For many communities across the country, climate change isn’t a partisan debate; it’s a threat to their way of life.
Saint Paul, Minn.
The United Nations put climate change on the top of its agenda this week, inviting leaders from 125 countries to a special summit focused on spurring international action. President Obama in a speech Tuesday spoke with urgency, telling Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and leaders from U.N. member states that climate change “will define the contours of this century more than any other [issue].”
The voices of international leaders are the second prominent call to action this week – in a historic show of support, 400,000 marched for climate action on Sunday in New York City. Stretching at times more than 4 miles, demonstrators representing the scientific community, religious and civic organizations, among others carried banners while uniting their voices under a call for “action now.”
For climate researchers, fears that this all may be too little too late casts a shadow on what many see as progress on a long stalled agenda. Leading scientists with the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have been reported as saying we are dangerously close to no longer being able to limit global warming below 3.6° F – a critical threshold.
Mayor Chris Coleman speaks at the convening.
But for leaders at the local level – the ones that deal with the all too real effects of a warming climate – inaction is simply not an option. City leaders including NLC President Chris Coleman, Mayor of Saint Paul, Minn., Deb Lewis, Mayor of Ashland, Wisc. and Marsha Rummel, Alder of Madison, Wisc. know that the stakes are simply too high.
For their communities, climate change threatens the ability to go ice fishing, to protect the grid from increasing ice storms, to safely play hockey on an outdoor rink or to protect their iconic ecology from invasive species like the Emerald Ash Borer.
The very landscape upon which their economy, and their culture, is built is being threatened. Across the U.S., average temperatures have already increased by 1.3° F to 1.9° F since 1895 – last decade being the nation’s and the world’s hottest on record. Heavy downpours continue to increase nationally, while heat waves and winter storms have become more frequent and intense.
In Mayor Coleman’s state, Minnesota, the region has experienced a 2.0° F increase in temperature between 1900 and 2012; winter temperatures and overnight lows have increased faster than annual averages; more ice accumulates during winter; and the frost-free season has become 9 days longer – just to name a few.
Cities Tackle Climate Change
Over the course of the Midwest Regional Convening on Climate Resilience that took place earlier this week in St. Paul, which was hosted by NLC in collaboration with the Institute for Sustainable Communities and sponsored by Wells Fargo, despite the obvious challenges, the tone was remarkably solution focused.
“This crisis is at a critical period,” said Mayor Coleman during his keynote speech. “We are on the front lines—our residents are the most affected by the increasing severe weather that impacts us on a local, regional and global scale.”
Mayor Peter Lindstrom (center) of Falcon Heights, Minn. speaks on a panel about climate challenges in the Midwest.
Cities from Minnesota and Wisconsin in attendance were invited to the workshop to develop strategies, promote discussion and strengthen engagement on the regional level. Over 60 participants from 12 different cities, many with populations less than 50,000, learned from regional and national experts and held discussions with their peers on building more resilient communities.
“This convening was about getting beyond the doom-and-gloom climate scenarios and the politics of the national climate debate,” said Cooper Martin, Program Director of NLC’s Sustainable Cities Institute. “Gatherings like this allow city officials to focus on real economic, social and environmental challenges that cities within this region are grappling with today.”
Need for Federal Action
Though the focus of the event was regional, cities understand climate change exists within a national and global context. NLC 1st Vice President Ralph Becker, Mayor, Salt Lake City, addressed the city teams, speaking to how local leaders are influencing policy.
Last November, President Obama announced the creation of the Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience to advise the Administration on how the federal government can respond to the needs of communities nationwide dealing with the impacts of climate change.
Mayor Ralph Becker (front row, second from right) participates on the President’s Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience in Washington. Photo credit: Office of Gov. Neil Abercrombie (Hawaii).
Made up of state, local and tribal leaders, the President’s Task Force was established to develop recommendations on ways the federal government can remove barriers to resilient investments, modernize federal grant and loan programs to better support local efforts and develop the information and tools needed to prepare for climate change.
As a member of the taskforce, Mayor Becker gave his assurance that the federal government was listening to local concerns. Over 400 recommendations have been submitted by the local leaders calling for new programs, or reforms in existing programs to enable them to mitigate risk, engage their citizens and build more resilient communities.
Beyond Partisan Debates
For all in attendance, it was refreshing to be able to give climate change the attention it deserves – without focusing on the federal politics. The workshop’s participants particularly appreciated the opportunity to leave their daily responsibilities behind and spend time thinking strategically with colleagues.
At the end of the event, teams huddled with one another. Rather than taking on new responsibilities or additional work, many found ways to apply new strategies to work they were already doing.
“That’s the most encouraging part,” said Martin. “Participants saw that sustainability and resilience aren’t about doing more, but being more thoughtful and strategic with the time and resources you have.”
About the author: Tim Mudd is the Senior Associate for Strategic Communications at the National League of Cities.