The Heat Is Online

Local Governments Accord Low Priority to Climate Change

A  3


Local Governments and

Climate Change

Mary L. Walsh

with Justin Spencer

Sawyer School of Management, Suffolk University


Selected Findings


Two-thirds of responding local governments consider climate change to be a low or very low priority, and 57% do not have a climate change program. Where climate data are incorporated into policy decisions, they are mostly used to set municipal greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals, for energy conservation, for water management, and for land use planning.


Local governments that identified potential vulnerabilities to climate change most often cited intensified storms (50%), compromised water quality (39%), infrastructure damage (25%), and loss of wetlands (22%).

Primary reasons for not having climate initiatives include skepticism about the accuracy of climate science and practical barriers, such as lack of funding, marginal support from elected officials, and lack of citizen involvement.



The consensus among scientists is that Earths

climate is warming at an accelerating rate and

that a consequence of this warming is serious dis-

ruptions to the climate of communities through-

out the world. In June 2006, ICMA conducted a

survey to ascertain the level of awareness about

the issue of climate change among local govern-

ments and to identify the kinds of adaptation and

mitigation activities, if any, that have been put

into place.




Climate prediction models, combined with data

collected from ice cores and tree rings, attest to

the rise in the globes temperature over time. Of

special concern is the accelerating rate at which

the climate is currently heating up. According to

climate scientist James Hansen at the National

Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), in

the next 200 years we will approach the warmest

temperatures the Earth has experienced in the

past million years.1Underscoring this warning, in

November 2006 the World Meteorological Orga-

nization issued measurements of heat-trapping

greenhouse gases, showing that the average global

concentrations of carbon dioxide were at record

levels  in  2005  and  are  expected  to  continue



This ongoing rise in global temperature is

expected to causeand may already be causing

a wide range of weather extremes and disruptions

that affect populations around the world. Among

the disruptions predicted to come about with the

changing climate are more severe storms; increased

coastal ooding; a rise in sea levels, which will

threaten coastal communities; and the spread of

vector-borne diseases, such as malaria and West

Nile virus.

All the major scientific bodies in the United

States, including the National Academy of Sci-

ences, the American Meteorological Society, the

American Geophysical Union, and the American

Association for the Advancement of Science, have

issued reports or statements in recent years con-

cluding that human activity, primarily the burning

of fossil fuels, is altering the climate we have

come to depend upon for economic and social stability.3The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Third Assessment Report, which is considered to represent current scientic con-

sensus on climate change, takes the position generally agreed upon by most scientists specializing in climate research.4(The IPCC Fourth Assessment is scheduled for publication in late 2007.).


That position is corroborated in Climate Change Science, the report of the National Academy of Sciences:


The full text of the IPCC Third Assessment

Report on The Scientic Basis represents a

valuable effort by U.S. and international sci-

entists in identifying and assessing much of the

extensive research going on in climate science.

The body of the WGI [Working Group I] re-

port is scientically credible and is not unlike

what  would  be  produced  by  a  comparable

group of only U.S. scientists working with a

similar set of emission scenarios, with per-

haps some normal differences in scientific

tone and emphasis.5


And the reports of these scientic bodies about

climate impact issues have raised national security

and economic concerns from a number of other

organizations, prompting new and more speci-

cally focused studies.

National Security Concerns

In its 2002 brochure Opportunities and Risks of

Climate Change, Swiss Re, one of the largest

reinsurance companies,6discusses possible con-

clusions that can be drawn from the data on cli-

mate change. Using specic examples to illustrate

that climate change implies not merely a poten-

tial increase in extreme levels, but primarily a

change in average normal weather conditions,

the brochure shows that damage caused by small

shifts in normal weather conditions can assume

the proportions of natural catastrophes.7

One year later, the Pentagon conducted a study

of the national security implications of abrupt

climate change. The studys ndings led to the

conclusion that a precautionary approach should

be taken and that the risk of abrupt change should

be elevated beyond a scientic debate to a U.S.

national security concern.8



Economic Concerns

A number of organizations are also studying the

economic effects of climate changethe costs of

managing the issue, including the costs of new

energy research and development, as well as the

costs of climate impacts, such as cleanup after se-

vere storms. One of the most extensive analyses

was released by the British government in October

2006; dubbed the Stern Review after Sir Nicholas

Stern, former chief economist of the World Bank

and the reports principal author, it presents a bleak

picture of global nancial duress in dealing with

climate impacts.9Findings from another study,

headed by scientists from Columbia Universitys

Earth Institute to assess the potential costs of cli-

mate change on the coastal communities in New

York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, underscore

how the resultant infrastructure losses will put

stress on the regional economy; these scientists

project, for example, that beach nourishment proj-

ects and protection of the water supply will cost

several hundred million dollars over the next

several decades.10





For most local governments the concern is, of

course, local. What will be the impacts on a

particular local community? The U.S. National

Center for Atmospheric Research study, released

in December 2006, identies hot spots where

weather extremes will be at their worst.11One of

these areas, the western United States, is projected

to experience extended droughts and longer heat

waves. Some areas, such as the Pacic Northwest,

are likely to receive a weird mixture of longer

droughts and heavier rainfall.

The U.S. National Climate Assessment, pub-

lished in 2000, puts the global warming issue into

a regional context and offers a practical blueprint

for public managers.1The assessment divided the

country into 19 regions, each of which created

assessment teams of scientists, local and state

government representatives, and other key regional

stakeholders such as universities, nonprot orga-

nizations, and citizen groups. Each region then

published a separate report, such as the Metro-

politan East Coast Climate Assessment,13that analyzed the regions potential climate impactson agriculture, water, human health, coastal areas nd marine resources, and forests.