Ashley Monroe, Assistant City Manager, City of Iowa City, Iowa, wrote this article as part of the Sustainability & Environment Series. Connect with Ashley on Email or Twitter.
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We had been working on sustainability for years and were feeling pretty good about what we’d been doing. We held lots of resident workshops, diligently tracked our energy use, participated in the STAR Communities program, and completed a greenhouse gas inventory annually. Then we were told, “we can do more” by City Council. And we did. We adjusted, we pulled together a community volunteer group to develop our very first Climate Action and Adaptation Plan, with 36 actions to address climate change. Our Plan centers on activities not only by the City (only 4-5% of total community emissions, by the way) but also on what our residents, businesses, and visitors can do to reduce carbon emissions in Iowa City. We felt, that the targets at the time, of reducing our emissions by about 25% by 2025, and 80% by 2050 were a stretch but a task the City and City Council was ready to take on.
Then we were told, by our residents, students, seniors, and passionate community members, “you’re not doing enough.” It was honestly tough to hear. It was hard, thinking, with all that we felt we were accomplishing and putting in place to make real traction, that people didn’t see it. It was hard, to have young people standing five feet in front of me, near tears, speaking from their hearts, that we didn’t care about their world and that we needed to do more and be more responsible, for them and their future. Even Greta Thunberg herself made a Tesla-powered visit to a different Iowa City protest, to stand in solidarity with our youth climate strikers and many others.
We adjusted again. In June 2019, the City of Iowa City declared a Climate Crisis and changed its carbon emissions goals to a 45% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 and approaching net-zero by 2050. Fatefully, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) changed its recommendations about a month after we approved our initial Plan, leaving us to either stick to an outdated goal, or to drastically ramp up our expectations. Clearly, the public was paying attention and felt we could further improve our community, so we got down to work. We updated the goals, delivered Council a 100 Day Accelerated Action Plan by the end of 2019, created a Division of Climate Action and Outreach with a bit of reorganization, and established a tax levy of nearly $1,000,000 to accomplish climate initiatives.
Where are we now? We’ve got a currently half-staffed division, held our first annual Climate Fest (virtually, no less!), have a solid year under our belt with the Council-appointed Climate Action Commission, and our City Departments actively contribute to a variety of our planned climate action projects. We are steadily making progress on meeting our 2030 carbon emissions goal. It does help that our primary utility is making substantial investments in wind energy and other renewables that allow us to claim carbon reductions in our community. It also helps that the University of Iowa has eliminated all but one of their coal boilers and continues to make significant energy-related investments in their facilities. We’ve branched out into Tax Increment Financing assistance for industrial properties, launched small community grants among other ways to advance public climate action, and developed an amazing resident climate ambassador curriculum. There are myriad examples of actions taken in our regular reports (available at www.icgov.org/climateaction). And yet…
We have a long way to go. Remember when I said that people didn’t see all these wonderful things we’re doing? They still probably don’t but we are working towards solutions. We have realized that we need to talk about these things. A lot. Talk about them in ways that draw others in, talk about them in ways that connect issues to something that impacts someone, talk about them in places people frequent and in languages they speak. We have realized that it’s not enough to tell, and that engagement and trust building is crucial. We have firmly connected environmental justice as an issue of social equity, and without one, there cannot be the other. Climate issues are so inexorably intertwined with neighborhoods and people inside them, economics and the people making an impact and those impacted, understanding each other and inclusion for the benefit of all. Our growing philosophy in Iowa City is that we are standing up for these issues most of all. In doing so, we are bringing along climate action in a way that supports our biggest goals, that serve everyone, with a more sustainable place to call home.