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In the Climate Trenches

Local Governments Network, Leverage Impact

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Sam Irvine
May 12, 2015

Politics and climate change have rarely played nice. Despite climate activists and scientific leaders ringing the alarm bell for years, sweeping climate action has moved at a pace slower than the melting glaciers.

Turning on the TV, it is easy to think that the debate regarding climate change has not changed much since the early 2000s. What we see in the public dialogue is a recurring conflict between contending forces. For all the talk and debate, the needle never seems to move. But beneath the tired public “debate” and the apparent comatose state of international climate agreement, local and regional governments are collaborating to act on climate change in unprecedented and inspiring ways.

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The term “local” hints at geography. As Bill McKibben commented during his Do the Math Tour for 350.org, “geography is destiny.”

In almost every major city across the United States, Europe and Canada, there is an individual or team working to make their local community more sustainable. To them this sense of destiny translates into a responsibility to their local communities. As a result, these individuals and teams are on the front lines of climate change mitigation and adapting to it. These individuals are creating climate action plans that set emission reduction goals, implement alternative transportation systems and cut through political barriers to make their communities more livable and more sustainable. Added up, their work equals large emission reductions; in short, they are moving the needle.

Susanna Sutherland, innovation fund manager for the Urban Sustainability Director’s Network (USDN) states, “Sustainability directors are the bright lights in city government… they have an innovative spirit and those are the types of people who are attracted to these types of jobs.” But mitigating and adapting to climate change is a big challenge, especially within the silos of a single city agency – a job made even more difficult when competing with basic services in tight city budgets. With so much talent spread out across entire regions, nations and continents, best practices and collaboration between these practitioners is needed now more then ever.

Irvine may 2Susanna says the USDN works to connect these sustainability practitioners to “be a network for directors to learn from their peers.”

The USDN is also helping sustainability directors find funding for projects that meet their local carbon reduction goals. Since 2009, when the USDN’s Innovation Fund was started, it has allocated $2.5 million to a growing portfolio of tools and strategies for sustainable community management. This funding encourages collaborative urban innovations, which with sound investing strategies and the right partners can lead to scalable solutions.

Policies to combat the effects of climate change already exist, and so do the frameworks for implementing those strategies. USDN is building a repository of these tools, so sustainability directors can choose the best and most transferable climate initiatives for their communities. This approach saves time and money. Often sustainability directors are offices of one. Access to tried and true solutions is imperative as it allows them to mirror the successes and avoid past failures.

Isolated, a single city or region does not have the capacity to end the threat of climate change. The problem is simply too systemic. However, if the people in those organizations are given new ways to collaborate and offered better ways to share their ideas, then the conditions may exist for those ideas to spread. It is through networks and communities that many humans tend to find strength and inspiration. As the connections and transfer of ideas in those networks grow, so does the opportunity for great innovation and the possibility for real change.


Author: Sam Irvine is a sustainability blogger scholar at Presidio Graduate School where he is working toward his MBA/MPA in Sustainable Management. He is one of the co-founders of the economy, policy and culture blog upstreamideas.org. He can be reached on Twittr with the handle, @samuel_irvine

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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