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Local and statewide governments are preparing for a changing environment's impacts on their communities

By Ava Garcia

When sustainability specialist Jenny Niemann asked Flagstaff residents what changes they'd seen in their backyards from climate change over the years, the responses ran the gamut, she said. She'd only been living in Flagstaff full-time herself for only two years, but longtime residents had seen the changes in their own lives.


Some said the snowfall wasn't like it used to be. Others saw different birds in the area. One even saw a javelina up in the area, far from its usual territory in the desert.


Over conversations at six community open houses, monthly meetings at coffee shops and feedback from three online surveys, Niemann gathered community members' stories and suggestions for the City of Flagstaff's Climate Adaptation Plan. After nearly a year of listening to stakeholders and piecing together ideas, the city council passed the plan on Nov. 20, 2018.


The plan identifies key challenges Flagstaff faces from climate change and lays out a roadmap to solutions for these challenges. It aims for a lofty goal: Reduce emissions by 80 percent by 2050.


"This is a global problem. We need global actions to solve it," said Niemann, who works for the City of Flagstaff. "One of the things that we tried to do with this conversation is really talk about what could be the local effects of what climate change will do in Flagstaff."


Climate change is a global problem, but local governments across Arizona are coming up with strategies to deal with the climate-related issues in their own communities.


The majority of the public in Arizona supports increasing government action dealing with the impacts of climate change. According to the Yale Climate Communication Center's 2018 poll, 54 percent of Arizonans think the governor should do more to address global warming, while 57 percent think local officials should do more.


A 2014 poll by the University of Arizona's Institute of the Environment found that 76 percent of Arizonans believed that the state government should limit the amount of greenhouse gases businesses generate.


Various governments in Arizona have taken different approaches to preparing for climate change. While city governments have largely taken the lead on climate change action in their communities, at the state level, climate action is moving more slowly in the Republican-controlled Arizona House of Representatives and Senate.

Statewide: Climate action slowing

More than a decade ago, Arizona created a statewide plan for climate change mitigation and adaptation.


Gov. Janet Napolitano, who was in office from 2003 to 2009, created a Climate Change Advisory Group by executive order in 2005. The 35-member advisory group was created to give the governor recommendations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and the group included representatives from the public, government, fossil fuel industry, Indian tribes, mining industry and power generation industry.

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Flags outside of the Arizona State Capitol in February. Photo by Ava Garcia.

According to the group's Climate Change Action Plan from August 2006, the advisory group created 49 policy recommendations, including an overarching recommendation to reduce the state's greenhouse gas emissions to 2000 levels by 2020 and to 50 percent below 2000 levels by 2040. Napolitano, a Democrat, put a spotlight on that goal in a 2006 executive order, which established a Climate Change Executive Committee—made up of directors of various state agencies—to implement the plan.


Napolitano's order also called for the development of standards for biodiesel fuels, for the state purchase of lower-emitting vehicles and for Arizona to adopt the Clean Car Program, which held vehicles to a stricter standard of emissions testing than the federal standards.


However, Napolitano's successor, Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, put many of the goals on hold or backed away from them. After taking office in 2009, Brewer's administration reviewed Napolitano's climate change efforts and revised many of those efforts. In 2011, the Brewer administration withdrew Arizona from the Western Climate Initiative, which Arizona had joined under Napolitano. In 2012, Brewer's administration repealed the Clean Car Program in Arizona.

Gov. Janet Napolitano creates a Climate Change Advisory Group



Brewer withdraws Arizona from Western Climate Initiative

August 2006

The group puts together a Climate Change Action Plan

Napolitano creates a Climate Change Executive Committee to implement the plan

September 2006


Gov. Jan Brewer takes office and starts to review and revise Napolitano's climate efforts


Brewer repeals Clean Car Program in Arizona

Brewer's successor, current governor Doug Ducey, has not created a climate change plan. Gov. Ducey's office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.


The Arizona governor's website does not mention climate change, but the administration has worked on environmental policies that address climate-related issues, such as drought. In January, Gov. Ducey signed the Drought Contingency Plan, which seeks to conserve water in Lake Mead to prevent severe water cuts in the future. After passing the plan, Gov. Ducey said discussions about Arizona's water conservation will continue and the state should plan for future changes in Arizona weather, according to an Arizona Capitol Times story.

Statewide agencies start to plan for a changing future

Statewide agencies such as the Arizona Department of Health Services have been more explicit about preparing for hazards related to a changing climate. The health department debuted a Climate and Health Adaptation Plan in 2017. As one of 18 programs funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Climate-Ready States and Cities Initiative, the plan focuses on 10 essential public health functions in the context of preparing for climate-related hazards.


