Ithaca, a city of 30,000 people in the Southern Tier of New York state, has pledged to be carbon-neutral by 2030. The city government is leading the way by implementing a strategy to achieve full decarbonization, including all areas of the economy. That means vehicles, buildings, the electric grid, waste, and land use.
“It’s a huge challenge,” admits Luis Aguirre-Torres, the director of sustainability for Ithaca. “That’s 6,000 buildings in the next seven years, and 10,000 vehicles. We need to improve infrastructure. But we also have to make sure that climate justice is at core of our policy.”
Ithaca is only one example of the cities in the United States that are out in front of federal policy on climate change. “Cities have been taking the lead and been a huge part of the progress, especially during the Trump administration,” points out Julia Peek, director of communication and mobilization at the Urban Sustainability Directors Network. “Cities are doing incredible work to become energy efficient, reduce pollution, increase resilience, and connect with affected communities.”
Cities and localities have taken the lead because, frankly, the federal government has failed to develop a consistent approach to a clean energy transition. The Obama administration pushed hard to support the Paris climate deal in 2015, only for the Trump administration to pull out of the agreement as soon as it took office. The Biden administration began with its own vision of “building back better” then encountered fierce resistance to its decarbonization plans not only from the Republican Party in Congress but a couple members of its own party as well.
Then, in a surprise turnaround, the Democratic Party managed to achieve consensus within its ranks to salvage key elements of the administration’s climate agenda as part of an Inflation Reduction Act that narrowly passed the Senate on August 7 on its way to approval in the House and the president’s signature on August 16.
This is “a historic and hopeful moment in the decades of U.S. climate inaction,” tweeted Rebecca Leber, who covers climate change for Vox. “The Senate just passed $370 billion more to fight climate change. It’s on track to becoming the first law to address fossil fuel pollution across the entire economy.”
The Inflation Reduction Act, framed as an effort to address rising prices, reduce federal debt, and provide targeted economic assistance, contains within it a raft of clean-energy provisions from climate justice block grants to the creation of a national green bank. It’s not as much as the $550 billion included in the failed Build Back Better legislation, but it’s still the largest federal investment in clean energy in U.S. history. Despite some disheartening concessions to fossil fuel companies, the Act has many sustainability advocates feeling hopeful.
“I see the climate crisis as awful but also the greatest opportunity in human history for wealth creation and better health outcomes,” observes Susie Strife, directs all of Boulder County’s sustainability efforts. “It is clever to frame this as a great economic opportunity, for us to be the leaders of this future we want to have. Let’s be clear: the United States has been an international disgrace: for the children growing up on this planet and for generational justice overall. As the country with the greatest cumulative impact of carbon in history, we need to show leadership.”
To understand how the Green New Deal has played out at a local level and what role the Inflation Reduction Act can play in that process, reporter Rebecca Leber sat down with local sustainability experts Luis Aguirre-Torres, Julia Peek, and Susie Strife in early August, just as the bill was making its way through Congress.
Where Climate Action Comes Alive
The Green New Deal was a short manifesto about the urgency of embarking on the environmental and economic transformation of the United States. It was full of bullet points and broad proposals, such as “invest in the infrastructure and industry of the United States to sustainably meet the challenges of the 21st century” and provide all Americans “with access to clean water, clean air, healthy and affordable food, and nature.”
The original bill was a call to arms, but it was also largely abstract.
“Cities are where so many policies come alive,” explains Julia Peek, who mobilizes efforts among the 250 cities that are part of the Urban Sustainability Directors Network. “Either people have clean, safe, affordable, livable homes or they don’t. Either they can get around their cities or they can’t. Either their communities are safe and resilient and they have the infrastructure they need, or they don’t.”
Cities are sites of innovation, where policies are tried out, improved, and shared with other cities in ways not so easily replicable at the state or federal level. “We can showcase what is possible in our local communities,” Susie Strife points out. “We can pilot local services and show what’s possible to other communities and to the feds.” Sustainability directors are part of this process, she continues, by providing “residents, businesses, policymakers, and other stake-holders actual models for how to acting responsibly, how to respond resiliently in the face of climate change, how to achieve local climate goals through direct emission reduction, and how to build partnerships across communities and organizations to leverage higher impact strategies and system change.”
In the past decade, Luis Aguirre-Torres adds, “we’re seeing cities taking leadership roles” in this process of moving from “red-light policies”—for instance, banning oil exploration in nature preserves—to more transformative actions. After the Paris agreement, he adds, as the conversation moved from ambition to concrete pledges, the message from Washington to cities was “’do what you can.’ Now, finally, the federal government is saying ‘we’ll help you out’ and some states are saying that, too.”
