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A Framework for Local Action on Climate Change

October 5, 2017 – 16 Tishri 5778

As the Trump administration cancels or stalls myriad federal policies that protect Americans’ health and safety—policies that, for example, ensure clean air and water for all or protect infrastructure and communities from flood and extreme weather risks—many U.S. mayors are leaving the president behind to pursue a radically different course. Across the United States, city leaders recognize the economic, public health, and quality-of-life benefits of rapidly transitioning away from fossil fuels and moving toward renewable energy sources.1

Mayors’ widespread commitments to curb carbon pollution and fight climate change reflect their growing awareness that the effects of a warming world—including more punishing storms, more severe droughts, increases in the number of wildfires, hotter heat waves, and sea level rise—threaten local economies and the health, well-being, and prosperity of city residents. These mayors understand that global warming means worsening air quality, costly flooding and disaster damages, and increases in vector-borne diseases.2 Climate change is also fueling shifts in farming that could drive up food prices and reducing indigenous communities’ access to traditional foods and water, which could force them to abandon centuries-old cultural practices.3

These mayors understand that no city is an island unto itself, especially in a changing climate.4 Creating a just and sustainable economy in one place can improve lives in nearby communities. If the changes and improvements implemented are significant and, eventually, replicated elsewhere, the benefits could extend across the nation and even abroad. Ultimately, all of humanity is draining the same pool of natural resources and relies on the same climate system. Thus, reducing the use of those resources and the pollution from that use could pay far-reaching dividends.

For many mayors, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria provided a chilling reminder of the need to prepare for a new normal of more extreme weather events fueled by climate change. Harvey unleashed unprecedented rain—more than 50 inches in some areas—causing catastrophic flooding that overwhelmed communities in Texas and Louisiana, including the entire Houston area. As of this writing, Harvey and the resulting flooding has killed 75 people, left tens of thousands homeless, and inflicted an economic toll that could rise as high as $190 billion.5 On the heels of the devastation from Harvey, Hurricane Irma amassed into the most powerful storm ever recorded in the Atlantic and left more than 16 million people without power in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.6 The storm killed at least 85 U.S. residents and caused estimated damages of up to $100 billion, as of this writing.7 Days later, Hurricane Maria plowed into Puerto Rico, sending torrents of floodwater tearing through towns and toppling power lines, cell phone towers, and homes in its path.8 As of this writing, the Category 5 storm had killed at least 16 people in Puerto Rico, forced 15,000 people into shelters across the island, knocked out power for what could be for months, and threatened to overwhelm the Guajataca Dam and further inundate low-lying coastal communities.9

It will take years for many people in Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virginia Islands, and South Carolina to recover from these storms—tragically, some never will. As devastated communities work to pick up the pieces, it is crucial that local officials rethink the design of their communities and infrastructure and rebuild in ways that reduce future flood, extreme weather, and pollution risks—particularly in areas where families struggle to make ends meet and in communities of color, both of which are exposed to these threats at disproportionately high rates.

While climate change affects us all, it hits families living paycheck to paycheck the hardest. In a world of growing inequities, it is not mere coincidence that the poorest among us not only live and work in areas most prone to flooding, heat waves, and other climate change effects but are also least resourced to prepare adequately for and withstand those impacts.10Fortunately, city officials and community leaders across the country are taking steps to improve climate change resilience, along with addressing associated economic, racial, and social equity issues. Progress is most notable in the following cities, each of which is featured in this report: Ann Arbor, Michigan; Atlanta, Georgia; Baltimore, Maryland; Berkeley, California; Boston, Massachusetts; Charlotte, North Carolina; Chicago, Illinois; Cleveland, Ohio; Grand Rapids, Michigan; Los Angeles, California; Miami, Florida; Nashville, Tennessee; New Bedford, Massachusetts; New York City, New York; Newark, New Jersey; Oakland, California; Portland, Oregon; San Jose, California; Seattle, Washington; Spartanburg, South Carolina; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Toledo, Ohio; and Washington, D.C.

