Reasons for Optimism on Earth Day
By: Debbie Cox Bultan, CEO of NewDEAL
In the wake of the recent United Nations climate report that shows the world is “already perilously close to tipping points that could lead to cascading and irreversible climate effects,” it is easy to feel increasingly distressed about global warming. However, there is reason for hope because of efforts underway in states and cities across America to meaningfully address greenhouse gas emissions and help transition to a clean energy economy.
States and localities have long been on the forefront of our country’s climate action, implementing solutions that will have both near and long-term impact. During the Trump Administration’s concerted effort to deny climate science and roll back progress, states and localities forged ahead regardless. Now, with a partner in the Biden Administration, their efforts are poised to be significantly enhanced by federal climate funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed by Congress and signed by President Biden last November. Additionally, Congress can and should build on that momentum by passing the climate provisions included in the Build Back Better Act.
One clear indication of the scope of the efforts underway across the country is the number of states and localities that have implemented climate action plans in recent years. According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, 34 states now have or are in the process of finalizing climate action plans. Additionally, 35 of the US’s 50 most populous cities have plans in place (notably, 32 of them led by Democratic mayors).
In honor of Earth Day, for this second post in an ongoing series spotlighting key trends and promising ideas in state and local policy, I wanted to highlight two exciting trends among climate action from the NewDEAL network of 200 exceptional state and local elected officials.
First, across the country, state and local leaders are championing reforms in sectors that the Environmental Protection Agency identifies as two of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions and, therefore, the largest contributors to climate change — transportation and commercial buildings.
In Washington state, Senator Marko Liias’ landmark $17 billion transportation bill, Move Ahead Washington, was signed into law by Governor Inslee earlier this year. This bill directs more funding to non-highway transportation such as EV charging stations, hybrid-electric ferries, and free public transit fares for youth. Importantly, the bill contains strong equity provisions and requires at least 35% of the funding to be invested to advance environmental justice in overburdened and marginalized communities.
In Utah, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall led an effort to make all Utah Transit Authority (UTA) services free for the month of February in the hopes of increasing ridership and impacting the environment. Commenting on the results, Mayor Mendenhall tweeted, “The numbers show what we’ve long believed: far more people will take transit when cost is not a barrier. I’m so excited about the possibilities this presents for our air quality, and look forward to finding more ways to remove barriers to riding transit for all our residents.” The state is now considering making this change permanent.
In their first phase of a 100% carbon-free city climate policy, outgoing Ithaca, New York Mayor Svante Myrick led a first-in-the-nation effort to begin 100% decarbonization of all city buildings, recognizing that cities must lead the effort to reduce emission from their massive stock of legacy buildings and residences with low energy efficiency. Ithaca has lined up $100 million in private financing for the effort.
A second exciting trend in state and local climate action are initiatives that put job creation front and center in the work to transition to a clean energy economy and that establish pathways for their workforce into emerging and changing industries.
For example, in Phoenix, Mayor Kate Gallego announced the launch of the Phoenix Urban Agricultural Fellowship to “train the next generation of growers and food distributors who will represent the future of farm entrepreneurship, innovation, and business ownership in Phoenix.” Graduates of the fellowship are able to continue their careers in climate-friendly food production through the Phoenix Worker Cooperative Sustainable Food System Incubator Training Program.
And in San Jose, CA, Mayor Sam Liccardo launched a “resiliency corps” to support unemployed and underemployed young adults by providing living-wage employment and work experience opportunities. Participants in the corps’ Environmental Resilience and Emergency Preparedness Pathway work on critical infrastructure and landscape management projects: park and trail maintenance, wildfire prevention, habitat restoration, watershed protection, among other resiliency projects. At the end of the program, they are placed in a related career-track job or enrolled in post-secondary education.
Although there’s still much work to be done, state and local leaders across the country are boldly advancing climate goals. From rethinking transportation and buildings in their communities to preparing workers for green jobs, states and localities will continue to be the laboratories for good ideas that will shape our clean energy future.