Why Local Action is Promising for Addressing Climate Change, Explained
By: Katya Baty
From devastating fires in California and Australia, to bomb cyclones on the East Coast, the effect of human caused climate change is being felt. Every year we are witnessing the effects of climate change with a growing number of extreme weather events, record breaking temperatures, and climate anomalies.
This past month became the warmest January in recorded history with temperatures ranging from 3 to 6-degrees Celsius above average. Much of Northern Europe and the East Coast of the United States have had spring-like temperatures and limited snowfall.
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned that society has roughly a decade left to prevent irreversible damages to the world we know now.
With an overwhelming number of reports and shocking statistics, many people are calling for action, but are their demands being met? In the past few years there has been a new wave of environmental activism. The youth movement called Fridays for Future, which grew out of Greta Thunberg’s school strikes for climate, continues to call on world leaders to take bold action in order to mitigate the severity of climate change. Students around the world have gathered to strike every Friday since August of 2018. Last September leading up to a UN summit on the Climate Crisis, 6 million people attended demonstrations across the Americas, Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, and the Pacific Islands.
This article will outline why climate change is a pressing issue, what international governments are doing and the limitations of these actions, and what action can be taken concurrently with international negotiations to effectively mitigate climate change.
So why is Climate Change a key issue? And how will it impact our lives?
Climate change is an issue that not only threatens the environment but it also threatens livelihoods and human health. Climate change has become a growing concern since it was first noted at the Mauna Loa Observatory that greenhouse gas emission levels have been rising exponentially since the industrial revolution. These greenhouse gases, most notably CO2, come from burning fossil fuels for various human activities including industrial practices, transportation, heating, electricity and more. They remain in the atmosphere for long periods of time, trapping the heat in from the sun and warming the temperature of the Earth’s surface.
According to NOAA and NASA, “2019 was the second hottest year on record when compared to 140 years of data and nine of the 10 hottest months have occurred since 2005.” Additionally, many places in the world are already living 1 degree above pre-industrial temperature levels. This change in global temperature is expected to dramatically alter the planet leading to sea level rise that will impact many metropolitan cities and lead to more intense droughts, heat waves, flooding, and fires.
If Earth’s atmosphere warms above two degrees celcius it is predicted that it will cause significant biodiversity loss. A study conducted at the University of Connecticut, found that warming to 2 degrees celsius would nearly double the current extinction rate of species.
How are international governments responding to the Climate Crisis?
The United Nations (UN), made up of a number nation-states, has responded by hosting summits and negotiations that have set targets and ambitious goals for the coming years. One of the main examples of international climate action is the Conference of the Parties (COP) which meets every year to discuss climate action. The first meeting happened in 1995 in Germany and the most recent one occurred in 2019 in Madrid.
In 2015, this conference led to the Paris Agreement in which nations united around the issue of climate change bringing it to the center stage of global politics. This agreement set a goal to limit temperature rise to no more than two degrees celsius. According to the UN, the agreement was significant because it was the greatest number of nations to sign onto an international agreement on the same day, signalling a shift and global commitment to responding to climate change.
Since the Paris Agreement went into effect on Earth Day of 2016, 186 out of the 197 countries that signed on have ratified the agreements. However, there is still a large gap between global action and what is needed to meet the warming limits.
According to a study published in Earth’s Future, in order to reach this degree limit developed countries and top emitters would need to be at almost zero emissions by 2030 requiring rapid and dramatic changes to the way we live our lives.
Why is it difficult to tackle Climate Change?
Climate change is an issue that is difficult to take on because of the magnitude and scale of its effects. It can also be challenging to grasp how pressing the issue is because the greatest damage is predicted to occur over a long time period. This is because the ocean is able to store large amounts of heat and absorb CO2 from the atmosphere. One study found that oceans have absorbed around 30% of human related C02 emissions which has led to warmer ocean temperatures and ocean acidification. This process is also referred to as slow violence,meaning the irreversible slow erosion of living conditions and the health of ecosystems over time. These impacts also disproportionately affect communities of color, the poor, and small island communities. Affluent communities may not experience the brunt of the effects until many others have already.
Additionally, nations tend to make decisions from an economic standpoint. The challenge with mitigating climate change is that it does not lead to short term gains. Instead, it comes with a greater initial cost but will result in greater savings and quality of life for future generations.
