Climate change: Is Oakland a model for a local approach?

Garrett Fitzgerald speaks at a community meeting on climate change at Peralta Elementary School

Garrett Fitzgerald speaks at a community meeting on climate change at Peralta Elementary School

Garrett Fitzgerald, towering over the podium in a blazer, button-down shirt and no tie, is at the Al Gore part of his talk—briskly outlining what scientists are saying about climate change. His presentation has nothing like the standard climate activist’s well-worn stock of photos of adorable polar bear cubs, futilely clinging to disappearing ice. Instead, his pitch hits much closer to home: Oakland.

He clicks through maps illustrating how a projected rise in sea level by the end of the century could take out Oakland’s airport. Next comes a chart documenting how a decline in the Sierra snowpack is endangering the city’s water supply. He veers away from sensationalism as he clicks through his PowerPoint: “Some of you may have seen the movie The Day After Tomorrow,” he says, referencing the 2004 epic in which global warming gets the Hollywood disaster treatment. “It probably won’t be that bad. But there’s plenty of reason to say we need to be cautious.” His message is simple: don’t worry about climate change’s effects on the poor cute polar bear—worry about climate change for yourself.

His audience consists of about sixty or so environmental activists and interested citizens, convened Saturday morning for a community meeting on climate change at Peralta Elementary School by Jane Brunner, City Council President and North Oakland’s representative. Fitzgerald is the sustainability coordinator for the city of Oakland, a position that only about a third of the participants in the room knew existed before this meeting.

Council President Jane Brunner addresses the audience at a community meeting

For years, climate activists had two main strategies. They could emphasize the importance of individual actions: buy a hybrid car, use compact fluorescent light bulbs, set your thermostat lower and wear a sweater. Or they could go big-picture, pressing for sweeping national and international action policies.

But one individual’s action can quite easily be counterbalanced by somebody else’s inaction. And as for pinning the movement’s hopes on major political institutions—well, just ask the disappointed environmentalist community about the takeaway from December’s international climate talks in Copenhagen. Or look at the cap-and-trade bill now languishing in the U.S. Senate, the momentum of last summer’s House bill nowhere to be found.

There is momentum, however, in a new locus of climate change activism: the city. City policies can promote collective action that offers more oomph than the personal choices of individuals. But city-level officials and activists can also be more responsive to the specific quirks and considerations of local residents and industries, and can be more dexterous than the one-size-fits-all approach of international, national or state policy. At Saturday’s community meeting—and at the Clean Power, Healthy Community conference held earlier this month at the California Endowment in downtown Oakland—there was a distinct sense among attendees that cities, and Oakland in particular, are now the nerve center of climate action efforts. “In the United States, the leadership on climate change has come from the local level,” Fitzgerald said.

Sitting in the elementary school’s multipurpose room—where a shower of blue and green algae made from crepe paper hung from the ceiling, and the walls were colorfully adorned with students’ paintings of the map of California—the attendees were asked to mull over two questions. The first was out of the old environmentalist handbook: What can an individual do to combat climate change? But the second question—what can the city do to combat climate change?—is the one that has been putting Fitzgerald to work.

As sustainability coordinator, Fitzgerald is spearheading the creation of Oakland’s Energy and Climate Action Plan, a wide-ranging policy that will dictate the steps Oakland must take to significantly reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. The city’s goal: Reduce Oakland’s greenhouse gas emissions to 36 percent of what they were in 2005 by the year 2020. To do so, the plan will recommend policy initiatives that tackle building energy use, transportation and land use, and materials and solid waste. “All of these sources of emissions are local,” Fitzgerald explained during his presentation. “We have leverage over all these things.”

As of November 2009, there were at least 139 cities in the United States with climate action plans completed or in progress. In the Bay Area, both Berkeley and San Francisco have already passed their own climate action plans. Nationally, more than one thousand mayors have signed the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, in which they pledge to meet or beat the climate reduction targets set by the U.N.’s Kyoto Protocol in 2005.

For climate activists, cities are a natural focal point for action. “Cities are where it all happens—the resources are consumed, the pollution is created, things go up in the air,” said Dave Room, coordinator of the Local Clean Energy Alliance based in Oakland.

And according to Emily Kirsch of the Oakland Climate Action Coalition, cities have natural advantages when it comes to crafting policy. “Locally, there’s more agility and ability,” said Kirsch, who also spoke at Saturday’s meeting. “All we need is five votes from City Council. Cities can move quicker. They can construct programs that are unique to each city. Cities can be models to other cities.”

Emily Kirsch, of the Oakland Climate Action Coalition, participates in the "World Cafe"

Or, in Oakland’s case, perhaps the city can be a model for the nation. If Oakland’s climate action plan delivers on its promise, it will be, according to Kirsch, “one of the most ambitious greenhouse gas reduction targets in any city in the United States.”

***

The idea of a formal, comprehensive climate action plan in Oakland was first developed in late 2008; the City Council officially directed the Public Works Department—specifically, Fitzgerald as sustainability coordinator—to form a plan on July 7, 2009. Since then, Fitzgerald has been working with city staff and consultants to identify specific policies that would reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.