Many of these functions center on consolidating data related to vector-borne diseases and heat-related illness, as well as increasing health education and communication on these subjects. Heat-related illness from higher temperatures and a changing mosquito season from climate change could affect public health.

The adaptation plan is expected to change as the ideas take shape as actual programs. Currently, three pilot projects are in progress and will inform future plan updates, according to David Hondula, a professor in Arizona State University's School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning who worked on the plan with the health department.

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The cover of the Climate Health and Adaptation Plan.

The projects all center on heat: improving networks of cooling centers in Yuma County, improving heat monitoring efforts in Pinal County and coordinating a network of climate change and health practices in Maricopa County.


Hondula said he hopes the three case studies can help the health department identify which strategies are most effective at preventing heat-related illness.


"That will be a very exciting achievement for the public health and research community," he said.


Hondula said it's important for voters to think about what elected officials are doing about climate-related health issues, and he said elected officials are becoming more concerned about these topics.


"I wonder how long it will be before we start hearing them as a major part of the platform for candidates in the future, and residents will be able to help our state to adopt by supporting elected officials who have a vision for adaptation to climate hazards that aligns with their own," Hondula said.

Politics slow down change in the State Legislature

The State Legislature has seen recent efforts to recognize climate change, but those attempts have largely failed to gain traction.


State Senator Juan Mendez, D-26, introduced SCR1024, which called for the legislature and the governor to commit to creating and supporting efforts to manage climate change and to encourage businesses and individuals to reduce emissions. The bill never made it past a second reading.


Mendez also tried to send a memorial, SCM1004, to the Arizona Corporation Commission to change the state's renewable energy requirements to 25 percent renewable by 2025, eventually reaching 40 percent by 2035. That also did not make it past a second reading.

Recent Proposed Environmental Legislation

SCR1024. Called for government to commit to creating efforts to manage climate change. Did not pass.

SCM1004. Asked for Arizona Corporate Commission to change the state renewable energy requirement to reach 40 percent by 2035. Did not pass.

HB2452. Provides for remote vehicle emissions inspections, especially in rural areas. Passed.

Mendez, who represents constituents in northwest Mesa, part of south Phoenix, north Tempe and the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community, chalks up this inability to pass climate change legislation to a fear of scaring people away from moving to Arizona. He said development and more residents are considered a major driver of the state's economy.


"The overall tone that everyone tries to put up here is that everything's fine, right?" Mendez said. "We don't have an environmental problem. We don't have to worry about heat, we don't have to worry about water," Mendez said.


Mendez said much of the reason his bills aren't often heard boils down to the partisan divide. The Legislature is controlled by Republicans—17 to 13 in the Senate and 30-29 in the House—and Mendez said the majority party controls the agenda.


President of the Senate Karen Fann, R-1, said in an emailed response to questions that if the legislation is "backed up by facts and is fiscally responsible," then it will move forward "regardless of who is the sponsor." She mentioned HB2452, a bill to provide remote vehicle emissions inspections, as an example of a bill that received bipartisan support.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Gail Griffin, R-14, received 55 "yes" votes coming from the House.


"We move good bills forward regardless of the party, but one must remember that we will not waste time on discussing bills that aren't benefitting our state," wrote Fann, who represents constituents in Yavapai County and parts of Maricopa County. "It's sad that each issue becomes so political rather than legislators concentrating on good policy and meeting with stakeholders to figure out the best solution and draft up a good bill."


Speaker of the House Russell Bowers, R-25, and House Majority Leader Warren Petersen, R-12, did not respond to interview requests.


House Representative Kirsten Engel, D-10, said she also believes partisan politics have taken a toll on climate action in the legislature.


"It really should not be a partisan issue at all," Engel said. "This is really about our future and the future we want to leave to our kids."


Fann said climate change should not be a partisan issue because "the atmosphere and the weather do not recognize political parties."

"It has become a political issue, and much of that is attributed to the organizations who are using the topic of climate change to raise money and grow their base," she wrote.


Engel, who represents constituents in part of Pima County, said her environmentally focused bills generally aren’t heard. She tried to put forth a concurrent House memorandum to Mendez's bill, but it also failed to move forward.


Engel said she's seen resistance to the term "climate change" itself, and a member of the Republican caucus told her that climate change was a "micro-aggression term." She said she's not wedded to using the term, though, if it means not using it will lead to action.


"If we need to talk about changes in weather patterns that are causing drought, we can talk about it that way too," Engel said. "I really don't care. I just want to do something about it."


