Local Land Use Planning and Climate Change Policy is a comprehensive survey of nearly 50 government staff and elected officials in seven western states — Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming — on how they are addressing climate change in their planning and local land use decisions. It is the first report to be issued under the new name of the longstanding joint venture of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy (www.lincolninst.edu) and Sonoran Institute (www.sonoraninstitute.org): Western Lands and Communities.
The findings, taken from focus groups and interviews, suggest new challenges for those mindful of climate change impacts in land use planning at the local level, as delegates gather this week in Copenhagen to hammer out an international accord to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Many of the local respondents in the report, in fact, suggested that addressing climate change is a secondary benefit of pursuing “good planning” decisions, according to Peter Pollock, Ronald Smith Fellow at the Lincoln Institute.
“The research revealed a wide range of local government responses to addressing climate change in the Intermountain West, with few communities tackling climate change head on,” Pollock said. “Even so, nearly all research participants agreed that local governments should be involved in addressing climate change.”
Calling climate change politically controversial, western planners and officials reported that significant portions of their populations are unconvinced that climate change is a real problem or human-caused. They said that local skepticism and lack of urgency may be due to few visible impacts in their communities that residents agree are attributable to climate change. Instead, residents perceive the issue as global and remote, characterized by melting polar ice caps and rising sea levels. In addition, Westerners may think their own cities and towns cannot make a difference in reducing climate change given the enormity of the problem, the report states.
“I use terms like conservation, energy efficiency, savings,” one western official explained. “I think those are terms you can use to do these things without getting into the debate of climate change, whether it’s happening and who is causing it.”
The research also noted the following:
- The most common way of framing policies that impact climate change seems to be “sustainability,” or else “economic efficiency” when communities seek to avoid environmental references altogether.
- In most communities, particularly smaller cities and towns, there is a lack of sufficient staff to research and implement climate change-related policies.
- Those communities actively pursuing climate change policies, a minority, generally had more liberal populations or were significantly influenced by local universities.
- Those communities where natural resource extraction, such as coal or natural gas, is a strong contributor to the local economy are less likely to be addressing global warming.
- The vast majority of policies cited by participants as addressing climate change focused on mitigating, or reducing, its impacts through energy efficiency, expanded transit, urban forestry and water conservation.
- Most participants stated that their communities have greater success with decisions and policies that impact new development, rather than existing development.
- Many staff participants noted that elected officials in their communities are influenced by skeptical residents, more importantly voters, in failing to address climate change.
Based on their findings, report authors David Metz and Curtis Below of Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates in Oakland, Calif., recommended that communications and materials provided to local officials should highlight the “co-benefits” of taking policy actions independent of climate change. Whenever possible, the economic benefits of a particular policy should be emphasized to offset concerns about costs. Local government officials also need case studies from “peer” communities of similar size and location that have adopted policies to address climate change, in order to learn from their experiences, the authors said.
The report is a Lincoln Institute Working Paper, and the findings will be included in an upcoming Policy Focus Report on climate change in the West. The Lincoln Institute has been engaged at the nexus of land use and climate change, and recently published the report Urban Planning Tools for Climate Change Mitigation.
The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy is a leading resource for key issues concerning the use, regulation, and taxation of land. Providing high-quality education and research, the Institute strives to improve public dialogue and decisions about land policy.
The Sonoran Institute inspires and enables community decisions and public policies that respect the land and people of western North America. It contributes to a vision of a West with healthy landscapes, vibrant communities, and resilient economies.
Western Lands and Communities is a partnership of the Lincoln Institute and the Sonoran Institute that takes a long-term strategic perspective on shaping growth, sustaining cities, protecting resources, and empowering communities in the Intermountain West.