Climate action in the open
Better local climate data could help governments get stronger results while giving people a chance to get involved, but most climate action plans leave data out.
It’s easy to feel helpless when it comes to climate change. I’ve heard friends say that Netflix’s latest movie Don’t Look Up has made them more aware of the degree of negligence around climate, but has also made them more anxious than ever.
In part, that’s fair, because the climate crisis will not be over until we as a society renegotiate the structure of our economy and the dignity of life within it. But in the meantime, local governments can take meaningful steps toward climate resilience.
Reducing car-centric infrastructure, creating green jobs, reducing waste, managing retreat from our shorelines, and improving public transit are all examples of local-level improvements that can help mitigate the climate crisis. And most local governments document these types of goals through climate action plans.
Climate action plans should not be just another local policy that gets published and left to languish in PDFs on a city’s website. They can be tools for organizing communities around specific climate goals and ensuring that local governments stay open and honest about the actions they’re taking.
Between 415 and 600 cities in the US have made climate action plans (and a few communities have made their own peoples’ plans), but data on their progress is hard to find.
Climate action plans are not written with data in mind, which sets us back in holding local governments to their word.
Local governments often get away with publishing new policies without making plans to collect the data that would help them execute and evaluate them.
Take this target from Houston’s Climate Action Plan: “Reduce barriers for using multi-modal transportation”. The plan mentions that the city will improve its bikeshare program to address this target, but makes no mention of any data about how the city will know if barriers have been reduced. The plan’s methodology shows that the city didn’t use any data about the current barriers to using multi-modal transportation to create the target. What are the barriers now? How will they improve? Where’s the data to prove it?
Local governments can’t successfully execute climate action plans without data. But public servants often don’t have the right data on hand to evaluate or communicate their work.
Let’s follow the example of reducing barriers to multi-modal transit. Evaluating this target would require setting a baseline for current barriers to using transit, for example: average distance from each household to a train or bike station, timeliness of public transit, cost barriers to affording transit, etc.
These data points might come from transit authorities, housing agencies, economic development offices; multiple departments across the city that intersect with people’s use of public transit. But since most local governments have few full-time data experts on staff, compiling this data from across departments is difficult.
There often isn’t enough person-power in-house to do the leg work that would make it easier for the government or the public to track progress on climate action plans.
Leaders need to prioritize investments in data capacity to track climate issues.
I evaluated 20 climate action plans from a randomly selected group of cities across geographies and population sizes to see how many include commitments to collect or improve available climate data. Not a single climate action plan had a significant plan to improve climate data so that progress on targets overall could be tracked.
The City of Pittsburgh has the closest thing to a data commitment, stating: “Actions started as a result of this plan and the associated data to be collected will inform the next iteration of the Pittsburgh Climate Action Plan”. The City of Anchorage also does well by connecting specific targets to data improvements like “increasing data capacity” to measure progress or “improving inter-agency data sharing”. But at least seven cities of the ones I sampled don’t mention data in their plans at all.
When local governments publish 60-page climate plans in PDF format, people have to sift through mountains of text to understand what their governments’ targets are and how they plan to track them.
But improving climate data at the local level has to mean more than just improving how data is used behind-the-scenes. Local governments have to publish data that people will understand so that they can participate in mitigating the climate crisis in their city. They can also support community efforts to track climate data to help reduce the burden on public servants to do it all themselves.
Local governments need to work with communities to mitigate the climate crisis.
Recently, a new platform called Possible Place launched a pilot in New York City to help people better understand and influence their city’s plans and policies on climate change and sustainable infrastructure. People can use the platform to browse target-by-target through their city’s climate commitments. Community organizations can also use the platform to help compile the data from across public sources.
Local governments not only need to invest in building better climate data; they also need to ask people about the climate data they need and make that data public for communities to use. People are passionate about addressing the climate crisis. They would help do the legwork to help local governments stay accountable on climate if they had the right tools.
In Houston, we’re lucky to have groups like West Street Recovery, which partner with researchers and community members to build a homegrown narrative about what’s happening in our neighborhoods throughout the climate crisis. Community organizations like West Street can help communities recover from climate disasters and prepare for the next ones. They help get community members engaged, and help the people hold the government accountable.
Every climate action plan should come with commitments to improve climate data at the local level. The climate emergency paralyzes people from seeking out possible ways to help, but cities can help create the on-ramps people need to get involved in their communities.
While the responsibility for climate mitigation does not rest with individuals, there is power in the potential to collectively advocate on behalf of structural changes to our built environments that will reduce our impact on the earth.
Survivors as Experts - The latest research from West Street Recovery on the barriers to recovery from Hurricane Harvey from the perspective of residents living in low income Black and Brown neighborhoods in Northeast Houston. Donate to WSR here.
Tallgrass - An essay by Robin Wall Kimmerer on the functionally extinct tallgrass, vanishing prairies, and the hope for a return through grassroots efforts.
Miki Kashtan on the Hurry Slowly podcast - “The question of our time is, how do I move towards community? How do I move towards creating shared risks with more and more people?”
Defining Environmental Justice Communities - Recap of a data user group meeting hosted by the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center on better open environmental data.
Open Climate Now - An invitation from the organizers of Open Climate Community calls to think about key values of the open movement (mutuality, autonomy, altruism, collaboration) supporting climate action.
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