Oakland emitted approximately 3 million metric tons of carbon in 2005, the year on which Oakland’s reduction target is based. Transportation—both highway and non-highway—constituted over half of those total emissions, and policies dealing with transportation and land use will be a major component of the city’s climate energy plan. Kirsch and the Oakland Climate Action Coalition hope that the plan will include public transit-friendly items, like the proposed Bus Rapid Transit lane that would connect San Leandro, Oakland and Berkeley.

Energy use in buildings—both commercial and residential—combined for 38 percent of Oakland’s 2005 emissions. Oakland’s climate action plan will likely promote green development and energy retrofits to existing structures to make building energy use more efficient. “It’s not just about CFL [compact fluorescent light bulb] replacement,” Fitzgerald explained to Saturday’s attendees. “We need to spend 10, 12, 15 thousand dollars on things that are in fact cost effective. They will ultimately pay for themselves.”

On March 30, Fitzgerald will present the first draft of the climate action plan to the City Council. The draft will contain a ten-year plan designed to hit that 36 percent emissions reduction target, but will also identify a three-year priority plan, which will spotlight the initiatives that can make an immediate impact.

While the March 30 presentation will represent a significant milestone in the development of the city’s climate plan, Fitzgerald anticipates that it will not be the final stop. “I’ve never seen any city develop a climate plan where the first draft becomes the final plan,” he said after his presentation. “We’ve gotten a ton of community input in this process. I expect we’ll get a lot more input once we have a draft for people to react to.” After the first draft of the plan is released, Fitzgerald will hold workshops in late April to solicit comments from the public.

Saturday’s meeting took on a “World Café” format—to use Brunner’s term—where, befitting the artwork-plastered schoolroom, participants sat in groups and used markers to jot their energy-saving ideas on butcher paper. The meeting concluded with each group presenting its brainstorm. One group raised the possibility of shuttles for neighborhoods located far from BART stations.  Another participant wondered what renters could do to make their homes more energy efficient, since renters cannot make structural changes to their residence the way homeowners can.

Much of the community input Fitzgerald has already received is thanks to the work of Kirsch and the Oakland Climate Action Coalition. The coalition grew out of the Ella Baker Center’s Green-Collar Jobs Campaign, an initiative that trains low-income communities for jobs in the renewable energy sector. The Oakland Climate Action Coalition, born in the basement of the Ella Baker Center in April of 2009, brought together labor interests, environmentalists, bike advocates, and youth groups—over 40 interested parties in total—seeking to put their imprint on the city’s climate action plan. Kirsch, the lead organizer of the campaign, saw the climate action plan as a chance not just for environmental improvements, but racial equity and opportunity as well.

“People don’t really think of Oakland as a green city,” Kirsch told Saturday’s audience, adding that Oakland was better known for its high crime rate. “But it’s so integrally connected. In order to stop crime, prevent violence and lower incarceration rates, there has to be job opportunities.”

Kirsch also cited “The Climate Gap,” a May 2009 study led by Rachel Morello-Frosch out of UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health that found that the effects of climate change would disproportionately affect poor and minority communities. “Look at [Hurricane] Katrina,” Kirsch said. “We can see who was saved and who was left. We don’t want that to happen in Oakland.”

The coalition has put on workshops throughout the city to get community input on what the plan should include, and Kirsch said specific suggestions from those meetings have been incorporated into the coalition’s policy proposals. At the group’s Chinatown meeting last October, for example, one resident expressed concern that land-use policy that promoted more housing at transit hubs like BART stations would lead to the building of pricey apartment complexes that would price long-time residents out of their neighborhoods. To prevent such gentrification, the coalition is recommending that development near transit hubs be high-density, mixed use, and offer affordable housing opportunities for low-income residents.

Council President Brunner is taking a similar approach in engaging her constituents in North Oakland. At last Saturday’s community meeting, Brunner announced her office will be taking these discussions “neighborhood by neighborhood, block by block” to identify involved citizens—christened “climate action leaders” by Brunner’s office—and to consider suggestions from residents.

The efforts represent a renewed commitment to climate action from Brunner, who admitted at the meeting that she had been “slacking for a few years” when it came to energy policy. The catalyst for this new burst of energy was her recent trip to China for a conference on low carbon cities. “If the United States doesn’t step up, China will be the leading country to be doing climate change action,” Brunner said after the meeting wound down. “China has a top-down government. China’s top government gets it—they’re making the policy decisions. The U.S. is the reverse. We have the momentum on the ground, but we need to combine ground level organizing with the government to make progress.”

***

Compared with, say, the political logjam facing the United States Congress, there are significantly fewer political pressures on city governments that could derail a climate action plan. But that doesn’t mean political obstacles don’t exist.

Brunner said that in advance of the February 20th community meeting her office got a lot of unhappy phone calls. “A lot of people don’t believe in climate change,” Brunner said. “They don’t believe the city should be doing this. There are potholes, there are budget problems. I say we can take care of both.”

