This Earth Day, it’s time to look for local leadership on climate change

This Earth Day, it’s time to look for local leadership on climate change
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There seems to be almost nothing about which we can reach consensus in the United States. In our polarized political climate, everything feels like a wedge issue — from immigration to education to campaign finance.

But while we argue, on this 48th Earth Day, the planet on which we stand is changing. In the dead night of polar winter in February, temperatures soared above freezing in the Arctic, hastening the end of the polar ice sheet. In 2017, 9.5 million acres of U.S. forests burned in wildfires, costing the Forest Service $2.4 billion, and eating up 57 percent of its total agency budget. Extreme heat cooked multiple cities across the United States last year, grounding planes in Phoenix and reaching near-record highs in Boston and Seattle.

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One of us is an environmental researcher and the other, the only Republican mayor to support the Paris Climate Accord. We’re calling for ground-up municipal leadership. It’s a cause that is at its heart apolitical and grounded in economic common sense. We don’t have forever to sit on our hands, waiting for bipartisanship to return to Washington or for federal legislation to make it out of Congress to the president’s desk. This Earth Day, it’s time to go local.

 

Powerful changes can happen in small places. Take Carmel, Indiana, north of Indianapolis. It used to be a car-centric suburb whose resident drove miles for the amenities of a big city.  But Carmel focused on building more than 200 miles of bike and pedestrian trails so people could live a more car-free life, thereby reducing carbon emissions. When it came time to improve the Wastewater Treatment Facility, Carmel chose to capture most of the methane gas produced by the treatment process and repurpose it to heat boilers used in the biosolids process. Lastly, Carmel now has 116 roundabouts instead of traffic signals at intersections. In addition to reducing injury accidents by 80 percent, this changed street engineering substantially, saving the equivalent of over 270 tanker trucks of fuel last year.

It’s time to resist the notion that dealing with a changing planet is the territory of tree huggers and anti-business interests. Smart climate decisions always benefit the municipal bottom line. When it comes to the cost-benefits of going green, Carmel can start with the cost savings of roughly $500,000 to build a roundabout instead of a conventional signalized intersection. The wastewater biosolids system saves the city $100,000 a year. And the switch to LED street lighting has dropped the electricity costs by 50 percent.

Sustainability initiatives have an impact on economic development. The city’s focus on environmentally responsible leadership attracts a high-quality workforce, a young generation of entrepreneurs, a crowd of commercial investors, better health — and ultimately lowers property taxes.

We hear a lot on television news about Republicans who are not concerned with our world’s environment. Yet until recently, improving our environment has been an issue promoted by Republican leaders. In the early 1900s, it was President Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican, who set aside more than 230 million acres of wilderness, established five of our national parks and created the U.S. Forest Service.

Republican President Dwight Eisenhower established the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And President Richard Nixon, a Republican, established a cabinet-level agency that is the Environmental Protection Agency. He signed the Water Quality Improvement Act, the Endangered Species Act, and other environmental legislation into law. Legislation such as this has provided the framework of our federal environmental policy for more than 40 years.

We believe the average citizen of the United States, regardless of party affiliation, is concerned about global warming, wants their family to breathe clean air, drink clear healthy water, and leave the earth in a better condition for their children and grandchildren.

Many will argue that a global problem can be addressed only through global agreements and global action. While we agree that national and international action is important, it is clear that cities, with about 85 percent of our country’s population, can meet the Paris commitments.

We must address these efforts if there is any hope of coping with — and halting — climate change. Municipal leadership is critical; we can no longer afford to wait for federal leadership to advance national and international action. It’s something we can all agree upon.

Jim Brainard is mayor of Carmel, Indiana. Follow him on Twitter @jimbrainard.

Paul Robbins is director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Follow him on Twitter @NelsonInstitute.