Local Leaders Will be Our Climate Change Heroes

As another Earth Day approaches, I feel the need to make a confession related to something I heard at a climate conference two years ago. The speaker (who will remain anonymous), exclaimed to the jam-packed and dumbfounded room, “Folks, somehow, I am able to hold two totally contradictory ideas in my head at once: ONE — that we are probably doomed, and TWO — I am filled with hope.”

Those words stuck to my brain like gooey oatmeal and have remained undigested ever since. Didn’t F. Scott Fitzgerald say something about highly intelligent people holding two opposing thoughts in their heads and being fine with it?

Well, I struggle with it, and when I ask climate colleagues if they feel the same way, apparently I’m not alone — they are incredibly energized to fight for future generations on some days, and on other days, resigned to consuming absurd amounts of coffee and memes just to get by.

Climate-conscious parents with young children feel the absurdity of this two-sided coin every day as they book piano lessons and wonder what kind of planet their children will inhabit when they graduate high school. The world’s leading climate scientists have warned us loudly and clearly that there are just 12 years left to act on climate change before we unleash dangerous and irreversible impacts.

Bonding with mom.
By the time this baby is 60 years old (in 2080), New York and Philadelphia could feel like today’s Arkansas; Atlanta could feel like Mobile, Alabama; and Wasilla, Alaska, could feel like Marinette, Wisconsin.

In the Uninhabitable Earth, David Wallace-Wells’ most recent terrifying and scientifically accurate book, he describes how two unprecedented things have occurred in the past 30 years:

  1. We have inflicted more damage to our earth and its atmosphere than any other generation since humans crawled out of caves; and
  2. For the first time ever, we have brought global attention to humanity’s dirty deeds and are now fully cognizant of the consequences.

Today, we are reckoning with the impacts of our own planetary meddling and our inability to stop ourselves from carrying out our own self-destruction; and also witnessing massive efforts to  decarbonize, promote circular economy systems (popular in Europe) and encourage an overall downsizing of our carbon-heavy lifestyles.

As we celebrate Earth Day 2019, city leaders must hold two other opposing truths in their hearts and minds: Urban centers lie at the heart of both the solutions and the problems, and are highly vulnerable to climate-related impacts. As the hubs of economic growth and innovation, cities — and better yet, metropolitan regions — can use economies of scale to deliver affordable, low-carbon programs to residents and businesses, and lock in these changes for decades to come.

Likewise, cities whose mid-century planners designed sprawling landscapes are now struggling to mitigate the inefficiencies and high-carbon lifestyles their systems have promoted for decades.  On the exposure side, metropolitan regions, as a confluence of infrastructural, ecological and social systems, are also the most vulnerable to climate-related impacts such as extreme heat, sea level rise and flooding. And each community must decide which climate adaptation strategies will work best for them.

For some, this may mean deploying more drastic measures such as managed retreat or elevating roadways, and for others it may include increasing tree canopy or partnering with local universities to generate creative solutions.

Here’s our ask: The time to take bold, decisive action is now. No city is too small, and in fact, many of the cities NLC has supported and continues to work with through the Leadership in Community Resilience program have less than 50,000 residents.

Previous attempts to shrug-off emissions reduction and climate preparedness are no longer acceptable. Youth movements such as Zero Hour and Sunrise Movement are popping up like morning mushrooms, imploring us to put our politics aside and collaborate on this existential issue. Residents want renewable energy in their cities, along with more parks, clean water, and improved access to sustainable foods.

And while local leaders may not hold all the cards or have unlimited funds, our cities can be bastions of climate action, like little islands of positive energy (renewable, of course) standing together, each doing what it can.

Let this last line now stick with you like gooey oatmeal: We are the first generation to truly comprehend the extent of our damage, and we are also probably the last to be able to act on it.

Got questions about what you can, want or should be doing? Contact the author at marandi@nlc.org. We know people who know people, and we have plenty of case studies to get you started.

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About the Author: Anna Marandi is a senior associate on the Sustainability Team at the National League of Cities (NLC).