Taking the Climate Fight to the Streets

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As governors across the country set ambitious goals for greenhouse gas reductions, county and regional task forces are emerging to take the challenge to the streets.

Counties have unique advantages when it comes to dealing with the effects of climate change. They have regional jurisdiction over policies for air quality, water conservation, land use, transportation, zoning and waste management – all of which can be used to pressure businesses to reduce harmful emissions. They also have the local connections to coordinate cost-sharing measures among communities and to closely monitor their progress.

But spurring action isn’t as simple as it sounds. These task forces have to make the leap from action plans to real action – largely using diplomacy.

As newly developing climate task forces such as Skagit County, Wash.’s, start the process, they can learn from some of the boldest experiments already under way, starting with one of the most progressive, found in California’s Silicon Valley.

California: Silicon Valley

Silicon Valley’s technology industry is heavily dependent on electricity for its computers. Since some of its cities hug the coast and the bay, a sea level rise could be devastating; because the area is already built up, all energy efficient measures and infrastructure must be retrofitted; and public transportation is fairly minimal.

These common concerns inspired three counties, two special districts and 39 cities to create the Joint Venture Silicon Valley Network in 1992, and the Joint Venture Climate Protection Task Force in 2007.

The task force issued its latest climate action plan on Friday – Climate Prosperity: A Greenprint for Silicon Valley. In the plan, Joint Venture explores how America’s technology capital can expand its partnership of public and private forces to deal with climate change and take advantage of its challenges to grow the economy.

All of Joint Venture’s cities and counties are in the process of inventorying their GHG emissions, while their vast brainpower is working on high-performance batteries, biotechnology, nanotechnology, instruments for measuring energy, and software for feedback on energy usage.

Drawing on this brainpower, the Greenprint proposes innovative pilot projects that will be tracked for their GHG savings, number of jobs created and amount of money saved. The Greenprint envisions expanding renewable energy by simplifying permit processes and encouraging financing for renewables; increasing building efficiency with stronger codes and energy audits; supporting clean transportation, including mass transit and charging stations to support home-grown electric vehicle companies Tesla Motors and Better Place; and creating a showcase for the Valley’s own green technology.

To help make those visions a reality, Joint Venture tapped into foundations and area businesses. Its Climate Prosperity Council recently secured $300,000 in grants from Applied Materials and backing from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and Global Urban Development, which chose Silicon Valley last year as one of seven pilot regions for the national Climate Prosperity Project.

Joint Venture can already tout numerous successful projects:

When Portola Valley residents wanted solar panels, Joint Venture persuaded installer Solar City to offer discounts of 20-30 percent if a certain number of homes got involved. Now people are installing solar panels throughout the valley, and benefiting from the economies of scale.

The Santa Clara County city Morgan Hill is conserving water by offering rebates of $1.50 per square inch to residents who uproot regular lawns and replace them with water-conserving alternatives.

In San Mateo County’s Foster City, “fully actuated” traffic signals maximize traffic flow and minimize idling at intersections.

“Joint Venture is taking Silicon Valley’s technology, joining the installers and the regulatory bodies, and matching them up with the residents, so everyone wins,” said Seth Fearey, its vice president and chief operating officer. “We believe in the power of technology, and we believe we can both reduce greenhouse gases and improve the quality of life.”

New York: Westchester County

Just north of New York City, suburban Westchester County is in the early stages of a massive effort to pull business, government and community leaders together to combat climate change.

After inventorying the county’s GHG emissions a few years ago, County Executive Andrew Spano launched a global warming task force in 2006 that included 34 members and 75 associate members from government, business, schools and colleges, and environmental groups.

The task force created a Global Warming Action Plan that lays out specific actions to reduce the county’s greenhouse gas emissions – 20 percent by 2015, and 80 percent by 2050 – and to promote sustainable development for four sectors: businesses, schools, county and municipal government, and households.

The challenge was clear from the start, says Robert Funicello, director of environmental projects for Westchester County, former co-chair of Westchester’s Global Warming Task Force, and now part of the Climate Change Advisory Council that oversees the four sectors:

The county doesn’t have the authority to dictate behavior to educational institutions, businesses and households, so how do you get people to actually take the recommended actions?

Westchester’s solution: Work with the organizations in each sector that already have established relationships within their communities.

In the educational sector, Frances Wills, Superintendent of Schools for Briarcliff Manor, relies on a Green Team of teachers, administrators and parents to explore sustainability initiatives in the curriculum, campus and community. The school district has instituted many energy efficiency measures, promoted recycling and enforced the county’s new “no idling” law. It is also developing a K-12 sustainable curriculum with Putnam/ Northern Westchester BOCES. Wills said:

Sustainability is a lens through which students need to understand all subjects. It’s about a whole new way of thinking about the world and one’s place in it.

The business sector, coordinated by Marsha Gordon, President and CEO of The Business Council of Westchester, just launched a Green Business Advisory Council – comprised of representatives from corporations, small businesses and other professions – to develop a green business program for Westchester. One of its first tasks will be to develop a list of known green businesses in the county that can set examples. Eventually, they would like to establish a formal certification for green businesses.

Finding the right strategies to entice businesses to go green is key, said Jason Black, who heads up regional architecture for the suburban portfolio of Reckson, a division of real estate investment trust SL Green, and helped create the business sector of the county’s Action Plan.

Success depends largely on education – providing resources, advising businesses on what they can do, and showing them how, he said. It’s too early for the Green Business Advisory Council, which just held its first meeting last week, to assess how much resistance to greening initiatives might get. It is moving carefully to encourage participation, as Black explained:

Businesses don’t have to do everything at once. They need to start small and make smart, appropriate decisions for their own business. After implementing smaller programs, companies can build on their sophistication by incorporating larger initiatives.”

Black understands how this process works because it is just the path that Reckson took with its properties. The company started small with lighting retrofits in one building – CFL lightbulbs, LED exit signs, high-energy fixtures and occupancy sensors. Those small efforts saved $22,000 a year. The company went on to retrofit lighting at other properties and now recycles all the ceiling and carpet tiles in its construction projects.

Funicello, the county’s director of environmental projects, is optimistic about the prospects for greening the county:

We just have to get people past the conversation stage. There are already many businesses driven by their desire to participate, through their own vision of how they want their businesses to be. They know greening will add value and ultimately reduce their costs.

Because of that genuine growing interest in going green, the county does not need to force, but simply to coordinate the sectors, he said. Eventually, each sector will report its achievements on a shared web site, similar to AlbuquerqueGreen Reporting, which sets forth goals for sustainable initiatives, describes government and community actions and tracks everyone’s progress.


Other county and regional climate task forces include:

Broward County, Fla., Climate Change Task Force

Chester County, Pa., Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Taskforce

Global Warming Task Force of Henderson County, N.C.

Miami-Dade County, Fla., Climate Change Advisory Task Force

Montgomery County, Md., Climate Action Initiative

Skagit County, Wash., Sustainability and Climate Action

Snohomish County, Wash., Sustainable Climate & Energy Initiative

Sustainable Napa Valley, Calif.

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