation must recognize that the climate solution cannot be achieved without local governments. We need a strong federal-local-state partnership on climate change. Federal policies must provide resources to empower local communities across America to play our part in solving the climate challenge.

We couldn’t agree more, and have been singing the same tune.

Yet, a rationale and more detailed explanations are absent from the blueprint and accompanying press materials, except for a list of worthy projects worth funding in various locations across the US.  We suspect federal and congressional policymakers may view the recommendations with a skeptical eye, given the tight federal budgets expected for FY 2010 and beyond.

Items that would be categorized as climate change mitigation measures include:

  • $10 billion in Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grants for local governments

  •  $18 billion for local transit infrastructure projects

  • $2 billion per year for Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grants

  • $250 million per year for EPA Local Climate Demonstration Grants

  • $400 million per year for the DOE Clean Cities program to support low emission vehicles, alternative fuels, and plug-in hybrid vehicles

  • $100 million per year for the Forest Service’s Urban and Community Forestry program

  •  $500 million to create a “Climate Prosperity” demonstration grant program that directs several federal entities to support economic development for green jobs

  • $125 million per year to fully fundthe Green Jobs Act of 2007 to support worker training in emerging manufacturing and hi-tech sectors.

Other mitigation measures requiring funding but with no specified amount include:

• Substantially increasing federal resources for public transit

• Supporting local initiatives to reduce vehicle-dependence and use (e.g. smart growth, VMT reduction, measures to increase walking and biking; etc.)

• Funding low-emission buses, clean local fleets, and local alternative fuels infrastructure

• Creating an “Energy Conservation Corps” service program to empower young Americans to be part of new clean energy solutions.

They have also called for substantial amounts of the proceeds from the sales of allowances in a cap-and-trade system to go towards local mitigation projects. 
On the adaptation side of the equation, the blueprint recommends that we build self-reliant communities that are better prepared for climate impacts by:

• Creating a federal interagency task force on Climate Resiliency and Community Preparedness to produce a federal action plan for

  (a) national research and development
  (b) local technical assistance
  (c) new protocols for intergovernmental collaboration at local, state, regional and federal levels

• Expanding the FEMA Pre-Disaster Mitigation program to $500 million annually to support local government initiatives to address climate impacts

• Expanding NOAA’s Coastal Zone Management Act and climate programs to directly support local climate adaptation planning and implementation

• Fostering and funding local efforts to support families and populations most vulnerable to climate impacts.

These are all good ideas…. and should be pursued.  We ourselves have suggested the creation of a body similar to the interagency task force idea:  a National Climate Change Preparedness Center (a lean agency staffed with the right people) that has White House support and acts as the “central nervous system” to help bring about badly needed coordination to tie climate science with society and help reallocate resources to be more sustainable overall.

Without more detail (there is none in the blueprint) and a strong political game plan, few of these will make their way being realized in this harsh budgetary climate.  We need much better centralization and organization of the many disparate elements of the federal government that can be brought to bear on these problems—that is, how to achieve real emissions reductions on the ground, with or without a federal cap-and-trade law, and critical measures to cope with and adapt to impacts such as prolonged droughts, more frequent flooding and storms, heat waves, public health threats, and so on.  We also need to call on local officials to do some intense creative thinking focused on freeing up resources being spent on maladaptive programs (i.e. those that increase GHG emissions and/or threaten human vulnerability to climate change impacts) for worthy causes such as those being presented by ICLEI USA through Climate Communities.  Nevertheless, President Obama and the new Congress, beginning January 21, need to figure out a way to put funding for climate change, being cast as a national priority, on an even keel with funding for other national priorities such as health care and economic recovery.