Disrupting the Spiral

Posted on February 25, 2022


Today’s Morning Buzz is by Sarah Alig. Connect with Sarah on LinkedIn.

What I’m reading: Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer
What I’m watching: Homemade Wanderlust’s thru-hiking videos on YouTube
What I’m listening to: Completely Arbortrary, a podcast about tree identification, and The Worst Hard Time audiobook by Timothy Egan

In my city, there are two grandfathers who care a lot about the climate crisis.

A few weeks ago, one of them told me, “we had a big flood here, a few years back. This was before your time. There was a stormwater pond behind our house – we loved to watch the little animals and listen to the birds in the spring – but that day, the water filled it up too fast. When my wife was driving home from work, the water came up and pushed her car against the curb. She was trapped in there; she couldn’t get out until someone came and helped her. She was ok in the end but the car was toast.” He explained, “this is why I know climate change matters. They say it rained 6 inches that day, which was unheard of at that time, and now we see these storms getting worse every year.”

The other grandfather nodded and added, “I remember that storm, but for a long time it just seemed like a freak incident. For me, it hit me a few months ago, when I was out fishing in the morning. It was weird, because the sky was orange and hazy. White ashes rained down on me in my canoe from all the wildfires. I cut my trip short, but it was like that all summer, wasn’t it?” He shook his head ruefully. “Now I wake up in the night covered in sweat, scared as heck that the wildfires will come here next. What are we gonna do if that happens?”

Fifty-eight percent of Americans are either concerned or alarmed about climate change. Approximately six in ten people say that global warming is personally important to them. However, only about a third say that they talk with friends and family about the issue. Researchers at the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication call this the “‘spiral of silence’ – people concerned about the climate avoid voicing their worry because they rarely hear others discussing the topic, and thus the spiral continues.”

When I heard the two men share their stories about why they worry about climate, I began to wonder how many members of our community share their concerns in silence. What is our role as city leaders to disrupt the spiral?

This moment, right now, is a turning point our cities can decide how to write the next chapter before it begins. Our communities face more intense, frequent, and damaging severe weather events. We already see the effects of a changing climate in our wildlife, plants, waters, historic resources, infrastructure, and outdoor activities. Last summer alone, I read countless updates from my local government peers across the country confronting fear, damage, and loss – but also optimism and recovery in their communities.

When the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its sixth assessment report last August, confirming that climate change is widespread, rapid and intensifying, it seemed like the obvious conclusion to a summer full of terrifying wildfires, intense drought and heat, destructive flooding, and many other hazards of a changing global climate.

It is easy to feel disconnected from a problem this big, complex, and partisan. However, climate change is a local issue. The risk of doing nothing affects all of our communities, and we all share the responsibility to take action. In every city I know, leaders are committed to stewarding the environment for future generations. We know that public service includes protecting water quality, preserving trees and ensuring human wellbeing.

In our efforts to elevate this issue in my community, it has been helpful to frame it in a local context. For us, that means considering the values, risks and rewards that matter to a medium sized, Midwestern suburb that prides itself on proactive planning, fiscal responsibility, and an increasingly diverse population.

Every city can consider its own local context to apply appropriate climate solutions. For example, in Bozeman, Montana, the city’s Sustainability Office emphasizes a collaborative approach to serve the interests of businesses and residents, with an emphasis on interrelated local issues like housing affordability and energy costs. Reno, Nevada’s Sustainability & Action Climate Action Plan highlights public safety risks from wildfires, drought, and extreme heat. The number one item in Detroit, Michigan’s Climate Strategy is making energy and water bills more affordable.* In some cities, cars and commuting are the biggest emitter, while others grapple with a heavy dependence on coal for electricity. Some of us deal rising waters, while others have not nearly enough. Although the issue can feel too big for any one of us, or even for one city, to grasp, cities of every size can harness local expertise, engage community values and apply public resources to adapt to the changing climate and reduce its impact.

Our incentives may differ, but we can learn from each other’s’ hardships and find inspiration in what cities have already achieved. We can focus on four basic areas of impact, like decarbonizing the electricity grid, optimizing energy efficiency in buildings, enabling next-generation mobility, and improving waste management. Two things give me hope: hearing people begin talking about why they care, and seeing what other cities are doing to implement mitigation, adaptation, and resilience strategies.

Together, our cities can achieve almost half the necessary emission reductions to remain on a 2° trajectory, which is the global target to sustain a livable planet.

I don’t know the answer to the question, “what is our role as city leaders to disrupt the spiral of silence,” but I do know that, as a member of this community of local government professionals, the answer will come from passionate, brave, and concerned people who love where they live, like my two grandfather friends. I want to hear and talk about this issue with you. What significant action have your cities taken? When you think about the future of your communities, what keeps you up at night? What are you most hopeful about? How is this story taking shape in your cities? Let’s break the silence and move toward answers and solutions for our, and our grandchildren’s, future communities.


*These statements are summaries of information I gleaned online. If you know better, please correct me!

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