As negotiators continue to meet in Copenhagen this week on an international climate accord, planners in western communities are promoting efforts that address climate change-related challenges – like managing water supplies, reducing energy consumption, building more efficient transportation systems and protecting open space. They're just not calling it climate change mitigation – because of abiding skepticism in the Intermountain West that global warming is a problem.
A research team recently completed a survey of nearly 50 government staff and elected officials in seven Western states -- Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming -- on how they are addressing climate change in their planning and local land use decisions. The result is Local Land Use Planning and Climate Change Policy, the first report to be issued under the new name of the longstanding joint venture of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and the Sonoran Institute: Western Lands and Communities.
The findings, taken from focus groups and interviews, suggest new challenges for those mindful of climate change impacts in land use planning at the local level. Many of the local respondents in the report suggested that addressing climate change is a secondary benefit of pursuing good planning decisions, says Peter Pollock, Ronald Smith Fellow at the Lincoln Institute.
“The research revealed a wide range of local government responses to addressing climate change in the Intermountain West, with few communities tackling climate change head on,” Pollock said. “Even so, nearly all research participants agreed that local governments should be involved in addressing climate change.”
Calling climate change politically controversial, western planners and officials reported that significant portions of their populations are unconvinced that climate change is a real problem or human-caused. They said that local skepticism and lack of urgency may be due to few visible impacts in their communities that residents agree are attributable to climate change. Instead, residents perceive the issue as global and remote, characterized by melting polar ice caps and rising sea levels. In addition, Westerners may think their own cities and towns cannot make a difference in reducing climate change given the enormity of the problem, the report states.
“I use terms like conservation, energy efficiency, savings,” one western official explained. “I think those are terms you can use to do these things without getting into the debate of climate change, whether it’s happening and who is causing it.”
The research also noted that:
* The most common way of framing policies that impact climate change seems to be “sustainability,” or else “economic efficiency” when communities seek to avoid environmental references altogether.
* In most communities, particularly smaller cities and towns, there is a lack of sufficient staff to research and implement climate change-related policies
* Those communities actively pursuing climate change policies, a minority, generally had more liberal populations or were significantly influenced by local universities.
* Those communities where natural resource extraction, such as coal or natural gas, is a strong contributor to the local economy are less likely to be addressing global warming.
* The vast majority of policies cited by participants as addressing climate change focused on mitigating, or reducing, its impacts through energy efficiency, expanded transit, urban forestry and water conservation.
* Most participants stated that their communities have greater success with decisions and policies that impact new development, rather than existing development.
* Many staff participants noted that elected officials in their communities are influenced by skeptical residents, more importantly voters, in failing to address climate change.
Based on their findings, report authors David Metz and Curtis Below of Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates in Oakland, Calif., recommended that communications and materials provided to local officials should highlight the “co-benefits” of taking policy actions independent of climate change. Whenever possible, the economic benefits of a particular policy should be emphasized to offset concerns about costs. Local government officials also need case studies from peer communities of similar size and location that have adopted policies to address climate change, in order to learn from their experiences, the authors said.
Jodi Peterson at the High Country News wrote her take on the research here.