Small-town Republican mayors, EPA officials, and former Colorado governor Bill Ritter came together Thursday in Washington, D.C. for a discussion about the impacts and opportunities of dealing with climate change at a local level. The event, called “The State of Climate Change: A Local Perspective” was held at the Newseum and co-hosted by The New Republic and The Center For American Progress. As the morning progressed a common theme emerged of the benefits, and necessity, or working together at all levels of government and society — municipal, state, regional, federal, and even international — to both help mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change.
Jim Brainard, five-term Republican mayor of Carmel, Indiana, a fast-growing city of 80,000 outside of Indianapolis, spoke about some of the reasons that his constituents had acted locally to address issues of sustainability.
“Residents want good jobs and a good quality of life, that’s what motivates them,” Brainard said. “After World War II only twenty-five percent of Americans owned cars, since then we’ve thrown away 10,000 years of urban planning experience and expertise to build suburban sprawl.”
Brainard said he’s focused on building an actual downtown that residents can walk around. He also said Carmel has more roundabouts than any other city, which are both safer and fuel-saving.
Brainard also took this opportunity to talk about climate change, a taboo subject for most with his political affiliation. “I believe that everything we do needs to be analyzed in terms of climate change,” he said. “Literally every function of city government.”
Brainard said he didn’t believe climate change should be a political issue. “It’s important to point out that peer-reviewed science shows that the climate is changing. We shouldn’t shrink from this idea. People out there still deny the moon landing and think the earth is flat.”
In response to the frequent retort that the climate is always changing, Brainard said, “maybe it’s better to call it drastic climate change because what we’re experiencing now is more drastic than any time in history.”
Brainard is one of four appointed Republicans on President Obama’s recently formed Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience. The group of 26 members will advise the federal government on how to respond to the needs of small communities already dealing with local impacts of climate change, ranging from air quality issues to natural disasters.
In a Wednesday op-ed in the Indianapolis Star about his trip to Washington, Brainard wrote that, “this issue isn’t just about saving polar bears. It’s about saving our cities:”
“No matter your politics, there is overwhelming evidence of climate change and we as a nation have a moral obligation to address these issues. We need to continue to cut carbon pollution in America, certainly, but we also need to prepare for the impacts of a changing climate. I plan to use my seat on this panel to urge the federal government to take a stronger leadership role in helping our cities prepare for what is certainly coming our way.”
Joe Goffman, Senior Council to the Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation at the EPA, echoed Brainard’s sentiments about the important role local communities must play — if not simply due to the nature of the problems, but also by statutory design.
“The president’s broad-based climate action plan includes working with a provision in the Environmental Protection Act that actually puts states front and center,” Goffman said. “States and the decisions they make are where the rubber really meets the road.”
Goffman said the institutional history between the EPA and state governments goes back a long time and that states have to balance competing constituent concerns when it comes to energy and environmental issues much like the federal government does.
“Local communities are having to make important decisions that involve energy use and impacts of climate change,” Goffman said. “It’s almost impossible when you get down to that level to not think about things in terms of climate change.”
The underlying logic of the President’s Climate Action Plan is to take federal resources and push them out into the country, according to Goffman. This is the only way to tackle a primary challenge that those working in the climate change community have known for a long time: the consonant grassroots demands of both reducing emissions and responding to the impacts of climate change. Mitigation and adaptation. While climate change is a global issue, it is at the local level — counties, industries, businesses — where emissions sources, such as coal-burning power plants, and sustainable and adaptive opportunities, exist in the most immediate and manageable capacity.
Bill Ritter, former governor of Colorado, was the event’s keynote speaker. After leaving government Ritter became the director of the Center for the New Energy Economy at Colorado State University in 2011, which aims to accelerate nationwide development of clean and renewable energy.
The Center will be publishing a comprehensive review of energy policies and recommendations in January.
“It’s interesting how many of our recommendations say that the federal government should work with state and local governments because the kinds of things that happen at the state and local level can make a big difference,” Ritter said.
Ritter corroborated a few of the earlier speakers’ statements that change at the local level is not only driven by environmental concerns, but also by business opportunities and financial realities.
“If people can make the business case for action on climate change and renewable energy, then that can bridge the ideological chasm between parties,” Ritter said, adding that the polarization between major political parties at the federal level was worse than any time since the Civil War, a “pretty low bar to set.”
As an example of business interests trumping political pressure, Ritter noted how the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an influential lobbying group composed of Republican politicians and big businesses, thought its agenda to undo state-level clean energy standards this year would be an easy sell. However, ALEC lost all 13 of its anti-clean energy legislative fights at the state level this year. This was because “proponents of clean energy were able to make the business case,” Ritter said.
“It’s important to note that there isn’t a panacea here,” Ritter said at the end of his interview. “These are all just bricks in a wall. The federal government can help by giving states flexible options that are sensitive to their needs, and from there states and regional authorities can do things like put in carbon budgets and increase energy efficient measures.”