Three reasons why our response to climate change needs to be local

Climate change is a global problem.

As a result, many devote their energies to looking for a global solution. The COP26 summit that we shall see on these shores next month is a testament to this.

Of course, international coordination has a role to play when it comes to addressing climate change. Indeed, it is through work at this level that we have the greatest chance of meaningfully curbing carbon emissions at the macro scale – which is vital to limiting the amount of warming we shall see this century.

However, while the greenhouse effect operates globally, the manifestations of climate change are locally specific. Whether we are talking about storms, droughts, crop failures or industrial changes – the actual challenges that are created by a changing climate are things that will affect different communities and places in different ways. As such, a substantial part of our response to climate change must be locally rooted.

New Local are currently running a research project exploring the potential of local and community led climate action on climate change – and we have identified three key characteristics of local action that make it an invaluable part of the overall climate policy picture. These are as follows:

Local Climate Action is Responsive

The public is clear that they see climate change as one of the biggest challenges of our era. They are also clear, however, that at present, the government is not doing enough to address it.

Clearly then, national policy is proving unresponsive to the demands of people on the ground for action. This is a problem, of course. However, there are other ways to channel public energy, into institutions that can be much more responsive to democratic demands. Local government offers a way of doing this.

The wave of councils declaring climate emergencies and setting ambitious targets for emissions reduction is evidence of increased responsivity of local levels of governance – and the embrace of local government of deliberative democracy (citizens assemblies) shows that it is at the local level that people’s voices can be heard.

Local Climate Action Has an Inherent Legitimacy

Global warming means that we will all have to change aspects of the way we live our lives. There are positive opportunities within this, but with change comes resistance.

When change is imposed in a top-down manner, there is potential for local priorities and specificities to be missed. This increases the chance that there will be pushback against the changes that we will need to see. The Gillet Jeune protests against fuel tax rises in France might be considered an example of what this looks like in reality.

Action that is negotiated and implemented at local levels can take into account local issues and work around them. This can ensure that peoples’ needs are met during a period of change – and thus embodies the spirit of a just transition.

Local Climate Action is Adaptive 

At the macro-scale, climate change is a slow-moving phenomenon. Global temperatures tick up slowly, and perhaps a key reason for the inertia that we’ve seen in terms of taking radical action against climate change is the fact that the problem is sometimes hard to feel tangibly.

However, at the local level, the effects of climate change can sometimes manifest in the form of incredibly urgent situations. Flash flooding, heatwaves and infrastructure failure are things that, when they happen, happen quickly. Adapting and responding to them requires local knowledge and has to draw on local resilience and networks. 

As such, climate change adaptation – be it emergency response, or the building of infrastructure – is something that is done best at the local level.

New Local is conducting a project to explore the potential of community-based climate action.

Drawing on their research into community power and the work of Elinor Ostrom, they are making the case for a more democratic and localised approach to climate change policy.

Find out more here: https://www.newlocal.org.uk/research-projects/communities-vs-climate/

Luca Tiratelli is a Senior Policy Researcher at New Local.
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