Why can’t we rely just on international climate agreements? What has been done? What are their limits?
While international agreements and conferences on climate change are essential for working towards addressing climate change and raising awareness about the issue, their impact has been somewhat limited.
Although some countries are making strides towards meeting their Paris Agreement targets with investment in renewable energy as well as cleaner and more efficient transportation, the results have not been great enough to stay below a temperature rise of 2 degrees. A UN Report from 2018 found that global emissions have continued to rise over the past decade. This is because international agreements have a limited reach. For instance, many agreements including the Paris Agreement are often non-binding. This means that countries are not bound by law to meet the emission and degree limits of the agreement, and each nation self reports their emission levels and progress.
Non-binding agreements make it easier to get more leaders on board, but one drawback is the uncertainty of a long-term commitment since national interests can change with each election cycle. A primary example of this is the shift from the Obama administration to the Trump administration. Since the agreement was first signed under the the Obama Administration, the U.S. is now set to withdraw from the agreement even though it is one of the top five emitting nations. This decision has reversed a decade’s worth of environmental progress.
In a study by the Rhodium Group, their research concluded that the US is off track to meet its goals of the Paris Agreement. U.S. emission levels had been on the decline because of the growth in cleaner transportation, more efficient lighting, and subsidized renewables, however, with a growing number of rollbacks in the EPA, emissions rose sharply for the first time in several years in 2018. According to the 2018 National Climate Assessment, if we continue business as usual in the United States they predict that climate change will slow economic growth and cause costly damages to livelihoods and infrastructure in the future (NPR).
How can climate action be more effective?
According to the IPCC report, we are at a defining moment in adapting and mitigating the climate crisis. Even though the United States has pulled out of the Paris Agreement, many states and cities have made strong commitments to lowering their emissions over the next decade. On an international scale, more than 90 mayors from the largest cities have created a group called the C40 cities working towards making swift changes.
Below is a list of suggested actions from a more “bottom-up” approach that can make reaching international climate goals more effective and feasible:
1) City Planning and Infrastructure Changes
How cities are designed significantly impacts their contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. A typical car emits roughly 4.2 tons of CO2 a year which is about as heavy as a hippopotamus. According to the UN, “cities account for more than 70% of the world’s emissions per year.” A key way to lower emission levels is to transition to mobility infrastructure that promotes alternative modes of transportation.
Making it easier to walk or bike in a city can replace a number of car trips for traveling short distances. For example, Copenhagen is a city which has created a well-connected public transport system, increased the number of bicycle paths and pedestrian only streets, and are on their way to meeting their goal of being carbon neutral by 2025. This solution also makes cities more livable and helps citizens stay active.
2) Creating Localized Green New Deals and Climate Action Plans
Another key solution for local governmental leaders is to develop a Green New Deal and a specific Climate Action Plan. Los Angeles recently rolled out a Green New Deal that has detailed plans for infrastructure changes, how they will address food insecurity, and decrease dependency on fossil fuels for energy and transportation. This approach helps to guide local action and set a specific timeline. Developing these plans on a smaller scale also makes it easier to tailor the approach to the risks climate change poses to their particular local environment and community.
3) Making Electric Vehicles the New Norm
Since public transportation, walking, and biking can’t make up for all the trips people have to take, another solution is to make electric vehicles more affordable and accessible. According to an article in the Washington Post, as electricity production gets cleaner in the United States with mixed energy sources such as renewables and natural gas, transportation is becoming the largest source of CO2 emissions. Electric vehicles are an important new technology. While the federal government does offer a tax return electric cars make up only a small percentage of the types of cars people own across the nation.
This solution would ease governments and cities transition to electric vehicles, and state legislation could be implemented to offer greater tax credits for purchasing an electric vehicle. Offering tax credits or rebates for alternatives to traditional fuel helps lower the initial cost making it more accessible for consumers across different income levels. An added benefit of the switch to electric vehicles and reaching lower emission levels is better air quality.
Climate change is a complex issue that is linked to a number of aspects of how society is structured. Decisions on climate action have to be made at all levels and disciplines of society including politics, economics, science, and media. A difference can be made on any scale, from grassroots movements to state and national legislature. Mitigating climate change can seem like a daunting task, but it is also an opportunity for collaboration, innovation, creative thinking and systematic change.