As costs to fight wildfires skyrocket amid warming temperatures and cities look at spending millions to raise sea walls, local leaders say there’s real action local governments can take to combat climate change – and that the public has an important role to push for it.

Speaking this week at an online conference hosted by Chapman University, panelists said local city and county officials can do things like join renewable power agencies, improve bicycle transit, and redirect government purchasing power to buying zero-carbon products.

But among the most impactful things local governments can do to combat climate change, they said, is incentivizing zoning and land uses that allow people to live closer to where they work. That, coupled with making it easier for people to get around by walking, biking and public transit.

“Each city is planning for a lot of housing units. But it’s [about] putting those housing units close to employment areas, close to areas of transportation, where there’s public transport. Because we want to reduce those vehicle miles [people have to travel by car],” said Seimone Jurjis, community development director for the city of Newport Beach.

“If you use your car less, there’s less carbon emissions.”

About 40 percent of California’s carbon dioxide emissions come from transportation, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“The result of not building enough housing is that people have to travel to job-rich parts of Southern California from the more affordable places where they can find housing. And that is the single most important generator of carbon emissions in our society. It is a waste of resources because of the way in which we built our cities,” said Rick Cole, the former mayor of Pasadena and who also served as city manager of Azusa and Santa Monica.

“If we become more sustainable, if we become more resilient, we will save money, we will save lives, we will make not only our quality of life higher – but we’ll actually, in the long run, improve our standard of living,” he added.

“Dealing with climate change in a creative way, particularly at a local level, means improving the way we live.”

A large majority of people in Orange County see climate change as a real problem that’s caused by humans, according to a recent Chapman University survey.

About 80 percent of Orange County residents consider climate change to be a serious threat, the survey found, with about 70 percent of residents say climate change is caused by human activities.

The university panelists said much of the way cities can fight climate change is through making it easier to build housing and workplaces near each other within their zoning and long range plans for housing and transportation – often within their general plan and housing element.

But plans aren’t really worth anything unless they’re actually implemented, the panelists noted.

“A plan is only as good as its implementation,” Cole said.

“Plan is also a verb. And if you plan to do something and you actually a have a practical – who’s going to do it, how much it’s going to cost, when it’s going to get done, and who’s going to check up on it and hold people accountable – that’s really the difference between blue-sky dreaming, and action,” he added.

“And in order to sustain those actions, you need to have a constituency for change,” Cole said.

“The community – the citizens, the people – need to be organized around climate change, at the local level. They need to be paying attention to their city government and see how it’s doing.”

Solutions that help address climate change can also help with other challenges – including the housing affordability crisis in Southern California, panelists said, by making it more feasible to build more housing without dumping as much traffic onto roads.

California now has the highest poverty rate in the nation when the cost of housing is factored in, said environmental lawyer Jennifer Hernandez, during a panel discussion. And people of color are disproportionately impacted by that struggle to afford housing, she added.

While many people think of government mainly at the federal level, local government has most of the powers on protecting public health and safety – and how land is used, said Ron Steiner, a constitutional law professor at Chapman.

Ultimately, the power to implement rests with local elected officials – like mayors, city council members and county supervisors.

“If the community really wants these bold changes, they have to talk to their electeds,” said Jurjis, the Newport Beach community development director.

“If I can’t get the electeds to support it, it’s just not going to happen.

Building coalitions is crucial, including to get people in positions of power who take climate change seriously and will implement real action, said Cole.

“Spend less time criticizing and more time organizing,” including making sure people who care about these issues get elected, as well as appointed to planning commissions, he said.

“Elections matter,” Cole added.

And the action items need to be measurable – with accountability from the public to make sure there’s follow through.

“What gets measured gets done,” Cole said.

Two former governors – Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democrat Jerry Brown – emphasized in video messages to the conference that tackling climate change will take involvement by a broad cross-section of the community.

“Every great movement was created by people – not by government. Not by the capitols,” Schwarzenegger said in a video message to the conference.

“How do we all work together – Democrats and Republicans – you cannot exclude anyone from that,” he added.

“Don’t let yourselves be fooled by those political parties to think it is a Democratic issue or a Republican issue – because it’s not. There isn’t Democratic air. There is not Republican air. We all breathe the same air. So everyone has to work together.”

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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