Monday, November 27, 2017
[This post is the first in a series that will appear over the coming months.]
Low Carbon Land Use: Paris, Pittsburgh, and the IPCC
Grassroots Mitigation of Climate Change
by John R. Nolon
Distinguished Professor of Law
Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University
Last year, we published a series of blogs that described the evolution of local zoning codes into a dynamic legal system for sustainable development. The final post demonstrated the relevance of this system of law to climate change, noting its embrace by the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report in 2014 and the Accord achieved at the Paris Conference of the Parties in 2015. Our new series explores how local governments, using power already delegated to them by their states, can mitigate climate change. It will describe local legal authority to shape human settlements, show how that authority touches over two-thirds of the sources of carbon dioxide emissions, provide detailed examples of the techniques municipalities use to control the size and shape of settlements, present five strategic solutions, show how local problem solving is particularly effective, and demonstrate how local action can be used to reduce or capture emissions and help fulfill the Paris Accord to which many cities remain fully committed.
The effects of climate change manifest themselves at the local level, where people are killed or injured, property is destroyed, businesses are shuttered, ecosystems are fouled, and where our democratic system is most vibrant. Upon our discovery of the advent of local environmental law twenty years ago, we investigated why particular localities adopted these new laws. Through interviews with local leaders, we found they were profoundly perturbed by drinking water pollution, species disappearance, riverbank erosion, wetlands damage, and the loss of historic viewsheds, to name a few. These influences motivated a grassroots solution to their problem: adopting and enforcing local environmental law. See In Praise of Parochialism: The Advent of Local Environmental Law.
We suggested that this perturbation effect should be used to target the investment of public resources to communities where on-the-ground damage is evident or imminent, knowing that local leaders will embrace sound solutions. Suggesting to state and federal agencies that they work from the ground up, however, is at odds with the norms of our decades-old environmental legal system, which works from the top down. We expect that federal agencies will establish standards, penalize violators, and clean up point-sources of pollution. That system has done its job effectively. Nevertheless, grounding environmental action at the local level has numerous advantages of its own.
It is there that citizen engagement can create lasting social change. Perturbed citizens, if not immunized from the influence of big oil and big coal, are less likely to be captured by them. And, it is at the grassroots of our legal system that the power to control land use is found. It is there that non-point source pollution, the biggest cause of water quality deterioration, can be addressed. It is there too that our legal system can reduce the demand for fossil fuels by creating energy efficient buildings and sustainable neighborhoods. Only there can solutions crafted at the federal and state level be adapted to local circumstances, which vary widely among the 40,000 municipalities in America.
The primary authority to determine what happens to our settled and undeveloped landscapes is in the hands of local officials who are elected or rejected by perturbed local voters. Regional and state agencies, taking advantage of these grassroots perturbations, can provide funding, technical assistance, data about regional and state-wide needs and, by so doing, create a linked system of strategies to address parochial needs and nest them in broader regional and state-wide contexts.
Our positive experience with the grassroots perturbation effect is explained by studies in ecology, sociology, and urban planning. Scholars who study the process of change, a field of sociology called the diffusion of innovation, observe how change happens in social systems and document the processes by which successful change occurs. Their focus is on connectivity. They observe that outside change agents are most successful when they place new tools in the hands of respected local leaders. When those leaders adopt an innovative solution, others pay attention. As successful change occurs, the rest of the community catches on, a tipping point is reached, and the innovation becomes permanent. Successful change in these peer communities spread to nearby places confronting similar problems. In the study of urban planning, researchers describe how local and regional planning networks can be created to link local responses to address common, transboundary problems.
Local stakeholders represent the components of the municipal complex adaptive system. See Champions of Change: Reinventing Democracy Through Land Law Reform. By being engaged in public processes, they can achieve consensus about how to respond to flooding, drought, mud slides, wildfires, sea level rise, and storm surges – effects associated with climate change. In response to these on-the-ground perturbations, they are motivated to learn how to mitigate the forces of climate change by reducing vehicle miles travelled, creating energy efficient buildings, permitting and encouraging renewables and distributed energy generation facilities, and preserving natural systems that sequester carbon. As the local evidence of climate change becomes more and more evident, opinions often change as local leaders engage in solving the problems that threaten their environment and economy. They become committed to effective action and react aggressively to opportunity and threats. The outpouring of support for state and local actions to manage climate change following the withdrawal of the U.S. of the Paris Climate Accord demonstrates that commitment.
Material from this series will appear in Low Carbon Land Use: Paris, Pittsburgh, and the IPCC, Arkansas Law Review.