Our three "rules of the road" for making good climate policy

There are plenty of great books, papers, and talks that have shaped our thinking on climate policy over the years, but nothing has been more useful than on-the-ground discussions with the hardworking staff that run local sustainability and climate action programs. We’ve talked with quite literally hundreds of people in local government over the years—and we’ve had a lot of conversations about what does and doesn’t work in moving the needle on climate change.

We’ve noticed a recurring theme: there’s a crucial difference between what looks good on paper and what actually works in practice. While the former can often be found in the consultant-driven plans and ideas that often get the most media spotlight, it is the latter that evolves out of the hard-earned lessons practitioners get from getting their hands dirty and figuring out what's effective.

I thought it’d be worthwhile to share three central tenets about what makes for good local climate policy that really works in practice. Among the CivForge team and our network of cities, we call these our "rules of the road" as they guide how we think about all local climate policy. We’ve seen the application of these ideas make or break local climate initiatives, and they’re all worth thinking about when designing your city or county’s next climate-oriented policy/program.

1. Good climate policy solves multiple problems.

Most local governments tackle climate change like it’s a compartmentalized problem. They draft a “climate action plan” (CAP) which is supposed to centralize the community’s climate strategy—but in practice, the CAP is almost never reconciled with other local plans, even those which have a big impact on climate such as the Comprehensive Plan.

This leaves the point person for the CAP—usually a sustainability coordinator or climate manager—with the responsibility of aligning departments so they are all on the same page. Yet, despite the fact that everyone needs to cooperate and coordinate for the CAP to succeed, it is usually only this point person that is held accountable for the community’s climate progress. Other departments have little incentive to actually adjust their day-to-day operations to accommodate the CAP as its goals are not their goals, and the local climate point person lacks the authority to compel other departments to do otherwise.

We see this challenge manifest itself in other ways with local climate policy too. Sustainability departments often struggle to get funding because they’re facing a zero-sum competition with other local government departments for resources. It’s hard to persuade elected officials to further fund a climate program when that money could be used instead to build more parks or improve public housing programs. Contrast those projects with local mitigation programs which promise to reduce emissions, but no matter how successful they may be, often have impacts that are invisible and not tangibly felt by local residents.

In academic terms, this is a collective action problem and the local sustainability department is left with the unfortunate task of rowing upstream to solve it.

But there’s a better way: realign incentives so that tackling climate change doesn’t only accomplish the agenda of the sustainability department. Thus: Good climate policy solves multiple problems.

That’s why we’ve championed unconventional climate solutions like municipal broadband. It’s not the first strategy to come to mind for most, but it has a sizable impact on emissions by reducing commuting since it makes remote work viable for more constituents. Furthermore, its impact is tangible, multifaceted, and can be felt by everyone in the community. There’s also a significant equity component in that it will have the greatest impact on the most vulnerable populations which traditionally lack reliable internet access.

There are lots of other good climate solutions that solve multiple problems too. Weatherization to improve housing quality for the most disadvantaged while also reducing the use of dirty electricity. Land use reform to reduce vehicle miles traveled while also making the community a more walkable and livable space. Subsidies for solar + storage systems to reduce fossil fuel dependence while also ensuring resiliency and cost efficiency for homeowners.

I could go on. My point is that local climate policy almost invariably must solve multiple problems. There aren’t enough dollars in local government to tackle collective action problems for the sake of it. 2 Instead, local governments should be seeking to find ways they can strategically move forward multiple policy aims with their climate action program. What’s more, sustainability coordinators should become accustomed to presenting climate policy to other departments and the community by talking about the co-benefits of climate policy (i.e., those that aren’t related to climate) rather than just its impact on emissions and the expected cost.

Isn’t this just a slight reframing of how sustainability coordinators already approach climate policy? No, not really—if done properly, it’s a complete paradigm shift in how local governments approach policy more broadly. Most sustainability coordinators already understand the importance of co-benefits enough to talk them up. That’s not what I’m advocating for. Good climate policy should endeavor to make other departments equal stakeholders in the drafting and implementation process. The Public Works department ought to want to buy that environmentally friendly asphalt not only because it helps achieve the community’s climate goals, but also because it’s just as cheap as normal asphalt and lasts significantly longer. 3 And this choice of asphalt should have been arrived at through discussion, compromise, and shared responsibility, not simply through a directive/recommendation made by the Sustainability Department.

2. Good climate policy is relatable.

Equally important is that climate policy be relatable and responsive to the concerns of the average citizen.