A number of cities—like Portland, Maine—have begun bulk purchasing of clean energy equipment, like heat pumps. Now, Aguirre-Torres continues, it’s becoming possible to imagine a national level bulk purchasing program. All of the examples of Green Banks at the state and local level have similarly contributed to the creation of something comparable at a national level through the Inflation Reduction Act.
Cities are also where climate justice becomes real. In 2019, when the City of Ithaca Common Council passed its resolution on the local Green New Deal, it was a moment, relates Aguirre-Torres, not only when “we said ‘let’s fight climate change, but also let’s address historical inequities, racial injustice, and economic inequality. There was a time when I was about to receive an award from the U.S. president on work we were doing on climate change and, on the same day, I got arrested for ‘lingering while brown’ in Washington. In 12 hours, I got a huge lesson on race relations in America and how disconnected they were from the fight on climate change. So, when I took this job to help Ithaca design a policy to be carbon neutral by 2030, I wanted to make sure that sustainable prosperity would be shared by everyone in the community.”
Cities have begun to hire climate justice directors. “We just hired our first climate equity strategist for Boulder County,” Susie Strife reports. “She has 30 years of deep community engagement and climate justice activism. She’s going to catalyze the work that needs to be done in those communities.” One idea that has come out of this new effort is to create a climate justice lobbying organization.
At the federal level, the Biden administration initiated the Justice40 program, according to which 40 percent of climate-related spending should be directed toward underserved communities. At the Energy Department, Shalanda Baker heads up the Office of Economic Impact and Diversity where she focuses on implementing energy justice.
These federal initiatives, Aguirre-Torres argues, “need to match the efforts happening at the local level—in Vermont, Ithaca, Seattle, Ann Arbor. In some cases, we need a more specific definition of what climate justice means at the local level and to get beyond ethnicity to include the undocumented and the formerly incarcerated. Now there is a line of funding and that’s great. But more important than the money is the intention, and the aligning what we’re doing at a local level with what the federal government has been proposing for several years without any clear idea of how to operationalize it.”
The Backlash Begins
One measure of the success of municipal clean energy transitions is the backlash it has generated.
“Preemption” is one of the tactics the fossil fuel industry has used to push back. When cities like Tucson, Arizona began to look at ways to change building codes to move away from natural gas to other sources of heat, the state legislature passed a law that prevented municipalities from adding new regulations concerning natural gas utilities.
“Interest groups for the natural gas industry, worried about losing energy customers, have now promoted bills in half the country to strip cities of basic powers to set greener building codes and help phase out fossil-fuel pollution,” Rebecca Leber wrote in Vox in September 2021. “These ‘preemption’ laws have swept through 20 state legislatures; three more states have bills pending this year.”
Susie Strife ties these preemption laws to disinformation campaigns run by the fossil fuel industry, which sets up Facebook groups that appear to represent civic groups but are simply vehicles “to misinform communities about the cost of electrification. The feds are still allowing the fossil fuel industry to get away with this stuff. It has to be regulated. I love the grassroots movements that are stopping the PR firms from helping the fossil fuel industry spread disinformation.”
Once, at his Ithaca home, Luis Aguirre-Torres relates, a canvasser knocked on his door with a flyer condemning the city’s Green New Deal. “He started to tell me about Communists coming to town with these ideas and these people from south of the border who decided to implement these ideas,” he says. “This is progressive Ithaca, and yet you still have campaigns of misinformation rooted in racism and discrimination.”
The fossil fuel companies and their PR firms have a lot of money at their disposal. On the other side, “our incredible sustainability staff don’t always have the tools to wage a complex PR campaign to explain that what they’re doing will help everyone,” Julia Peek reports. “They can be outspent by lobbying firms with Astroturf campaigns. But the more ambitious and controversial cities are going to be, the more likely they will be a target of the fossil fuel industry or other industries that pour in money to create a ‘community group’ to shut it all down.”
The Climate Crisis Is Already Here
At the same time that cities are moving forward with more-or-less ambitious plans to transform their energy and infrastructure, they have to deal with the very real impacts of climate change. In a March 2022 Gallup poll, one in three Americans reported that they’d had to deal with extreme weather events in the last two years. A few months later, one in three Americans found themselves living under extreme heat alerts.
