Local climate policy is an important part of the solution to the climate crisis.
Klassekampen, 6 September 2019
Just before the summer, I happened to sit on the public gallery of Amsterdam town hall, where the city council debated whether the city should declare a climate crisis. Extinction Rebellion, an international movement of climate activists, had successfully campaigned for this, and about eight rebels listened attentively to the debate in the otherwise empty gallery. After a small fraction of right-wing populists were opposing the measure for form's sake, the city council adopted the proposal with a clear majority.
It seemed like a great result for a climate movement that didn't even exist a year ago, and the climate activists cheered when they left the council chamber. But despite the fact that the Dutch capital was the first place in the country to proclaim a climate crisis, the national media remained silent about it. There were only a few reports in the local paper of another symbolic measure from the same debate: a "climate clock" will be displayed in the city council that will show what our remaining CO2 budget is. Concrete policy to really do something about the climate crisis was not discussed in the council. A lot of symbolism but no concrete measures, which is why there was little to report for the media.
But does it make sense to expect a strong climate policy from a municipality? The climate crisis is a global problem that demands action at the national and international level. Isn't local climate policy like a drop in the ocean?
No, on the contrary. A majority of the world's population lives in a city, so the transition to an environmentally friendly society can be achieved at that level. Moreover, local climate policy is most visible: when a city constructs bike lanes and purchases electric buses, for example, we experience in our daily lives that the transition to a climate-friendly society is feasible. This creates broad support among the population – and success stories make it difficult for hesitant municipalities to maintain that the same policy would not apply in their own city. In other words, to lead by example.
Moreover, municipalities can take the lead when little progress is made at the national and international level. In the United States there are already 427 municipalities, including the megacities New York and Los Angeles, but also small hamlets, part of the "Mayors National Climate Action Agenda". These municipalities, where 20% of the American population live, have promised that, unlike the government, they will comply with the objectives of the Paris agreement. Together they can considerably limit the damage that Trump inflicts on the climate, for example by making energy consumption, transport and waste processing more climate friendly.
427 municipalities in the USA have promised to comply with the Paris agreement
Climate policy at the municipal level is therefore an essential part of the solution to the climate crisis. But this must go beyond the reduction of CO2 emissions. At the local level there lies a great responsibility to ensure that the impact of climate change remains as small as possible. Nobody will propose a new residential area under an unstable mountainside, but what about buildings near a river? What if extreme rainfall occurs more frequently in the future and causes flooding and landslides? Or, otherwise, can the water supply be guaranteed if droughts such as those of last year occur more frequently?
We cannot expect that municipalities themselves have the competence to respond to this by diving into the climate science and to apply it to their own region. But that isn’t necessary either: the Norwegian Centre for Climate Services, an initiative of the Norwegian Meteorological Institute, among others, has prepared climate profiles for every region of the country. With this, it is easy to find out how, according to the latest science, the local climate is expected to change in the future. This allows a municipality to take the right measures to combat climate change.
And that’s perhaps the most important task of municipalities. Although strong climate policy at the municipal level is desperately needed, many political parties are reluctant to do anything about it because they underestimate their own influence or think that climate measures are unpopular. But when climate policy fails, at whatever policy level, it’s at the local level that the negative effects of climate change will be felt – regardless of the environmental awareness of the city council. And if this is the result of poor preparation, the local authorities are also the first to be held accountable.
An advice for attentive voters and city councilors: good municipal policy not only means that we do our utmost to solve the climate problem, but also that we are prepared for the climatic changes that we are already seeing today, and what may still lie ahead.
This text originally appeared in Klassekampen on 6 September 2019