Cities as Labs for Climate Change Policies

Cities such as Eugene, Oregon are approving climate change ordinances that may have negligible impacts on climate, but yield significant experience on how communities can cope with climate change.Action on climate change may be stalled in Congress, but it is picking up at the local level in places such as Eugene and Corvallis. The trend may reflect much more than college towns appeasing liberal constituencies.

The Eugene City Council approved an ordinance this week that requires the home of the University of Oregon to be carbon neutral by 2020 and a community-wide 50 percent cut in fossil fuel use by 2030.

During his visit to Oregon last week, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack designated Corvallis as one of seven "climate hubs" that will serve as "repositories for data" to assist researchers and government officials in developing science-based climate change strategies. 

Neither action is a game-changer, but reflects a groundswell of support for steps to address climate change. Admittedly, the action centers in cities with large universities and more plugged-in constituencies, but that is often how movements get started.

The climate hub designation in Corvallis may signal a significant break in the partisan gridlock over climate change action. The hubs, many located in swing presidential states, are positioned to work closely with rural agricultural interests. Farmers, who tend to side with political conservatives on most issues, are feeling the effects of climate change and are asking for help to adjust to changing conditions.

Creating information repositories is unlikely to ignite a political rebellion in red states, but an open dialogue about the on-the-ground impact of climate change could alter the political dialogue. People whose livelihoods depend on growing crops may grow impatient with political rhetoric about who is responsible for climate change and demand action to deal with its effects, regardless of who or what is to blame.

While Eugene's action can be dismissed as a meaningless drop in the bucket, it also could lead to an example of how a community can embrace and achieve the concept of carbon neutrality. The value may be less in the goals than in the tactics to reach the goals. What are people willing to do? Will local industry pick up and leave or will it join in the effort? What incentives work and are they better than regulations? Will carbon neutrality become a magnet for new investment and recruitment of top talent?

Cities such as Eugene may serve as the laboratories to test climate change strategies and provide the example for others, at the state or even federal levels, to follow.

A big issue such as climate change begs for big solutions. But in the absence of agreement on big solutions, smaller, city-by-city responses may have to do for now.