Local governments are particularly affected by climate change. They are also exceptionally poorly 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 will suffer the most. Indeed, the world’s poorest countries are the least responsible for greenhouse gas emissions and the least able to adapt, but they will still be the hardest hit by climate change. And they will do so much sooner than the richest countries.
But the cruelty of climate change also extends to the U.S. government. The level of government least able to mitigate and adapt is the level of government most affected. For local governments, climate change is literally an existential threat. For coastal municipalities, it is a slow wave endangering land values with sea levels rising inch by inch, submerging and devaluing a major source of municipal revenue: property (and the tax revenues that go with it).
In fact, since at least Superstorm Sandy in 2012 , we have seen extreme weather events destroy local infrastructure and overtax local first responders. For other local governments, climate change-related heat waves and droughts have and will place impossible demands on local water and power utilities. The same is true for local governments facing 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 coastal city of about 43,000 people wanted to get serious about climate change. What could it do? Reducing emissions or getting rid of fossil fuels may be symbolic feel-good measures, but neither has any chance of making an appreciable difference to the global problem. Spending on beach nourishment renourishment and armoring the coast with seawalls may be effective (though even these tactics are mere stopgap measures), but both are costly endeavors.
Market forces, too, hem in municipalities. Any restrictions or spending put in place by Salem and not done by neighboring municipalities threatens to drive businesses and residents away from Salem to less restrictive, more tax-friendly locations. And that’s assuming local government has the authority to take action in these areas; if the state government disapproves, the state’s decision is overbearing. All the political and economic incentives go in one direction, away from local governments taking action on climate change.
Of course, some municipalities, such as Boston and San Francisco, can implement climate change mitigation and adaptation measures that are impactful in both their symbolic and practical effects. And we should encourage these efforts. But for most of the more than 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 must reconsider the current framework in which local governments operate. While federal progress on climate change may (finally) occur during the Biden Administration, we can still take action at the state and local level. There is a flotilla of policies and ideas, from information sharing to resilience planning, from grants to cooperative regional organizations, to further this goal. Regardless of the specific policy prescription, empowering local governments to address the existential threat of climate change means being proactive. For if we wait, local governments will surely suffer the cruelty of climate change.