Is Flagstaff prepared for the climate crisis?

By: Sara

Climate change is not an abstract, future event. It is something Coconino County is beginning to experience each and every day. Here in Flagstaff, hotter temperatures, reduced snowpack, increased risk of wildfires, and more severe drought conditions are expected to make this mountain town increasingly uninhabitable. Like many cities around the world, Flagstaff has identified a need to prepare for this world-wide, looming emergency. 

Alarmingly, forecasts estimate that Flagstaff’s overall carbon emissions will increase 34% by 2050 in the absence of climate action. To prepare for this, last November, Flagstaff City Council voted to adopt a Climate Action and Adaptation Plan, which is designed to move the city towards a more sustainable future. This Climate Action and Adaptation Plan also intends to guide the Flagstaff community in preparing for climate risks, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and protecting the wellbeing of residents for decades to come.

The Climate Action and Adaptation Plan has three main parts. First is an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050 (including interim targets of a 15% reduction by 2025 and a 30% reduction by 2030). Second, the assurance that Flagstaff neighborhoods, resources, and economy are more resilient to climate change impacts. Third and finally, the plan emphasizes that climate change impacts are addressed in a manner that prioritizes those populations most impacted.

To meet these goals, Flagstaff is taking action across multiple sectors, including water, energy, and transportation. However, there is limited accountability outlined in this plan for the City of Flagstaff to adhere to these targets. Steering Committee member Brian Petersen argues that “the only way to hold the city accountable is through broad social movements.” The Flagstaff community, according to Petersen, was extremely influential in the creation of this climate action plan and will continue to hold responsibility in maintaining the city’s promises. 

Earlier this year, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey introduced the Green New Deal, a resolution that deserves praise for putting forth the boldest climate change proposal in U.S. history. In contrast to the conventional market-based solutions to the climate crisis, the Green New Deal elevates the seriousness of climate change proposals. It includes bringing the U.S. to net-zero carbon emissions by 2030, increasing resilience to climate impacts, investments in public transportation and “smart” energy infrastructure, overhauling transportation systems with high-speed rail and zero-emission vehicles, supporting sustainable agricultural practices, and using reforestation to absorb carbon.

Similar to what is proposed in a national Green New Deal resolution, the Flagstaff Climate Action and Adaptation plan addresses societal inequity. However, despite its acknowledgement of disparate climate impacts, Flagstaff’s climate action plan does not include justice as the basis and forefront of the plan—this is where it unfortunately differs from the Green New Deal. Petersen explained that, “the Green New Deal is different in that it has specific language that links human well-being to climate.” He goes on to say that “too narrow a focus on climate change reportedly means we care about it, but we need a broad social movement that prioritizes wellbeing and happiness and how that connects with climate change.”

Climate change is often treated as a single issue, however, the Green New Deal is thought to be revolutionary because of its interdisciplinary nature. It connects labor rights, the economy, race relations, and class issues with the overarching issue of climate change. Flagstaff’s climate action plan has a narrow focus on the issue of climate, with limited acknowledgement for larger sociological, systemic implications of the climate crisis. 

A Green New Deal is also innovative in that it connects economic success with action on the climate crisis. With fewer days reaching freezing temperatures, the winter economy that benefits from snowfall in Flagstaff has increased potential to flounder. However, the climate plan that Flagstaff City Council has adopted includes limited connections when it comes to adapting the city’s economy to climate impacts. 

Additionally, Flagstaff’s emission reduction targets are meager when compared to the targets set by the Green New Deal resolution. While champions of the Green New Deal demand net zero emissions (nationally) by 2030, Flagstaff is aiming for a mediocre 80% reduction by the later date of 2050. With the projection of a 35% population growth in Flagstaff by 2050, these emission targets seem increasingly insurmountable. 

“We have no mechanism or process to radically reduce emissions given pressures put on by a growing population,” Petersen explains. “I think our society as a whole does not understand the climate crisis… our society is not effectively addressing the situation, and it has to do with how we construe the problem. People are basing their perspectives on the society in which they are embedded.” 

Flagstaff will continue to re-evaluate their Climate Action and Adaptation Plan every five years. Let’s hope Flagstaff takes this critique to heart.

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