Local Climate Action

Fighting Against Climate Change When the Federal Government Isn’t

It’s safe to say that the current federal administration has taken little to no interest in what may be the most serious looming threat to national security: rising temperatures and changing ecosystems across the US and around the planet. The scientific community agrees that climate change is having an impact in the present—not just the future—and while strong evidence backs this assertion, neither scientists nor policy makers clearly understand what to do about it.

But one thing seems to be happening at the federal level: nothing. Or rather, a combination of denial and disinterest that may be shored up by campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry, partisan rifts, ignorance of the underlying science, or any number of contributing factors. Regardless of the reasons, climate change and related issues are being actively ignored and written out of the administration’s agenda, and as the clock runs out on the all-important two-degree temperature increase that signals an effective point of no return, action at this level is not forthcoming.

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But the federal government doesn’t hold an all-controlling grip on the kinds of human activity to contribute to increasing temperatures, and as it happens, workarounds are being pursued by policy-makers at state and local levels, with some promising results. The Guardian recently discussed some of these efforts here.

New York City, for example, holds significant clout in the overall US effort to slow environmental damage caused by commerce and human activity. Under pressure from its citizens and still reeling from the impact of hurricane Sandy in 2012—and the infrastructure weaknesses revealed by the storm—the city is taking action without waiting for federal leadership. Over the course of the next five years, the city hopes to divest its 189 billion dollar pension funds from investments in the fossil fuel industry.

In addition, Mayor Bill De Blasio intends to take five major oil producers to federal court, citing their contributions to climate change and the resulting impact on the city, including flooding, erosion, and future threats. According to the city’s court filing, only 100 companies are responsible for two thirds of CO2 emissions over the past 150 years, with these five contributing the most (BP, Exxon, Conoco Phillips, and Chevron, and Shell).

Will the divestment and the accompanying lawsuit make a measurable difference? We have five years to find out.

U.S. vs the World on Climate Change: Who will Represent Our Interests?

Earlier this fall, nations around the world gathered in Bonn Germany to strategize and form a united front regarding analysis, predictions and plans for the decades ahead, decades in which sea levels are expected to rise and ecosystems around the planet are expected to shift in as-yet unknown directions as the climate changes. But since the current U.S.administration has taken a hostile stance on climate issues, the conversations generated by the event took place largely without formal U.S. representation. Governors and state representatives lent their voices even when the White House did not, and the global community as a whole showed no signs of backing down from the challenges ahead, with or without U.S. participation. Some reporters and pundits have characterized the meeting as one in which U.S. absence was essentially ignored, and global commitment to the goals of the Paris Agreement remained unfaltering despite U.S. statements of non-engagement.

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But what will this mean for future collaborations and commitments? And just as important, how will states, federal agencies like FEMA, and local governments here in the US follow a similar course? Can states, agencies and municipalities carry on, enacting and enforcing building codes and infrastructure plans that respect climate science, even while the White House remains determined to opt out?

FEMA officials appear to be caught in the middle, pushed on both sides by political and financial pressures as the agency works to find a productive balance between diminished funding and the need to redraw federal flood maps (an expensive process) and rebuild structures in flood zones using federal dollars (even more expensive). 

Importance vs Urgency

While few outside the White House disagree that climate change is an important concern that will—eventually—impact every aspect of policy making and governance in the U.S. from agricultural subsidies to central interest rates, not every agency and local municipality can afford to place climate issues at the top of a list of urgent priorities. What must be dealt with and what must be dealt with immediately differ from one region to another depending on the political climate and the rise of competing concerns (for example, epidemics, security threats, and budget crises.)

As a nation and as representatives of our own local municipalities and hometowns, our mission is becoming clear: we’ll need to make sure our local leadership recognizes the immediacy of climate change issues and is inspired to push these concerns toward the foreground, regardless of the stance taken by the current administration. In this case, it may be possible that change—or the pressure for change—moves from the ground up, not the top down.

Contact our office for more on how to apply this steady pressure through organization and strategic action.