Boulder County has had to deal with more than its fair share of climate-related disasters. “At the end of December 2021, we experienced an unprecedented urban firestorm that was put out by snow the next day,” recalls Susie Strife. “The Marshall Fire was the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history, destroying 1,100 homes and leaving so many people displaced. It was the tenth or maybe the ninth most destructive fire in U.S. history now. We’re not alone. Many cities are experiencing climate-related disasters, which are extraordinarily draining in terms of all the social, economic, and emotional costs that linger long after the fires are put out and the media has moved on. Since I moved to Colorado in 2001, Boulder County experienced six major wildfire events and a once-in-a-500-year flood event. These extreme events due to changing climactic conditions are becoming our new normal.”
So, instead of marshaling resources to put toward a more sustainable future, cities have had to respond to current emergencies. “We’re trying to become more proactive in our adaption approach,” Strife continues. “We’re trying to help communities understand the risks they face, mapping that knowledge by neighborhood and giving them more resources to adapt to those climate vulnerabilities.”
“This is where the rubber hits the road,” Luis Aguirre-Torres adds. “Local governments need to be empowered to implement hazard mitigation. But we’re a bit late to the fight.”
Paying for the Green New Deal
Whether it’s hazard mitigation or transitioning existing infrastructure away from fossil fuels, cities need money to address the climate crisis.
“The City of Ithaca budget is $80 million a year,” Aguirre-Torres explains. “Our climate action plan will cost $2 billion to implement. Multiply that by the number of cities in the country and, according to a Bank of America report, that’s $5 trillion a year until 2050.”
One method of accessing additional funds for a Green transition has been Green banks. The Connecticut Green Bank, established in 2011 as the first such financing authority of its kind, provides credit to homeowners, businesses, non-profits, municipalities, and institutions to install solar panels, retrofit buildings, and build EV chargers. Between 2012 and 2020, the bank mobilized nearly $2 billion of investment into Connecticut’s clean energy economy. Other states, counties, and even cities have created their own such banks.
“The Connecticut Green Bank, the model everyone wants to follow, has a mission of removing the reliance on subsidies and incentives and aggregating otherwise high-risk, small-scale projects,” explains Aguirre-Torres. “It helps local and national institutions by derisking participation in the clean energy transformation.”
The Inflation Reduction Act authorizes $27 billion for a National Climate Bank, with $8 billion set aside for disadvantaged communities. “With this national Green bank, a relatively small amount of money can leverage a lot more,” Julia Peek notes. “It will help get projects off the ground that would not attract private capital or might not qualify for federal grants.”
Ithaca, which is also working on creating a regional Green Bank, has already tapped into private capital to make up the shortfall in funding for its plan to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030. The city effectively turned its problem, namely carbon emissions, into an asset. “We said that we have a huge opportunity—400,000 metric tons of opportunity!—for people who want to come in and helps us with this,” Aguirre-Torres adds. “Suddenly the money started flowing and new partnerships were formed. We’ve secured $105 million from private investors, along with soft commitments that take us to half a billion dollars.”
Another tactic for raising money has been to sue the fossil fuel industry for damages. “Boulder County, San Miguel county, and the city of Boulder filed a lawsuit in 2018 against Exxon and Suncor Energy, some of the dirtiest fossil fuel companies out there, to force them to pay their fair share of the mess they helped to created,” explains Susie Strife. “Communities have huge price tags related to climate impacts. According to an analysis we did in 2017, it will take hundreds of millions of dollars just to repair all the roads that have buckled from high heat. For 50 years, these companies knew the danger of the products they’ve been selling. Instead of acting responsibly, they chose to conceal this information in order to continue to profit. They should pay their fair share so that the costs don’t fall disproportionately on taxpayers.”
Strife compares the lawsuit to those mounted against tobacco and opioid peddlers, which also deceived the public and have had to pay damages to their victims. “The case is proceeding through the courts,” she adds, “though the companies are trying to delay case from moving forward. The case is now on hold at the Supreme Court. The lawsuit is an example of what local governments can do. We need to use every tool at our disposal. If we win, it will be a huge precedent in holding industry accountable for climate change damages.”
“These cases are taking off all around the world,” Rebecca Leber reports. “So, this legal strategy is clearly on the radar of oil and gas companies.”
