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Joyce Coffee headshot

A Climate Change Message to Governments: Meet Today’s Needs and Build for Tomorrow

By Joyce Coffee
Climate Change drought

Drought at Lake Millerton in Friant, central California

For years, we’ve been relentless in pondering the key questions about the impact of climate change: Do global citizens fear it? Are the structures we build able to withstand — and mitigate — climate change? And, who must take the lead in creating this infrastructure? 

What do citizens want done about climate change?

We rarely, if ever, get a real sense of what global citizens think about those questions. But, Edelman’s respected 22-year-old Global Trust Barometer, which the giant communications agency now employs to gauge sentiment on special subjects, has found some interesting and insightful answers in securing the pulse of 14,000 respondents worldwide about climate. 

The major takeaways:

Seventy-seven percent worry about climate change leading to drought, rising sea levels and other natural disasters, and 57 percent agree little or no progress has been made to address it. 

Seventy-one percent say we must move faster on climate change issues, and two-thirds say we’ll have to dramatically change our habits to address climate change because institutions alone cannot do it.

Fifty-two percent believe politics drives climate policy, edging out the 48 percent who think science drives policy. 

Fifty-four percent think national governments should take the lead in addressing climate change, followed by state/regional governments and local governments – and then comes business, media and NGOs.

Citizens aren’t seeing leadership on climate change

Yet, while respondents think governments must take the lead, a majority – 54 percent — contend governmental leaders are unwilling to pass tough legislation that would force businesses and individuals to make climate-related changes.

This finding about government action — or inaction — is disturbing when it comes to building the structures required to withstand climate change. Take what we know increasingly about local government regulation regarding green infrastructure. In rural and less-dense areas, the policy options for incorporating green infrastructure include ordinances that preserve or restore pre-construction conditions on development sites, plus ordinances that direct development away from sensitive areas such as wetlands, streams and significant natural resources. 

In cities, however, green infrastructure offers the way to protect and restore natural habitats. Such green infrastructure includes plants and permeable surfaces that infiltrate stormwater into soil, thereby reducing levels of urban runoff to city storm sewers. 

The proverbial carrot-and-stick approach – that combination of reward and punishment to induce desired behavior – proves particularly instructive in local regulations. 

Here’s a “stick” example: A zoning ordinance adopted in January 2018 by Norfolk, Virginia’s city council includes a unique “resilience quotient system” requiring housing developers to reach a certain point total, based on the size or number of units, by including various resilience measures in the project’s design. Stormwater management is one such measure, earning points for installing a green roof, rain gardens or other stormwater infiltration systems; or using pervious paving systems, tree planting or providing a community garden space, among others. 

In Washington, D.C., “the green area ratio” is a zoning regulation for environmental sustainability that sets requirements for landscape elements and site design to help reduce stormwater runoff, improve air quality, and mitigate urban heat. It sets minimum lot coverage standards for landscape and site design features to promote greater livability, ecological function, and climate adaptation in the urban environment. 

As for the “carrot” approach, Philadelphia encourages more stormwater retention and green infrastructure practices by creating subsidies, grants and rebates for both residential and nonresidential projects. The city offers a lower price for qualified nonresidential customers and contractors to design and install stormwater best management practices that reduce stormwater pollution and enhance water quality. 

In New York, a multiagency Green Infrastructure Grant program led by the Environmental Protection Department offers grants for up to $5 million to private property owners in combined sewer areas of the city who promise 20 years of maintenance. Funds are provided for green infrastructure projects that manage the first inch of rainfall, and they include blue roofs, rain gardens, green roofs, porous pavement and rainwater harvesting. 

The EPA offers a handy guide for overcoming barriers to green infrastructure as well as guides for site-scale green infrastructure practices. 

As for the Edelman Trust Barometer on climate, it maintains that institutions leading climate action must show the benefits to individuals “because people recognize the positive impacts of current climate change solutions on a societal level more than on a personal level.” 

That reminded me that in 2006 in Chicago, where I’m based, I worked with the City Council and developers to pass what may have been the first performance-based stormwater management ordinance that drove green roofs, permeable parking lots, tree planting and bioswales on private property. 

Today, my business and my community benefit from this greening’s positive impacts. Perhaps based on them, subsequent city administrations have been able to go further with green stormwater infrastructure in public capital projects, permeable alleys and natural "streetscaping."

This possibility proves instructive in contemplating a conclusion of the Edelman climate report about government’s responsibility: Regulating for green infrastructure, which grows in resilience benefit over time, even as climate change risks also grow, is one helpful opportunity

That message for governments is a simple one: Meet the needs of today — and build for tomorrow. 

Image credit: Simon Hurry via Unsplash

Joyce Coffee headshot

Joyce Coffee, LEED AP, is founder and President of Climate Resilience Consulting. She is an accomplished organizational strategist and visionary leader with over 25 years of domestic and international experience in the corporate, government and non-profit sectors implementing resilience and sustainability strategies, management systems, performance measurement, partnerships, benchmarking and reporting.

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