Climate change is a technical topic. It requires technical experts to be able to model future emissions, conduct greenhouse gas inventories, and analyze the costs & benefits of different policies. This doesn’t mean that solutions need to be equally technical, but that's often how they end up being designed. And technical solutions unfortunately are often difficult to grasp and overly focused on the top-down, rather than bottom-up impacts of the policy—which can make them unrelatable to constituents.

The best example of how a lack of relatability slows climate progress can be seen in the ambitious policies of the mid-2000s that captured the interest of policy wonks: cap-and-trade and a carbon tax. While these were appealing to economists, technocrats, and climate advocates because they seemingly provided a closed-form solution to the climate crisis, they both ultimately failed to garner enough support to be enacted.

Take the example of cap-and-trade, the flagship solution of the environmentalism movement during the Bush years. Citizen polls consistently demonstrated a lack of understanding of what cap-and-trade entailed, with most voters unable to even indicate that it fell under the umbrella of environmental policy.

Cap-and-trade isn’t inherently hard to understand, at least conceptually: the government sells permits for the rights to emit a limited amount of carbon and allows the permits to be traded on an open market. The trouble is that cap-and-trade isn’t a concept that can be easily reducible in a way that is accessible and self-explanatory to most voters. Thus, most voters never understood what cap-and-trade was, despite a lot of public education efforts, and they were unlikely to support the unfamiliar no matter how promising it was from a technical standpoint.

Contrast that with a carbon tax which is easily reducible—even if you’ve never heard of the policy before, you can probably get the gist of what a carbon tax does. Yet, even in the most liberal of states, voters still repeatedly rejected a carbon tax. Why?

Well, where a carbon tax excels in easily being understood, it falls short in tangibility. Relatable policies are not just simpler to understand, but it must be evident that their benefits outweigh their costs. In the case of a carbon tax, it’s hard to draw a clear nexus between the costs incurred by the tax and the benefits it provides to the average voter. This likely has to do with the fact that a carbon tax’s benefits aren’t tangible: we can’t directly see a difference from mitigated emissions or experience what narrowly avoiding catastrophic climate change feels like. Thus, carbon taxes failed in Washington state because, yet again, the proposed policy wasn’t relatable to the average voter in terms of their immediate, everyday lived experiences.

So, it’s clear that good climate policy is relatable. Relatability is a function of a lot of things, but two things are certainly prerequisites: (1) a policy must be reducible into a form that is accessible and easily understood by the average voter and (2) the same policy must be perceived as having benefits which outweigh its costs. On the latter point, emphasis on the word perceived. It's easy for technocrats to imagine how the system-level tradeoffs with a carbon tax make sense, but on an individual level, this is why tangibility matters: the average voter can't really perceive what a carbon tax is doing for them such that it's worth all the sacrifices it entails.

The best example of a relatability-first approach to climate policy can be seen in the policies coming out of the Biden-Harris administration. They are particularly aware of the political realities associated with climate change and actively avoid overly-technocratic solutions:

Economists have their ideas for solving climate change — a hefty carbon tax chief among them — but Biden and his team see this as fundamentally a political problem. They view the idea that a carbon tax is the essential answer to the problem of climate change as being so divorced from political reality as to be actively dangerous. Deese gets animated on this point. “I want to double down on that and say, it’s not just a messaging and narrative imperative,” he told me. “It has to be that Americans see and experience that the investments in building out a more resilient power grid actually improve their lives and create job opportunities for them, or their neighbors.” —
Source: The New York, referring to Brian Deese, Head of the National Economic Council

This is precisely why there has been such an emphasis in the Administration on investment rather than top-down regulation. They intuit that investment is a positive-sum way to tackle climate, in that voters can perceive tangible benefits. 4 Command-and-control and regulatory-forward approaches like cap-and-trade and a carbon tax lack this tangibility which leaves them dead in the water politically.

So what does this mean for local governments that are drafting their own climate policies? Well, the focus should be on policies that are easy to explain to citizens and provide tangible benefits that everyone can agree upon. These types of policies are the most likely to generate public enthusiasm which in turn gives them the best chance at meaningfully reducing emissions. We wrote a blog post with some starter examples.

3. Good climate policy comes from the bottom up.

We’ve learned a lot about the sources of emissions in a community by looking through Meso data. No matter how you slice it, emissions from governmental operations (i.e., the emissions that local governments have the most direct control over) typically make up less than 2% of total community-wide emissions.

