Guest Columnist

Citizens must engage local governments on climate action

Corn plants stand in flood water from the swollen Iowa River in a farm field along Highway 151 south of Amana, Iowa on Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2018. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Corn plants stand in flood water from the swollen Iowa River in a farm field along Highway 151 south of Amana, Iowa on Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2018. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

It’s hard to miss the news about extreme weather these days — hurricanes, fires, and closest to home, flooding. The climate is changing, and as a result our communities are hurting. The federal government’s National Climate Assessment, released on Friday, Nov. 23, assessed the impacts of climate change across the United States, both now and throughout this century. The findings are sobering, if not downright terrifying: if we do not take action, climate change will cost the U.S. economy hundreds of billions of dollars annually and will increasingly threaten our health and well-being. Citizens and local governments bear most of the brunt of this destruction and the costs of repair.

So what can we do? The problem can feel overwhelming and out of our control. The good news, though, is that much can be done at the community level, and community-scale action can collectively put a major dent in the problem. Even better news is that local climate action strengthens local economies! Here’s what you can do to be a part of that community-focused solution:

Understand the cause. Greenhouse gases (primarily carbon dioxide and methane) form a blanket over the earth that trap heat. Greenhouse gases are emitted by burning coal and natural gas to produce electricity, natural gas to heat buildings and water, gasoline and diesel to power motor vehicles, and by solid waste as it decomposes in landfills. We emit more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than can be reabsorbed by plant materials on the surface of the earth, and the earth’s average temperature is rising as a result. This atmospheric disruption causes the extreme weather events that we are witnessing.

Accept responsibility. We are all responsible for this. No one is exempt. We all use electricity and natural gas. We all use water. We all move around in automobiles and rely on goods and services that are transported with motor vehicles. We all produce solid waste. And in the United States, we do all of these things far more intensively than people in other countries do.

Advocate for action in your community. Local governments, accountable to local people, can enact policies and implement programs to reduce electricity and natural gas consumption through conservation and energy efficiency, shift electricity generation to renewables, reduce vehicle miles traveled through planning, conserve water, and reduce waste. These actions that reduce emissions and other actions that make our landscape and built environment more resilient also will enhance our local economies. Saving energy saves money, investing in energy efficiency and renewable energy creates jobs, and building resilient communities reduces the risk of catastrophic loss due to extreme weather events associated with climate change.

City governments across the country and around the world are setting emissions reduction goals and developing Climate Action Plans composed of strategies to help them reach those goals. In Iowa, the cities of Dubuque and Iowa City have developed robust Climate Action Plans and are on the path toward measurable emissions reductions. We need more communities in Iowa to do this work, and we need citizens to speak to their local elected officials about making this work a priority. The clock is ticking. Let’s pull together to show ourselves and our children that we are taking this threat seriously and that we are totally capable of building a better future.

• Eric Giddens is an engineer and manages the Community Energy and Climate Action Planning program at the Center for Energy and Environmental Education at the University of Northern Iowa. Comments: eric.giddens@uni.edu

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