State Senator Andrea Dalessandro, D-2, who sees Mendez as an ally in the legislature for environmental bills, said some of her colleagues in the Legislature don't believe in climate change.


"That makes it tough, because we have to have a balance between conservation and public awareness, and they also want to attract businesses, so it has to be in balance," said Dalessandro, who represents constituents in all of Santa Cruz County and southern Pima County.

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State Sen. Juan Mendez speaks at Environmental Day at the State Capitol in February. Photo by Ava Garcia.

Mendez said he's seen the Legislature's attitude toward climate change evolve over his years as a legislator. He was elected to the House in 2012 before being elected a State Senator in 2016.


Mendez said there used to be members who were "outward deniers" of climate change, but now the majority of legislators don't acknowledge climate change or the role human activity plays in it.


With the rollback of Obama-era federal regulations such as the Clean Power Plan, state and local governments have an opportunity to step up, said Engel, who is also a professor of law at the James E. Rogers College of Law at the University of Arizona.


"I feel like we have a real kind of barrier at the federal level to making much, if any, progress on climate change regulation at all, so really I think a lot of the focus has shifted towards the states and local governments," Engel said.


While the state government has not many advances on climate change, she said cities in Arizona have been much more willing to put climate-related policies in place.

City governments take the lead

Cities can tailor climate action to their community. Whether it's the dusty desert of Tucson or the green forests of Flagstaff, a city can create a plan that works best for its unique needs.


The City of Tucson is preparing for climate change impacts. In 2011, the Office of Conservation and Sustainable Development put together a climate mitigation report with recommendations to lower greenhouse gases, but the Arizona Daily Star reported in 2017 that the city largely did not follow through on those recommendations because of budget cuts.

Tucson Sustainability Steps:
Increase solar power 

Before those efforts, Tucson's city council had adopted the Mayor's Climate Protection Agreement in 2006, which set up a goal to lower the city's greenhouse gas emissions by 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. But the recession of the late 2000s put the brakes on efforts to achieve that goal, so the city didn't meet that goal, said Jaimie Galayda, a lead planner in Tucson Water's Public Information and Conservation Office.


"It was very difficult for the city to meet climate goals when we were just struggling to meet our financial commitments to our employees and to the public," Galayda said.

Increase green infrastructure
Water conservation

Since then, the city has not adopted any new formal goals but has taken steps toward increasing sustainability, Galayda said. The city's Energy Office is looking to double the city's solar power capacity and has completed energy efficiency updates in buildings around Tucson. The city has also changed most streetlights to LED bulbs, which have cut emissions and energy costs, Galayda said.


City leaders have also sought to increase green infrastructure, through actions such as planting trees to harvest rainwater. Galayda said planting trees has also increased shade canopy in the desert community, helping adapt the city to increasing temperatures.


City leaders have also concentrated on water conservation through residential and commercial rebates as well as improvements to irrigation equipment. Conserving water has a twofold effect of also conserving energy in Tucson. Galayda said much of Tucson's energy consumption is used to move water to Tucson from the Central Arizona Project, which brings water from the Colorado River to cities in Arizona.


"We use a significant amount of energy to get that water here to Tucson and then to distribute it throughout the city. So the more water we conserve, the more energy we conserve," Galayda said.


According to Tucson City Councilmember Steve Kozachik, a Democrat representing Ward 6, the city has worked with local utilities to provide incentives for solar energy production and has also increased the frequency of public transportation options and expanded its bike lane system to encourage people to forgo their carbon-polluting vehicles.


Transportation contributes to 26 percent of Tucson's greenhouse gas emissions, second only to residential energy use, which contributes 29 percent, according to a 2014 Pima Association of Governments Regional Greenhouse Gas Inventory.


The city also tries to bring awareness of climate change to the community. Last fall, the city hosted a forum on climate change open to the public. And Kozachik frequently mentions the impacts of climate change and adaptation efforts in his weekly newsletters.

Despite public awareness efforts, Kozachik said it's still difficult to get people to change their behavior.


"I can put pictures of the ice melting in Greenland in my newsletter 10 weeks in a row, and people will scan right pass it because they're just comfortable where they are," Kozachik said.


There are people who are interested, though. Kozachik said he meets with members of a neighborhood group who want to audit their homes to plan for potential climate-related hazards in the future, and he has met with business owners about redeveloping green space in shopping plazas.


Kozachik's focus on encouraging people to be more environmentally friendly isn't unique to Tucson. The state's largest city, Phoenix, has a sustainability plan that hinges much of its main goals on the public's participation.


