Taking the Reins on Climate Change


Since the Trump administration announced that the U.S. will withdraw from the Paris Accords, there have been precious few reasons for climate change activists to remain optimistic. While a majority of Americans now believe that human activity is causing climate change, prominent political leaders still express skepticism.

Key players like Secretary of Energy Rick Perry have engaged in unlikely feats of rhetoric to justify ongoing government support of expanding hydrocarbon production despite the shift towards renewables by many oil-producing states. Meanwhile, the ice melts.

But one notable exception to this is the vocal assortment of governors, mayors, business leaders, student groups and others who have committed to advancing the targets of the Paris Accords within their communities and institutions, an effort that received significant media attention as a cause for measured celebration. Delegates to the 2017 COP23 conference signed the Bonn-Fiji Commitment of Local and Regional Leaders to Deliver the Paris Agreement at All Levels, affirming the signatories’ commitments to implement the emissions limits set out by the Agreement in their own communities, to strengthen cooperation with national governments, and to “[...join] forces with all stakeholders in our communities and territories, leaving no one behind.”

This approach has produced several high-profile victories in American states whose leaders have publicly committed to fight climate change. On February 22, California’s Attorney General announced the creation of a Bureau of Environmental Justice charged with protecting “people and communities that endure a disproportionate share of environmental pollution and public health hazards.” Of the 197 US counties, cities, towns, and community organizations affiliated with ICLEI, 46 (around 23%) are in California. The state independently participates in several international climate organizations, and last summer, California governor Jerry Brown co-founded America’s Pledge on Climate with Michael Bloomberg.

Local and municipal leadership in the realm of climate activism isn’t new. The World Mayors’ Council on Climate Change was founded by Kyoto mayor Yorikane Matsumoto and others in 2005, the year the 1997 Kyoto Protocol entered into force. Even earlier, in 1990, ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability was formed as the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives by local government leaders looking for ways to slow the depletion of the ozone layer.

All of these groups emphasize the key role that cooperation plays in their efforts. The first stated goal of the Bonn-Fiji accords justifies local efforts using the logic of accumulated good:

“The aggregate impact of the 7,494 cities and local governments, representing over 680 million people, committed to the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy could collectively reduce 1.3 GtCO2e [gigatonnes of equivalent carbon dioxide] per year from business as usual in 2030, achieving a cumulative total of 15.64 GtCO2e between the years 2010 and 2030. Additionally, over 100 states and regions disclosed to CDP, in partnership with The Climate Group in 2017. Together, these governments could reduce GHG emissions by 21.9 GtCO2e cumulatively (1.2 GtCO2e annually) by 2050.”

So, if enough communities commit to mitigating the effects of climate change in their own communities, everyone, even the still-skeptical governors of Florida, North Carolina, and Louisiana and their constituencies, stand to benefit. As Brown said in a speech in Stuttgart, “Climate change is a threat to all of humanity, to all species and it can only be solved by a global cooperative effort.”

The problems of deterring, slowing, and reversing climate change are immense because the effects of climate change impact all facets of our planet, if unevenly. Climate change exceeds the reach of any governmental or regulatory agency, no matter how well-intentioned they may be. But it’s possible to address climate change for this reason: progress in one sector or section benefits everyone, which should theoretically incentivize cooperation. However, even though the processes of global warming take place on a global level, its effects manifest in a politically divided world as series of local or regional problems, and the task of coping with them often falls to those most affected.

Take water, for instance. While some parts of the world are facing an immediate future where drinking water is no longer available, others are unable to drink from available water sources because of unaddressed industrial pollution. If and when these two problems converge, a new level of organization and coordination will be necessary to prevent catastrophe or soften its blow. In the United States, solutions to water pollution crises in Michigan, North Carolina, West Virginia and elsewhere have been short-term, and state and local governments have relied on private companies to provide stopgaps with few more permanent solutions in sight. While climate change may not have directly caused these problems, the fact that so many have remained unaddressed for so long shows both the necessity of local leadership on environmental issues and the appalling lack of recourse when leadership fails.

