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Lesson Learned (?) from Oregon: There Should Be No Compromising Sustainable Communities

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

By Carmen Ashley
July 23, 2019

It comes to no one’s surprise that federal, state and local government leaders may have fundamental differences in priorities and practices based on partisan politics. But are we witnessing the start of a new trend where government is choosing to stick its head in the sand at the expense of the public it serves because of these politics?

The concept of sustainable communities has been around since at least the early 1990s, and there are many variations of its definition. For the purposes of this writing, I’ll use what I found on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website to define it. The EPA refers to sustainable communities as Smart Growth and describes them as something that, “…covers a range of development and conservation strategies that help protect our health and natural environment and make our communities more attractive, economically stronger and more socially diverse.”

Last month, Senate Republicans in Oregon literally walked out of the state’s Capitol building (some even leaving the state) to avoid a vote on a bill that would reduce the amount of carbon emissions released into the environment. Their walkout succeeded, as the bill died in the state Senate because of a no-vote. Is this a case of choosing to stick our heads in the sand when we don’t want to acknowledge something because it goes against party lines?

Many cities and communities with sustainability initiatives include reduction of carbon emissions as one of their priority goals. Portland, Oregon, is one of those cities. In fact, it was the first city in the nation to create a plan for reducing carbon emissions. Portland is in year four of a five-year Climate Action Plan that includes the reduction of carbon emissions; its most recent progress report highlights its successes thus far in reaching the goals of its action plan. In this instance, the state government and the local government have taken two notably different actions towards the same, often controversial issue.

My stance on this is issue is clear: I support the findings of the U.S. Global Change Research Program as it relates to carbon emissions. The GCRP consists of 13 member agencies who are federally mandated to engage in research and other activities on the science behind global change. This group has released several reports that detail troubling effects of continued high carbon emissions not only on the global environment, but also on human health.

I did want to see if I could get more information on the carbon emissions from our nation’s lead agency with this expertise. While the Smart Growth page on EPA’s website further talks about reducing carbon dioxide emissions into the environment, it does so only from a land-use perspective. The webpage prompts me to click on another EPA link to discuss climate change in general—except that the link leads to a dead page (see picture). I think we all know what the current administration’s stance is on all things climate change. Is this another case of sticking our heads in the sand for the same reason as those in the Oregon Senate did?

Now before I go any further let me say that this is not a, “Pick-on-the-republicans,” commentary. Democrats in Oregon’s state government have also staged walkouts. The Statesman Journal (Salem, Oregon’s daily newspaper) has covered stories that included ten Senate Democrats who walked out of the Capitol in 1995 after state Republicans denied an award in honor of a late Oregon House Democrat; and also on five House Republicans who walked out of the state Capitol in 2001 in an attempt to prevent Republicans from revising the state’s legislative districts without the then-governor’s approval.

I chose to focus on this particular situation because of the potential effect these actions—rather, inactions—could have on the notion of sustainable communities and those that reside in them.

Going back to the definition provided by the EPA, I think the one thing any government would agree on is that its community be an economically stronger one. Sure, they all want attractive and socially diverse ones, but money tends to be the driver for all levels of government. Portland and many other cities have already proved that you can be a good steward of the public trust by not only reducing the carbon emissions, but also by showing long-term health and economic benefits.

If our government leaders start to ignore issues like carbon emissions and other harmful activities for which governments could easily provide more regulation or oversight, then we immediately fail at our most basic responsibility to serve the public. And then we wait for the next big issue for government to stick its head in the sand, perhaps again at the expense of this idea of sustainable communities.

Carmen Ashley is not a full-on tree hugger, but she does look for a return to bipartisan politics someday. She is a doctoral student at Valdosta State University an acting branch chief at a federal agency. Her email is [email protected], and her Twitter handle is @CarmenLAshley.

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