Local governments are uniquely impacted by climate change. They are also uniquely ill-positioned to do anything about it.
Climate change is a cruel phenomenon. Those least able to mitigate climate pollutants and adapt to the changing climate are those who will suffesSaasr the most. Indeed, the world’s poorest countries are the least responsible for greenhouse gas emissions and the least capable of adaptation but yet they will bear the brunt of climate change. And they will do so well-before richer countries.
But climate change’s cruelty extends to American governance, too. The level of government least able to mitigate and adapt is the level of government most affected. For local governments, climate change is quite literally an existential threat. For coastal municipalities, it is a slow-moving wave that imperils land values with sea level rise inch by inch submerging and devaluing a main source of municipal revenue—property (and its accompanying tax revenue).
Indeed, since at least Superstorm Sandy in 2012 we’ve seen extreme weather events destroy local infrastructure and strain local first responders. For other local governments, climate-change-related heatwaves and drought have and will place impossible demands on local water and power utilities. So too for local governments contending with wildfires exacerbated by climate change. While, so far, federal and state money has largely plugged holes in municipal budgets, the trend is clear: local governments have a lot to lose from climate change.
Local governments are also the least able to do anything about it. Consider a coastal municipality—say, Salem, Massachusetts. Suppose this seaside city of roughly 43,000 wanted to get serious about climate change. What could it do? Cutting emissions or divesting from fossil fuels may be feel-good symbolic measures, but neither has any chance of making an appreciable difference to the global problem. Spending on beach re-nourishment and armoring the shoreline with seawalls may be effective (though even these tactics are merely temporary stopgaps), but both are costly endeavors.
Market forces, too, hem in municipalities. Any restriction or expenditure put in place by Salem andnot done by its neighboring municipalities threatens to drive businesses and residents away from Salem to less constraining and more tax-friendly locations. And that’s assuming that the local government has authority to take action in these areas; should the state government disapprove, the state’s decision is controlling. The political and economic incentives all go in one direction—away from local governments taking action on climate change.
Of course, some municipalities—like Boston and San Francisco—can implement mitigative and adaptive climate change measures that are impactful both for their symbolic and practical effects. And we should encourage these efforts. But for most of the over 39,000 local governments in the United States—including 1,400 coastal municipalities looking to lose significant territory—climate change remains a stubbornly cruel paradox.
In the face of these dire challenges, we need to reconsider the current framework in which local governments operate. Although federal progress on climate change may happen (finally) during the Biden Administration, we can nonetheless still take action at the state and local levels. A flotilla of policies and ideas—from information sharing to resiliency planning, from grants to cooperative regional organizations—exist to further this goal. No matter the specific policy prescription, empowering local governments to deal with the existential threat of climate change means being proactive. For if we wait, local governments will surely suffer the cruelty of climate change.