The environmental benefits of engaged local officials are obvious. One of the most recent examples of this is 3M’s $850 million settlement with the state of Minnesota. The state’s attorney general, Lori Swanson, successfully sued the company for $5 billion to contribute to groundwater cleanup after the company dumped millions of pounds of PFCs into the ground near the Twin Cities, causing a range of health problems in residents. There are dozens of similar lawsuits against the company in courts across the country, and the case’s resolution sets a hopeful precedent.

Minnesota has a relatively long history of committing to climate change remediation: in 2007, then-governor Tim Pawlenty signed a bill setting emissions reductions goals that were more ambitious than those set by the Paris Accords.  While actual reductions fell short of these goals, the combination of a vocal willingness to pursue climate-friendly policies and the demonstrated will to go after private companies that force the public to bear the environmental costs of private gains makes Minnesota a good example of a state where committed local officials could secure meaningful gains that would lessen the severity of climate change effects, even in the face of an active opposition from the federal government.

But in states without this commitment, local officials can undermine the effectiveness of even existing federal regulation. In St. John the Baptist Parish, in southeast Louisiana, the DuPont-Denka chemical plant is blamed for extremely high rates of cancer. Denka, the company that owns the plant, has repeatedly asked the EPA to raise limits on emissions of chloroprene, a toxic chemical used to produce synthetic rubber at the plant. The agency under Scott Pruitt has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to relax environmental standards for the benefit of business, but this year the agency declined to raise the limit on chloroprene emissions. Nevertheless, industry advocates for relaxing these standards report that it has become “easier to get our perspectives considered at EPA” and Denka officials are putting pressure on the agency to amend its findings based on environmental reports produced by a private consulting company. Meanwhile, Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Chuck Carr Brown has been criticized by local residents for dismissing their concerns as fearmongering in public meetings.

The company has voluntarily adopted practices to reduce chloroprene emissions, and for now the federal regulations stand. But in the likely event that they continue to erode, communities whose leaders do not prioritize environmental health may be disproportionately affected by the localized effects of both the un- or under-regulated industry that contributes to climate change as well as its consequences. A recent study confirms that U.S. communities of color are disproportionately exposed to air pollution, and Americans living at or below the poverty line were only slightly less at risk. Americans who lack responsive political representatives or recourse to other means of addressing these issues will bear the brunt of the Administration’s ruinous environmental policies, and effective local and regional measures to combat climate change may only reduce the incentive for politically empowered residents of these areas to expend the extra effort to find ways of extending the reach of these programs to less protected areas.

The checkered recent history of climate change activism demonstrates that local leadership on climate change will remain essential. Local leaders are more in touch with constituents who are experiencing the creeping effects of climate change, more aware of what works and what doesn’t in specific communities and regions, and in many cases more motivated than leaders at the federal or international level to act to mitigate the effects of climate change. And for those on the front lines of climate change activism in the United States, focusing on local activity can bring positive results and provide a buffer from the fatigue that comes with pushing for major change in a hostile political environment. But without action at the national and international level, the unevenness with which the effects of climate change are experienced will be exacerbated, so that many of those without committed municipal and state leaders will be left high and dry (or anything but, as the case may be).

Running through this and nearly every story about climate change is a conversation about optimism, and its relatively new affective offspring, climate optimism. But there are two kinds of optimism at play here, and they can be sorted by their effects: one leads to complacency and inaction, and one inspires more people to do more, in pursuit of a livable future for themselves and others. The first is based on a reassurance that existing institutions will be able to handle an unprecedented challenge; the second is based on a knowledge of what tactics work to bring human priorities to the attention of institutions that have the resources and reach to take large-scale action. The movement of local governmental institutions toward combating climate change should inspire a variety of the second. It shows that there are people in power who are open to change, and it has prompted the development of institutional links that could enable communities whose leaders don’t make climate change a priority to be partially integrated, and more fully included should an election lead to a shift in the political tides.

Emma Claire Foley is a writer and researcher living in Washington, D.C. She tweets at @emmaclairefoley.