Along with those examples, this report offers recommendations for mayors on designing and implementing strategies to build just and resilient cities and to create new economic opportunities for many of the people left behind by recent economic booms. The report findings reveal that climate change policies and preparedness strategies are most effective, and draw the most support from residents and community groups, if they are designed through inclusive processes and address the intersecting problems of racial, income, and environmental inequalities.11 In addition, climate solutions are the most successful when city leaders partner with community groups to set priorities and shape those solutions. By embracing strategies that support pathways to a just economy while reducing extreme weather, flooding, and other climate change risks, city officials can expand access to living wages and safe jobs, quality schools and affordable housing, and safe and sustainable neighborhoods.

To achieve the above goals, this report recommends that mayors and other city leaders take the following nine actions, which are explained in greater detail below, to build resilient and just cities:

  1. Make equity, racial justice, and a just economy core goals of city resilience and climate action plans. Develop climate action and resilience plans that tackle historic inequities and racial injustice, both of which exacerbate climate change and other environmental risks in communities of color and low-income neighborhoods. Build trusting relationships with communities and create an inclusive environment that supports partnerships with community groups and collaboration across city departments. Emphasize diversity in city hiring and remove biases in city planning that perpetuate inequities.
  2. Collaborate with community groups and build neighborhood capacity to shape and implement climate change solutions. Build community support for climate and resilience plans by raising awareness of climate change risks; partner with community groups to design effective climate strategies and public engagement processes that respect cultural protocols; and foster local leadership.
  3. Expand economic opportunities and the availability of affordable housing. Create local hiring and job training programs that provide pathways to living-wage jobs in clean energy and other fields. Support healthy, inclusive development and implement anti-displacement strategies that improve city livability without serially pushing out longtime residents with low socio-economic mobility. Support community land trusts and cooperatives to increase access to community-owned affordable housing and solar power.
  4. Increase access to affordable and clean energy. Develop innovative financing options to provide energy services to low- and moderate-income families. Deploy energy conservation strategies that lower pollution and energy bills, improve public health, and foster racial and economic equity. Adopt inclusive and equitable policies and incentives to achieve 100 percent zero carbon energy by 2035 or sooner and to create local jobs.
  5. Ensure access to affordable and clean transportation. Expand public transit; increase the use of low- and zero-emission rapid transit and electric buses; adopt regional transit solutions; provide affordable bike-share access, and make neighborhoods more pedestrian-friendly to increase access to economic opportunities and curb pollution.
  6. Invest in resilient infrastructure and nature-based solutions. Invest in maintaining and building infrastructure that can withstand more extreme weather and flood risks, curb carbon pollution, and provide economic and other benefits to residents. Prioritize infrastructure investments in communities facing the greatest needs. Update building and infrastructure codes and standards and expand natural areas and green infrastructure to reduce flood and extreme weather risks and create healthy and sustainable communities.
  7. Support emergency preparedness and resilient disaster recovery. Work closely with community groups to prepare for more extreme weather emergencies and disasters in a changing climate, including heat waves. Improve land-use planning to reduce sprawling development in flood-prone areas. Invest in communication and planning strategies to share critical information during emergencies and disasters, making vulnerable communities a priority.
  8. Support social cohesion and deeply connected communities. Support community ownership of resilience assets to strengthen local economies. Integrate equitable economic development strategies into resilience planning and respect and support racial and cultural diversity and informal community networks. Provide high-quality public spaces and access to quality education, health care, food, and the arts.
  9. Use innovative financing to strengthen community resilience and livability. Use municipal bonds, public-private partnerships, and other strategies to finance energy efficiency, extreme weather, and climate change preparedness. Leverage federal, state, and county funds to buy out high-risk properties and help residents voluntarily move out of flood-prone areas. Partner with nonprofit groups and the private sector to increase residents’ access to insurance and loans to lower their risks in the face of extreme weather and flooding.

Through these actions, mayors across the country can strengthen the climate change resilience, public health, and prosperity of all their city residents.

To read the full report on Americanprogress.org, click here.

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