In the Climate Trenches

Vining march

Politics and climate change have rarely played nice. Despite years of climate activists and scientific leaders ringing the bell, sweeping climate action has moved at a pace slower than melting glaciers. We see in the public dialogue a recurring conflict between contending forces. For all the talk and debate, the needle never seems to move. But beneath the debate and the apparent comatose state of international climate agreement, local and regional governments are collaborating to act on climate change in unprecedented and inspiring ways.

The term “local” hints to geography. As Bill McKibben commented during his Do the Math Tour for 350.org, “geography is destiny.” In almost every major city across the United States, Europe and Canada, there is an individual or team working to make their local community more sustainable. To them this sense of destiny translates into a responsibility to their local communities. As a result, these individuals and teams are on the front lines of both mitigating climate change and adapting to it. They are creating climate action plans that set emission reduction goals, implementing alternative transportation systems and cutting through political barriers to make their communities more livable and more sustainable. In short, they are moving the needle.

Susanna Sutherland, innovation fund manager for the Urban Sustainability Director’s Network (USDN) states, “Sustainability directors are the bright lights in city government… they have an innovative spirit and those are the types of people who are attracted to these types of jobs.” But mitigating and adapting to climate change is a big challenge to take on within the silos of a single city agency – a job made even more difficult when competing with basic services in tight city budgets. With so much talent spread out across entire regions, nations and continents, best practices and collaboration between these practitioners is needed now more than ever.

Susanna says the USDN works to connect these sustainability practitioners to “be a network for directors to learn from their peers.” The USDN is also helping sustainability directors find funding for projects that meet their local carbon reduction goals. Since 2009, when the USDN’s Innovation Fund was started, it has allocated $2.5 million to a growing portfolio of tools and strategies for sustainable community management. This funding encourages collaborative urban innovations, which with sound investing strategies and the right partners can lead to scalable solutions.

Policies to combat the effects of climate change and frameworks for implementing those strategies already exist. USDN is building a repository of these tools so sustainability directors can choose the best and most transferrable initiatives for their communities. This approach saves time and money. Often sustainability directors are offices of one. Access to tried and true solutions is imperative as it allows them to mirror the successes and avoid the past failures.

Isolated, a single city or region does not have the capacity to end the threat of climate change. The problem is simply too systemic. However, if the people in those organizations are given new ways to collaborate, and offered better ways to share their ideas, then the conditions may exist for those ideas to spread. It is through networks and communities that many humans tend to find strength and inspiration. As the connections and transfer of ideas in those networks grow, so does the opportunity for great innovation and the possibility for real change.


Sam Irvine is a sustainability blogger scholar at Presidio Graduate School where he is working toward his MBA/MPA in Sustainable Management. He is one of the co-founders of the economy, policy and culture blogupstreamideas.org. @samuel_irvine

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