By Michael Shank and Julia Peek
Michael Shank is director of engagement at the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance. Julia Peek is director of communications and mobilization at the Urban Sustainability Directors Network.
When tackling climate change, one may think of the usual suite of approaches in policymaking: regulation and incentives to ramp up renewables, electrify our buildings and transportation, weatherize our homes, reduce waste, and more.
The U.S. Inflation Reduction Act included many of these essential incentives.
But in addition to these technical solutions, we need integrated and transformative approaches that put people at the heart of the work. We need to address climate change’s root problems and current impacts in a concerted way, not siloed across departments and disciplines.
Local governments are doing this. By investing in the human infrastructure we talk about below, they’re integrating climate action, equity, justice, and resilience across programs.
They’re working outside silos and supporting others to do the same. They’re building bridges between governments and communities. And they’re sending important signals that this work is being prioritized.
So, who to hire? Here are five positions to start.
First, an Environmental Justice or Climate Justice Director. The City of Seattle hired a Climate Justice Director several years ago and other cities and states are following suit, like the State of Virginia.
This position elevates climate and environmental justice on the city’s agenda and across departments. It also helps ensure that city agencies engage and share power with frontline communities, address disproportionate climate impacts experienced by communities of color and economically-disadvantaged communities, and spur more equitable climate investments.
Second, a Chief Heat Officer. Several cities and counties are doing this, following Miami-Dade County’s lead in Florida, a first-of-its-kind hire.
Given the more frequent, lasting, and deadly heat waves, this position targets extreme heat and tees up the resources and planning to prevent heat deaths, stroke, and other health impacts. (Note that heat is often called the “silent killer” as it currently claims more lives per year than other extreme weather events.)
It complements the “code red” that UN Secretary General Antonia Guterres uses to frame the climate crisis and provides accessible language and leverage to city officials to tackle this problem in new ways.
Third, a Community Engagement and Mobilization Team. Most cities have communications teams, and some even have engagement teams, though not necessarily devoted to climate work. This takes it one step further and asks local governments to step into a climate mobilizing role.
Canada’s City of Vancouver staffed up here to ensure an engaged, multi-stakeholder process on climate policies. Other cities like Cleveland, Ohio, employed “Appreciative Inquiry” processes to bring diverse stakeholders to the table over days and years to co-design the city’s future.
Around the world – from Glasgow’s and Amsterdam’s use of Citizen Assemblies to Adelaide’s community-based virtual whiteboard – cities are launching better-designed engagement strategies. They’re realizing that without an inclusive strategy, policies may not move forward or actually address the problems for which they’re designed.
Fourth, a Green New Dealer. Boston, Los Angeles, New York City, and Seattle have launched Green New Deals or hired directors to situate this work at the nexus of social, economic, and environmental sustainability.
Other US cities, like Baltimore, Orlando and San Jose, and many European cities, have launched programs mirroring the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, another intersectional approach.
This signals that health, housing, education, and jobs are very much a part of the climate puzzle. Taking climate work out of its environmental silo – and showing how it intersects with every aspect of our quality of life – is essential for more effective policymaking and public engagement.
Fifth, a Climate Budgeter. Oslo was one of the first cities to have a Climate Budget, now joined by Stockholm, Barcelona, Berlin, Montreal, Paris and others.
A Climate Budget is a concept everyone can understand and says to the whole city that we’ve got a limited carbon budget we can work with and allocates a certain amount that each department can spend, or burn, in a year.
Lastly, it is essential that these roles have the necessary personnel and financial resources, are part of the city’s executive leadership, and have the power to weave sustainability and equity through every department’s work.
Taken in total, these five roles send important messages about governance: that justice, inclusion, and equitable participation are essential; that co-creation and crowdsourcing are valued; that this work is intersectional, multi-disciplinary, and relevant to every city department; and that accessible narratives are necessary.
Relying on traditional climate policies alone – zoning, regulation, and tax incentives – will be insufficient. We need to think and act outside the governance box, bringing on board the roles needed to get serious about the social and intersectional complements to this work.
Our cities are leading in this space. Now let’s scale it up everywhere.