Dave Room, of the Local Clean Energy Alliance, said pushback could happen in Oakland if the climate plan includes mandatory action for individuals, like energy efficient retrofits to that home and business owners may consider expensive or onerous.

Fitzgerald said he’s hoping to avoid policies that require mandatory action from individuals. Instead, he’d rather Oakland’s plan provide enough incentives that individuals and business owners will voluntarily choose to make energy efficient choices—making the bus more appealing than driving one’s own car, for example. Still, he said, it’s a challenge to make sure the plan is not just preaching to the choir of citizens already on board with climate action. “The big question is: how do we get more than just the early adopters to do it?” Fitzgerald said. He pointed to a recent Wall Street Journal article that showed that even in green-friendly Boulder, Colorado, residents who philosophically support energy conservation are doing little in terms of follow-through.

Political and community pushback aside, there is another significant limitation on what a city can do about climate change: When it comes to crime, commerce and especially the environment, the borders of a city are porous, easily impacted by the decisions of its neighbors. Other cities may not have the political will for an aggressive climate action plan. For a phenomenon like climate change, which is determined by the aggregate emissions of cities, states and nations all together, a city with a climate action plan will not necessarily be spared from rising sea levels or poor air quality or diminishing water supply. “One of the challenges that we do run into is that there’s only so much the city can do,” Kirsch said.

Although the Bay Area is known for its progressive politics, the region is also a major transit hub—two ports, several major airports, and a vast and well-trafficked highway system—which complicates environmental considerations. Some cities in the region have important economic stakes in keeping heavy industry within their borders, such as Richmond with its Chevron refinery.

Room said the Local Clean Energy Alliance has shifted its focus in the last four or five months, from a municipality-based approach to a wider-reaching regional course of action. “Our perspective is informed from the 10,000 foot view of the Bay Area grid,” Room said. “What it looks like to us is a patchwork quilt where you have certain areas where all the interested parties are really engaged—places like Oakland or Berkeley—and in other places you have very little activism. Those places could negate some if not all of the results of Oakland and Berkeley’s climate action plans.”

Room cited the Russell City Energy Power Plant, a proposed natural gas-powered plant to be built in Hayward, as an example of how policies in a neighboring city could offset climate action in a place like Oakland. Local Clean Energy Alliance is pushing for renewable energy alternatives to power plans that operate on natural gas.

Even programs that run through Oakland’s borders are not entirely under the city’s control. Transportation and land use, for example, account for about half of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions. But much of local transit policy is determined by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, a regional organization that sets transportation policy for the Bay Area’s nine counties. “That doesn’t discount the need for local plans,” Kirsch said at the Clean Power, Healthy Communities conference, “but it speaks to the need for regional and statewide policies.”

One policy climate activists are looking to is California Assembly Bill 32, also known as the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006.  The law established regulations and incentives to lower the state’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.  Speaking at the Clean Power, Healthy Communities conferece,Timothy Burroughs, climate action coordinator for the city of Berkeley, said AB 32 offered “an unprecedented time for collaboration between the state, regional and local levels.”  But AB 32 has come under fire by conservative activists, who are organizing a November ballot measure to suspend the act until the unemployment rate drops to 5.5 percent.

***

There is, of course, another factor in the success or failure of Oakland’s climate action plan—one that could render all the philosophical considerations of local action moot. It’s the money, no small consideration in a cash-strapped city that just approved an additional $15.3 million in budget cuts.

That means the plan must have specifics—how much these proposals will cost and where that money will come from. “City council is not likely to pass anything unless there is clear funding attached to it,” said Kirsch. She added that the OCAC was working to identify “the local, state and federal pots of money that could fun the policies we are looking at.”

Some of those funding streams—particularly from the state and federal governments—have increased recently, thanks to economic stimulus efforts. Last week, Mayor Ron Dellums announced that the city was named a partner in five State Energy Program stimulus grants, which total over $40 million for projects that deal with climate change and energy efficiency. The grants, awarded by the California Energy Commission, will fund energy efficiency initiatives like retrofits in downtown Oakland commercial buildings and other projects across the state.

The funding streams from stimulus programs offer a window of opportunity that Brunner does not want to pass up. She said she wants to see a final version of the climate action plan passed before the Council goes on recess in July.

The crafting of Oakland’s climate plan has occupied the bulk of Fitzgerald’s two-year tenure as the city’s sustainability coordinator. To get it to the finish line, he will need to make the case that each proposed policy has the requisite funding and staff, and will lead to quantifiable impact. He will need to tap into adequate political will from city council and an engaged community.

“Ask us to do something,” an attendee encouraged during Saturday’s brainstorming session.

It is likely Fitzgerald—and the climate action plan—will do just that.  “We will only get a fraction of the way there if there isn’t significant community leadership,” Fitzgerald remarked after his presentation.  “We need that leadership to hit the type of performance we want.”

For more information about Oakland’s Energy and Climate Action Plan, go to www.sustainableoakland.com.

This article has been updated to make the following corrections: the proposed Russell City Energy Power Plant would be powered by natural gas, not liquid natural gas, and Oakland is a key partner in the State Energy Grants totaling $40 million, not the sole recipient.

Comments are closed.