This means there’s no path forward to carbon neutrality without local governments getting the broader community involved in the fight against climate change. Fundamentally, this means that constituents, local businesses, and broader industry will need to get on board with making systemic changes to address global warming. But how can we do that if we just established that the traditionally most promising tools like cap-and-trade and a carbon tax are politically untenable?

Well, part of the solution lies in tackling climate using the positive-sum investment approach that the Biden-Harris administration has pursued (e.g., investing into alternative energy research, subsidizing of green infrastructure, and kickstarting carbon sequestration technologies). But this portfolio of relatively win-win policy solutions likely won’t be enough alone to reach our aggressive emissions targets. We’re going to need to get constituents and the broader community on board with more transformational changes if we want to stop global warming.

That is why good climate policy comes from the bottom up. Too often, policymakers and climate advocates have seen public opinion as an immutable variable that must be carefully accounted for, rather than something which can be changed over time.

Theda Skocpol, one of the most talented political scientists of our generation, wrote an extensive post-mortem on why the cap-and-trade movement failed in the mid-2000s. She reported that many environmental organizations abandoned grassroots organizing and public education efforts in the aftermath of Democrats taking back control of the Senate and retaining the presidency in 2012. Instead of a focus on building strategic coalitions and mass-based popular support, many environmentalists instead chose to focus on more passive forms of advocacy: drafting sample legislation, lobbying, and participating in other insider games.

Perhaps some of this hyperfocus on the Beltway rather than engaging directly with the grassroots stems from a pernicious belief that public opinion can’t be changed. But that’s not true; one needs to look no farther than public opinion data on climate change to see the dramatic change over time that’s occurred. A combination of consistent media exposure, intense activism, and community organizing have all led to serious shifts in beliefs about climate change over the past two decades. There’s no reason that these trends won’t continue—and that they can’t be leveraged to encourage the public to rally behind a set of commonsense climate solutions.

Local governments have the benefit of already being situated closer to their constituents than their state and federal counterparts. And we do see an impulse among municipalities to engage citizens in helping decide local climate policy. However, this engagement is often concentrated during the drafting of the community’s local climate action plan, and it’s given little attention once the plan is finally adopted.

Local governments can learn from the mistakes that environmental activists made during the cap-and-trade movement—you don’t stop organizing once you’ve been given a narrow window of political opportunity to do something. In fact, you organize even harder to keep that window open, take maximum advantage of the opportunity, and even expand the chance to continue the momentum.

A concluding thought

You might notice how heavily intertwined this triad of tenets is. This is no surprise. It’s hard to solve multiple problems with a policy without that policy also being relatable and drafted in coordination with the community; one can’t make policy relatable without solving multiple, tangible problems that are voiced directly by members of the community; and you can’t focus on organizing the community without also recognizing the need to pursue a multi-pronged agenda that is simultaneously relatable. You get my point?

The important thing is that local governments recognize the limitations with drafting policy in a theoretical vacuum that’s tunnel-visioned on just reducing emissions. Not only will this lead to policy that’s politically untenable, it’s also likely to create unwieldy solutions which are more expensive to implement and prone to being axed by voters down the line.

Good climate policy solves multiple problems. Good climate policy is relatable. Good climate policy comes from the bottom up. And, most importantly, good climate policy can be achieved in every city and county in the country if we just focus on doing what we already aim to do: serve our communities well.

  1. The difficult truth is that politically, there aren’t enough dollars at the state or federal level either. Everyone must think in terms of helping others’ policy agendas if we want to tackle climate change before it’s too late. 

  2. There’s also a corollary point here: we shouldn’t be evaluating local government departments by their success in implementing their narrow local policy agenda (i.e., keeping public infrastructure up and running if you’re Public Works), but by their ability to advance the overall public interest (thus, moving forward all strategic goals in the community). Of course, this one-off comment is really worth being explored in an entire post or even book—which we plan to do someday. 

  3. Matthew Yglesias also makes an important point that a carbon tax makes no sense in a fiscal environment where we have near-zero interest rates. In this type of environment, it makes the most sense to invest in expensive projects which have very long-term payoffs, like green infrastructure which reduces GHG emissions. Thus, a carbon tax is not only politically unfeasible at this point, it’s also economically misguided. 

Wes De Silvestro is a software engineer & data scientist and Co-Founder of CivForge. He's worked with nonprofits, local & national governments, and private companies to design and implement technical solutions to challenging public sector problems.