By Michael Shank

This article is written by Dr Michael Shank, director of engagement at the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance. Michael also teaches sustainable development at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs. The following article is written in his personal capacity.

The problem: Environmental programming risks getting axed by incoming conservative administrations in local and national governments.

Why it matters: Climate action and policy are essential to our survival, so making the work durable, regardless of political leadership, is essential.

The solution: Taking lessons from biomimicry, we can keep climate work around by staying nimble and flexible, as nature illustrates below.

There’s a scramble in President Joe Biden’s administration to get out the door as much funding as possible for clean energy and environmental justice projects before it’s too late. This is evident across the administration, but it’s especially apparent at the Environmental Protection Agency and in the Departments of Energy and Transportation, which are constantly cranking out green-oriented grants.

The goal is to move money fast before the White House is up for grabs come 5 November. And depending on which poll you read — a recent one from Emerson College Polling has former President Donald Trump leading Biden 46% to 43% — it’s anyone’s guess who will get the US’s top job.

A second less obvious scramble

There’s another scramble that’s less obvious, more interesting, internally facing and potentially impactful. It’s an effort by federal government staff to keep this workaround even if the Republican Party, and notably with a second-term Trump, takes over the White House. The internal reframing is focused on making this stuff stick with the longer-serving civil service and non-political appointees.

This isn’t just happening at the federal level, though. Local governments across the US are doing the same, as many recently elected mayors and city councils are all about traditional ‘public safety’ priorities and are busy cutting budgets for climate, environment and sustainability programmes and projects. (The irony in that approach, of course, is that much of the climate funding would make communities far more secure and resilient in the future.)

Biomimicry is boundless in its lessons in getting sustainability to stick regardless of administrations.

All this effort may seem pointless because a Trump presidency could still clean the house of any hint of sustainability-minded momentum. But it’s a positive reinforcing mechanism because it’s compelling climate leaders to think carefully about how the work is carried out and communicated. And as federal and local governments think about the staying power of this work, it’s worth taking lessons from biomimicry for answers on how we should get sustainability to stick.

Lessons from biomimicry

Lesson 1: Find your mockingbird

First, find your mockingbird. In other words, be verbally flexible. Much of our climate communications and messaging is monotonal. We tend to sing one song and one song only. And all that decarbonising, carbon neutralising and net-zeroing is not very melodic. It’s often used as shorthand by climate leaders, assuming everyone is already on board or should be on board. But that’s not always the case.

That’s true of legitimate and much-needed work in the many reparative spaces, too, which is why some government staff are using different language to describe the work. They’re keen to mimic the worlds in which they’re operating so that there’s longer-term buy-in.

For example, with some of the environmental justice work, federal government staff are reframing the conversation with opportunity, prosperity and fairness language in mind, knowing that’ll make sense to more audiences. It’s more palatable across the political spectrum. Similarly, city staff who are working on decarbonising the built environment, for example, are rightly rerouting the work to track the affordable housing crisis, something that’s on many Americans’ minds.

This is the necessary work, leaning into multilingual messaging that lands with all audiences. It’s the more interesting work, too. A mockingbird is far more fun to listen to than a singular songbird on repeat.

Lesson 2: Find your chameleon

Second, find your chameleon. In other words, be visually flexible. While chameleons primarily use colour change to camouflage from predators, as their light tan colour keeps them disguised during less dangerous times, there’s a lesson here for climate leaders. When climate action and policy are in danger of landing on the budget chopping block thanks to a new administration, finding creative ways to camouflage the body of work to survive is essential. But even when it’s not in danger, finding more clever ways of blending into the environment is helpful.

For example, several US cities have embedded their sustainability programmes and projects within their city’s health department or within their office of economic development. Others have positioned their adaptation and resilience work with the public safety division. These are all ways of keeping the work alive and well within frameworks that often make more sense and are more palatable to the public. All while maintaining the integrity of the work.

Finding ways of fitting into other government environments to stay alive — that’s the task. Transforming to fit into health and human services, housing, labour, education, economic development, security, parks and recreation and more is essential. Climate leaders have historically stuck out — often siloing themselves — but could easily fit into the whole of government. The ‘environment’ is implicated in and impacted by every aspect of government work, so the potential for camouflaging is clear. And while this may sound transactional, remember that the predators are prowling. A little survivalist strategy is warranted.

Lesson 3: Find your ecosystem

Third, find your ecosystem. In other words, be structurally flexible. There are no separate, discreet, and siloed departments and agencies within a healthy ecosystem. As National Geographic describes an ecosystem, it’s where “plants, animals, and other organisms, as well as weather and landscapes, work together to form a bubble of life”. Perhaps, then, in an effort to get this sustainability stuff to stick irrespective of administrations, we need to let go of the ‘environment’ or ‘energy’ silos and lean into ecosystems instead.

When local governments lead with ‘Chief Heat Officers’, for example, we’re leaning into ecosystem thinking. With heat as the urban ecosystem, it brings many, if not all, local government departments and agencies together to tackle the problem. A ‘Chief Flood Officer’ could do the same, considering how many departments are involved. Finding ways to build an ecosystem internally within government — in a way that spans many disciplines — and then conveying that externally to the public is the way forward for a new way of governing.

Biomimicry is boundless in its lessons in getting sustainability to stick regardless of administrations.

Another one?

Find your nectar. This is a strategy bound to bear fruit. Attracting colleagues from across the ecosystem, with the sweet scent of how a sustainable life is better, is a tried-and-true approach. And then put them at the centre of the work so that they get the prerequisite likes and loves necessary to continue the work. In short, biomimicry has it all.

The point is: mirror nature to protect it. By improving verbal, visual and structural flexibility — as nature so deftly does — we might be able to get climate and sustainability to stick around and stay through the next administration locally and federally.