Action at the Federal Level
The Inflation Reduction Act includes a number of incentives and penalties to nudge individuals and industry toward a clean energy future. For instance, auto companies can access $2 billion in funding to retool for EV production and electric vehicle purchasers will be eligible for $7,500 in tax credits. Wind and solar production will get a boost as will other, more controversial technologies like hydrogen and small-scale nuclear reactors. On the stick side, oil and gas companies will face penalties for excessive methane production in their operations.
One critical provision is $500 million for heat pumps and critical minerals processing under the Defense Production Act. “When the president invoked the Defense Production Act,” Luis Aguirre-Torres relates, “I was excited but there was no money in it. Now finally we will have $500 million, which will also mean jobs. We’re finally finding a way of getting everyone to the table. I would have loved it if we didn’t have to give up all of these concessions, but we brought people to the table.”
Julia Peek is particularly energized by the climate justice provisions in the Act. “I’m excited about the $1 billion for grants and loans for energy efficiency and resilience in affordable housing. A lot of money is going to urban forestry, to decarbonizing heavy-duty vehicles, equitable mobility, cleaning up ports, and other ways to improve air quality in frontline communities. The Act will also build domestic clean energy industries that should produce well-paid, family sustaining jobs across the country. At the same time, there are giveaways to the fossil fuel industry that sacrifice some frontline communities because that is still how American politics works. Those fights will continue.”
Susie Strife singles out climate justice block grants for community projects in the Act. “Communities of color and underserved communities deserve these resources and decision-making power,” she notes. “They have so many ingenious ideas to implement, but they have been left out.”
“Biden came into office and he inspired everyone by describing all that his administration was going to do on climate,” Aguirre-Torres recalls. “I’m so sick and tired of being inspired! People don’t pay rent or put food on the table with inspiration. We need an opportunity. I’m excited about the Inflation Reduction Act because it’s clever. It’s groundbreaking from the policy-making point of view because it turns this crisis into an opportunity to reduce inflation. That’s brilliant.”
The scale of the problem is simply too big for cities alone to solve the problem, Susie Strife argues. They need federal assistance. “This year and last we put more carbon into the atmosphere than any other year,” she points out. “This makes it much less likely to achieve the 1.5 Celsius limit. Even if we stop emissions today, and we know that’s not happening, it’s only a 50 percent chance of achieving that goal by 2050. And we also have to deal with legacy emissions. We have to remove gigatons of carbon that’s built up in our atmosphere over the years. Doing all that can’t happen at a local level without resources, without market signals, and without national leadership.”
Cities are innovating around the Green economy, and now the federal government is providing several hundred billion dollars in support. But there is still the problem of connecting the two.
“A lot of local governments just don’t have the capacity to identify, seek out, and apply for these grants,” Julia Peek explains. “They don’t have staff capacity to handle the money. If they don’t have capacity to administer the grants, they won’t even apply for them.”
Even with the Inflation Reduction Act, there is a place for more regulations and executive actions. “Like clean car standards,” Susie Strife suggests. “It’s silly that you can still go into a car dealership and buy a combustion car! Biden’s executive order that 50 percent of cars by 2030 will be electric, that’s a huge game-changer.”
There has even been some pressure on the president to declare a climate emergency, which 200 U.S. cities and counties have already done. Such a declaration would enable the president to take stronger measures like blocking oil exports and ending offshore drilling.
“There has to be a plan behind a declaration of a climate emergency,” Luis Aguirre-Torres explains. “It’s when you exhaust all other possibilities. Even though I believe that we live in a climate emergency, it’s a complicated matter for the president to assume powers over Congress. I don’t think it’s the time to do so. But the time may come after the November elections.”
As the United States addresses the climate crisis at all levels from the federal government down to the cities, what can individuals do to speed the process?
“Talk to people,” Julia Peek urges.
“And not just your friends,” Aguirre-Torres continues. “Talk with people who disagree with you. We have this program to have 1,000 conversations that reflect what the community feels. Don’t assume that what people think or feel about climate change is hardwired into their brains.”
“Also do what lights you up,” Peek adds. “It doesn’t matter what you do, we need you!”
Susie Strife agrees. “We need everyone with whatever skill you have; communication, marketing, filmmaking, visuals, therapy. The climate movement needs those skill sets. And we need to be electing local climate champions, including state treasurers that are climate-friendly.”
“And let’s not forget the power of sharing a common goal,” Aguirre-Torres says. “John F. Kennedy did it when he said that we’d land on the moon and no one had a clue about how we were going to do that. We needed a COVID vaccine and we needed it fast, and suddenly we worked together on something that seemed impossible. When we start to move together in the right direction, we can make things happen.”
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