Apply now to join our next cohort of Community Science Fellows and Community Leads!

Climate Action Goes Local

Category: Climate

Climate change is a big, global problem. But climate action—the concrete, specific steps necessary to mitigate and adapt to climate change—is happening very much in the local sphere.

Take, for example, the Global Climate Action Summit being held in San Francisco, Calif. this September. The event, timed to fall midway between two international climate meetings held in Paris in 2015 and 2020, brings together leaders from states, regions, cities, businesses, investors and civil society to discuss what they are doing, can do and will do to build a better climate future.

You may have noticed one category conspicuously absent from that list of participants: countries. While summit organizers certainly value national and international climate action, one of the event’s unique facets is its focus on how those operating at other levels of government and society can push the envelope on cutting emissions—without necessarily waiting for their federal counterparts to lead the charge.

As recent events demonstrate, federal interest in climate action can wax and wane. At the same time, interest in spearheading productive responses to climate change has been on the rise in “subnational” realms. For example, after the Trump administration dissolved the Scientific Advisory Committee on Climate Change (the body previously charged with translating the periodic National Climate Assessment into practical steps for local and regional actors to take) in 2017, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Columbia University and other partners reconvened the advisory committee without federal involvement.

Opportunities for local climate action are as abundant as the signs of global warming around us. The Thriving Earth Exchange (TEX) has had the honor of working with many dedicated, forward-thinking scientists and community leaders who are finding ways to make a dent in the climate challenges in their communities.


Making change in Mt. Shasta

Like many small, mountain towns, the economy of Mt. Shasta, Calif., centers around attracting tourists, who come to enjoy pristine natural resources. Unpredictable and severe weather events like wildfire, exacerbated by climate change, could threaten that tourism economy.

Residents are well aware of that threat—and eager to do something about it.

“The public buy-in for climate action is the main motivator for change in the City of Mt. Shasta,” explains Mt. Shasta City Planner Juliana Lucchesi. “This buy-in comes from the recognition of the environment playing an integral role in the identity of the City and its residents, the economic base, and the social value of the City.”

The city is taking action both from the top down and from the bottom up. City administrators are currently updating all planning documents to incorporate climate impacts and ways to influence human activity to help reverse the trends. At the grassroots level, residents are taking concrete steps to restore natural spaces and educate themselves about local climate issues.

“Context is the most important lens to climate change,” says Lucchesi. “Solutions on a national and international level may not fully address the problem on a local and regional level, or may correct the wrong problem. Our solutions fit our needs and could be replicated other places, but if we are going to effectively combat climate change we need to think about our specific problems and solutions.”

The biggest challenge for Mt. Shasta is funding and expertise. It’s difficult to translate climate date into innovative policies at the local level, even when the community is as motivated as the one in Mt. Shasta. Through a facilitated exchange between community leads and technical experts known as Resilience Dialogues, Lucchesi was able to get access to tools and resources to help the city answer some of its key questions about how best to build climate resilience. The experience—combined with the passion of Mt. Shasta’s residents and leadership—gives her confidence that the city’s actions can make an impact.

“We are a small, rural, and remote city that has limited resources, but we inspire our people to think of climate change action as a doable and personalized thing. If smaller towns in America begin to adopt some climate actions, we could see progress to a more stable climate,” says Lucchesi.


Going beyond the status quo in Santa Cruz

Between sea-level rise and increased wildfires, the city of Santa Cruz, Calif. is similarly motivated to deal with its climate challenges. The city was in the midst of updating its Climate Adaptation Plan when it partnered with TEX to incorporate a new element into the maps it was using to assess coastal and wildfire hazards: the social vulnerability of its residents.

Tiffany Wise-West, the city’s Sustainability and Climate Action Coordinator, served as community lead.

“At the local level is where policy plays out, where the actual on-the-ground projects need to happen, and it’s really where residents can have the most influence,” says Wise-West. “Here in California, we have so many advocacy and activist groups who really are pushing local governments to go beyond the status quo when it comes to both emissions mitigation and adapting to climate change.”

Santa Cruz has one unique strength in translating that push into real change: Wise-West herself. Even in California, where many residents are passionate about climate action, many municipalities don’t have staff dedicated to the issue. In her full-time capacity, Wise-West is able to devote a lot of time to grant writing, which she says is crucial to actually getting things done.

Climate mitigation and adaptation efforts in Santa Cruz span the gamut from low-interest financing for energy efficiency projects to green business and building initiatives to an electric bike share to an adaptation outreach campaign.

It’s also key that climate action has support not only from activist groups but from city leadership. Wise-West says the mayor and city council are willing to push the envelope even when it’s challenging.

Looking at what other cities might learn from the Santa Cruz experience, Wise-West says cities and towns shouldn’t feel like they have to go it alone.

“There’s no need to reinvent the wheel,” says Wise-West. “Sometimes you’re the first one to do it, but for most of this stuff, it’s been done before. Go to your regional or state collaborative and see what you can model. Build relationships and networks. There is a lot of information out there to pull from to save time, and in some cases, save money.”


Other local work

TEX has been involved in many other climate and resilience focused projects at the local level. Here are a few highlights:

Translating targets into policy in Eugene, Ore.: This project helped the City of Eugene create an implementation plan for its ambitious emissions reductions goals. (hear more about the story in this podcast)

Environmental monitoring in New Orleans, La.: This project developed a methodology to enable residents to help ground truth flood maps and provide granularity that’s valuable to modelers, engineers, designers, the City and the National Weather Service.

Wetlands and sea-level rise in Hayward, Calif.: An ongoing project to identify degraded wetlands that can potentially be restored using funding from California’s carbon markets.

Integrating sea-level rise and flood models in Marin County, Calif.: An ongoing project to leverage existing models, resources and assessments to understand the likelihood and potential impacts of flooding when coastal and river waters peak at the same time.

Effects of greening in New Orleans, La.: An ongoing project to assess how increased placement of trees and rain gardens affects flooding events, the urban heat island effect, and social change and wellbeing.


Want to join these efforts? Opportunities to support local climate action abound! A couple suggestions:  

Join TEX’s Volunteer Scientist Network. We’ll reach out when we find something that might be a good fit for your expertise.

Attend Science to Action Day, an event organized by the American Geophysical Union and the California Governor’s Office of Planning to be held 11 September, 2018, just before Global Climate Action Summit.


mgoodwin editor

Leave a Reply