The climate crisis we’re facing, particularly those of us who live in low-lying coastal communities, has taken years to sink in — and it’s still sinking in. Less than two decades ago, there was a lively political debate here about whether the Earth was actually getting warmer, even as most scientists affirmed it was.
Fewer disagree with those scientists these days, and most elected leaders now acknowledge climate change is real. That in turn has triggered a new debate over why. As with the first debate, a growing number of people seem to accept scientists’ growing consensus that our increased greenhouse gas emissions are driving the change. And that in turn leads to the final, most pressing question: What should we do about it?
There are many reasons it has taken time to form a consensus on these hugely important questions: the vast difference between election cycles and geological time, the desire to defend livelihoods and lifestyles, the complex global economic issues. The reality that we are changing, even harming, our planet, our only home, understandably triggered a kind of grieving process, which — as with most grieving — begins with planning more sensible steps to cool our climate shock and denial.
But it was always naive to believe the solutions to dangerous climate changes would come only, or even mainly, from an international treaty or a new U.S. policy. Global and national leaders surely have important roles to play, but so do our communities — and so do all of us who live in them.
That’s why the city of Charleston’s emerging Climate Action Plan could be a big deal. The current draft offers specific suggestions for how our community, including city government, businesses and individuals, can ease global warming by cutting down on carbon dioxide emissions. Those suggestions are built around changes to buildings, transportation, waste streams and nature. Many reaffirm goals and priorities put forth previously for reasons that have little to do with greenhouse gases.
The plan is still a work in progress: The city’s Office of Resilience and Sustainability is accepting feedback through an online survey that will end at noon Monday. We encourage everyone to consider taking part: surveymonkey.com/r/6C8K7J5 .
Katie McKain, the city’s director of sustainability, says the plan’s success will hinge on community participation, and she’s right. Not only because more input will help convince City Council to approve the plan soon but also because it will get more of us thinking more about how our individual actions can help, from planting trees to minimizing single-use plastics to reducing our number of car trips and more. Having more people informed also will help convince elected officials in both parties to do more to address the threat.
Skeptics might wonder if Charleston is going down a similar road that it did about a decade ago, when a citizens group drafted the ambitious Charleston Green Plan, which contained similar ideas for reducing greenhouse gas emissions but that also met with doubt, even hostility, from the public. City Council ultimately received it as information.
But there are differences this time, especially recent storms and high tides that have pushed flooding to the top of the city’s agenda. The goal is for Charleston to have net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 — meaning that for every pound of carbon the city emits, another pound is pulled out of the atmosphere by new trees or some other way. But the draft plan focuses mainly on what could and should be done in the next five years, when it will be updated with new goals.
Frankly, Charleston is playing catch-up here. Last year, when the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy ranked the nation’s 100 largest cities on their efforts to improve energy efficiency and scale up renewable energy, Charleston came in near the bottom, at 89. (Columbia ranked 91.)
Charleston already is bracing for rising seas and stronger storms by planning to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to minimize future floods, but the city rightly has faced criticism for not doing nearly enough to reduce greenhouse gases.
The Climate Action Plan would be the city’s most significant step in that direction to date. Its leaders and residents don’t have to agree with every single recommendation to realize that’s a step worth taking.
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