Opinion

Local Emission Reduction Targets Are Successful. So Why Trash Local Climate Action Plans?

By K.C. Golden March 12, 2012

In 2005, the U.S. was alone among the world’s advanced economies in rejecting the global effort to stave off catastrophic climate change. The nation that had done the most to cause the problem—the nation that had the greatest capacity to engineer solutions—was standing on the sidelines, thumbing its nose at the world.

Yet in many states and cities, Americans were rolling up their sleeves and implementing solutions – energy efficiency, transportation choices, cleaner cars, renewable power. Leaders in those cities decided they didn’t want the federal government’s unconscionable failure to tackle climate change to be the only message to the world from America on the subject. They wanted to do more, and they wanted to join the global campaign for solutions.[pullquote]Of course it’s the actual activities, not the plans, that reduce the emissions. I have a plan to keep myself fit and healthy, but it only happens if I eat right and exercise.[/pullquote]

So, led by former Seattle mayor Greg Nickels, they formed the US Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement, and developed climate action plans in hundreds of cities to implement it. The plans helped these cities organize and measure their emission reduction work, while explicitly connecting their local actions to the framework of national and global action necessary to tackle the climate challenge.

Now comes a cynical report on these efforts, cited in a PubliCola piece called “Climate Action Plans Don’t Reduce Emissions.” Here is what the report actually concludes:

“Cities with climate plans have had far greater success in implementing strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions than their counterparts without such plans. For example, they have more green buildings, spend more on pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, and have implemented more programs to divert waste from methane-generating landfills. I find little evidence, however, that climate plans play any causal role in this success.”

The Atlantic, which ran the original article that PubliCola cites, says dismissively: “For the most part, [the study] finds, climate action plans are more plan than action.” Indeed. Plans are plans. Hence the name.

Is there something newsworthy in the fact that the plans themselves do not cause the emission reductions? Of course it’s the actual activities, not the plans, that reduce the emissions. I have a plan to keep myself fit and healthy, but it only happens if I eat right and exercise.

So, what’s the take-away here? These cities adopted climate action plans. They are in fact undertaking a wide range of successful emission reduction activities, with “far greater success … than their counterparts.” Not surprisingly, these cities had high pre-existing levels of support and momentum for climate action – it’s difficult to imagine that they would have adopted climate action plans if that were not true. Is it really news that an economics journal failed to document a “causal link?”

And isn’t it more notable that these cities, in the face of an epic national failure of responsibility to tackle the climate challenge, are actually accomplishing significant emission reductions in ways that help them build healthier communities?

This kind of coverage feeds the cycle of denial and cynicism that sustains America’s appalling refusal to deal with the climate crisis. Why would anyone blame local leaders who are actually reducing emissions and using their local efforts as a platform to leverage broader action because they adopted plans that don’t magically implement themselves, or plans that include actions they were already undertaking?

How about some hard-hitting coverage of the fossil fuel industry’s blatantly undemocratic attempts to squash clean energy and thwart real climate solutions? Why not go after the real culprits, the many private and public officials in both political parties who are denying the reality of climate change or abetting that denial by failing to take appropriate action?

There’s no shortage of real villains in the climate story. Local officials who developed climate plans in communities that are successfully implementing solutions are not among them.
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