Updated: Dec 16, 2021
Not All Climate Plans Are Created Equal. Is Your Community’s Plan Up To The Task?
Photo Above: A child examines a flower under a magnifying glass.
By Andrew Sarpolis | December 13, 2021
As we all know, climate action was put on the back burner for decades. But, as a new generation of elected officials begins to make climate pledges and plans, progress feels like it is finally being made. Declaring climate emergencies is increasingly popular in cities across the nation. And, mayors from East Lansing to Kalamazoo have pledged to move their cities to 100% renewable energy. The State of Michigan, likewise, is developing a climate action plan.
However, the recent excitement around climate announcements in cities ignores the lessons we should learn from a smaller, earlier, and less prominent wave of climate change planning. Unfortunately, these plans never achieved what they set out to accomplish, and learning from their challenges is important to succeeding in the future.
For example, Chicago oversaw the publication of a detailed climate action plan in 2008, including the promise to plant 1 million trees and reduce carbon emissions. At the same time, Governor Granholm in Michigan created a council to develop climate solutions. Both Chicago and Governor Granholm promised to reduce emissions by 80% by 2050, embracing a broad range of sustainability goals. But, little was accomplished, certainly not enough given the crisis we now face.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), using the best available scientific evidence, declared in 2018 that we must reduce our emissions 45% by 2030. So, when we ask if enough is being done, we should look for certain elements in a plan:
Is there dedicated funding? It's no secret that fixing climate change requires investment. Even though these efforts have a big payback, there is no getting around the need for funding up front. Read your local government’s budget, and see where it is being spent. You’d be surprised to learn how little is actually being spent on the environment. If politicians are telling you they care about the environment, ask them what percentage of the budget they approve goes to the environment. The proof is in the spending.
Is Your Community Using Dedicated Funding From The Federal Government? Billions of dollars are available right now to local and state governments in the recently passed Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the American Rescue Plan, and (possibly soon) Build Back Better legislation. These funds can be used without raising local taxes. The extra money from the American Rescue Plan alone is worth a third of Oakland County’s annual budget. In other words, the money is there.
Is there true community planning, or just symbolic projects? Many communities will make bold commitments to make their own buildings more sustainable (the city hall, police station, etc.). But, these facilities usually are less than a fraction of one percent of a community’s overall carbon emissions. Planning without community-wide action is the same as doing nothing. Some cities claim special projects will develop ‘model leadership,’ and encourage others to adapt in their own lives. However, the scientific evidence is weak that these projects do nearly enough to motivate people. The community is where 90-99% of emissions often originate, and the focus should be there.
Does the plan consider equity? Historically, many environmental policies have discriminated against racial minorities and the poor. Furthermore, many green technologies are inaccessible to low-income consumers who have bad credit scores or no savings. But, some of the most inefficient buildings are in these neighborhoods (the ones that would benefit the most). Does your plan think about the needs of everybody? Do the changes promote equity and accessibility? Does it simply shift the pollution burden to someone else? These are important questions that must be addressed.
Does the plan have detailed timelines and a clear action plan? In 2008, Chicago said it would plant a million trees. It didn’t even achieve ten percent of this goal. Always be wary of bold claims that have no timelines or plans. Demand dedicated funding in your community, and ask for the names of the departments that have been given the task of implementing goals. If there is no staffer, or that staffer has multiple other jobs that are unrelated, that should be a red flag that it will be put on a back shelf.
Does the plan have urgency? For each year of planning, we must reduce our emissions even faster, which makes it even more expensive and difficult. While it would be nice to have a decade to plan for climate change, that is not the world we live in. Planning should be inclusive and thorough, but recognize the short amount of time left. Remember, no municipality had countless planning sessions to respond to the pandemic. They just did the best possible given the circumstances, and learned as they went along. Demand the same for keeping the planet livable.
Does it rely almost exclusively on ‘education’ of the community? Let’s be honest, even if you just learned about the benefits of public transportation, that doesn’t mean you can just change your lifestyle overnight. What if you live in a place without fixed-route service? Most of the emissions in our communities are from structural problems, not personal choice. You must build sustainable options that can compete with their replacements. In other words, a good plan is built on a realistic understanding of the challenges people face in making better choices for the environment. A good sustainability plan invests in making those options accessible, not telling people what to do with limited support.
If these conditions are not being met, your community could be doing more. And it is at risk of failing to meet its climate commitments. Thankfully, the Oakland County Climate Campaign specializes in helping volunteers and those who care about their communities in Oakland County to become more effective advocates.
If you’re interested in doing something to ensure your community has a solid climate action plan, reach out to us at: firstname.lastname@example.org.