The City of Phoenix's 2015-2016 Sustainability Report lays out a plan for the city united by one main goal: Go completely carbon-neutral by 2060. Carbon-neutrality means not releasing any carbon emissions; it can also mean that any carbon emissions that are released are balanced by an action that absorbs carbon, such as planting trees.


It's not as impossible as it sounds. Mark Hartman, chief sustainability officer for the City of Phoenix, said Phoenix is well-positioned to achieve this goal compared to northern cities, which often rely on natural gas to heat their cities during the winter. Phoenix already runs on 95 percent electricity, Hartman said, so as long as that electricity is carbon-neutral, Phoenix could likely achieve its 2060 goal.

Phoenix Sustainability Goal:

As renewable energy becomes cheaper, Hartman expects that more utilities will switch to using renewable energy sources. In the meantime, the city also offers residents a free home energy audit to see where they can improve their energy efficiency.


But what about transportation, which made up 60 percent of Phoenix's greenhouse gas emissions in 2016? Hartman said he sees people switching to electric vehicles in a wave as the technology becomes cheaper and different types of vehicles become available. In the past the city has offered a discount of up to $3,000 to encourage people to buy electric vehicles. Hartman said the city plans to launch a similar program this summer.

The sustainability plan also aims to strengthen the city's public transit network by making walking, cycling and transit more enjoyable and accessible for residents. By 2050, Phoenix's T2050 plan will triple the amount of miles the light rail covers in the city, as well as offer a late-night bus. The goal is to have 90 percent of the population living within a half-mile of a transit option, with 40 percent choosing to switch their commute to less carbon-intensive options of biking, transit, carpooling or walking, according to the sustainability plan.


The key to making people switch is to offer an enjoyable alternative option,  Hartman said.


"No one says, 'I've got this great idea. Let's go drive on the freeway in rush hour.' It is just not a pleasant thing to do," Hartman said.


Phoenix has already made strides in reducing its greenhouse gas emissions. In 2016, the city's emissions declined by 7.6 percent compared to its 2012 levels, according to a 2016 Community Greenhouse Gas Emissions Final Report. Leaders now hope to drop the city's emissions by 30 percent by 2025.

City of Phoenix Emission Changes

Stationary energy decreased 23 percent

Transportation energy increased 7.3 percent

Overall emissions, including other sources: 7.6 percent decrease

Source: 2016 Community Greenhouse Gas Emissions Final Report

"If you tell people, 'Oh, no, the sky is falling, it's horrible,'.... people do get paralyzed and they say, 'I don't want to talk about it,'" Hartman said. "But actually if you say, 'Hey, I've got a challenge for you, a puzzle that you got to figure out,'...that leads to what's called innovation."


Much of the previous emissions decrease was from stationary energy, which includes residential buildings and agricultural buildings. Stationary energy accounted for 38 percent of Phoenix's emissions in 2016, and emissions from this sector decreased by over 23 percent from 2012 levels. Transportation emissions, meanwhile, went up 7.3 percent.

The City of Phoenix's plan stands out among the other cities that make up the Phoenix metropolitan area, but they are also taking up the charge for sustainability. The City of Tempe is putting together a Climate Action Plan that will be up for council consideration in mid-2019, and the City of Peoria has a sustainability action plan that calls for cutting down on emissions. Other cities have smaller programs. The City of Scottsdale's Green Building Program highlights techniques for more efficient and environmentally friendly buildings, and the City of Glendale offers incentives for residents to conserve water.

Hartman remains optimistic about the changes happening in the City of Phoenix. He said people can get behind sustainability, regardless of politics. When sustainability is attached to politics, people want to stay away from it, but focusing on the goals of sustainability—a quality of life that helps nature and can save people money—can help garner public support for it, Hartman said.

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The City of Flagstaff just adopted a climate adaptation plan. Photo by Ava Garcia.

The right political environment helped with the passage of the City of Flagstaff's Climate Adaptation Plan. Niemann, the city's sustainability specialist, cites the willingness of the current city council to focus on this issue now.


The plan outlines risks that Flagstaff faces from climate change, such as greater risk of wildfires, increased rainfall instead of snowfall and increased tourism as the temperatures rise in Phoenix and people head north to escape the heat. The city relied on the community's input for ideas.

Flagstaff Sustainability Goal:
emissions reduced by

The plan organizes action across a variety of sectors and includes a section devoted to climate equity, or how specific risks affect particular groups of people who may face extra difficulties. These groups include people who do not have access to air-conditioning, outdoor workers and people with pre-existing illnesses who are sensitive to heat.


"We really wanted to, with this conversation with the community, broaden it out to say we need to look at all impacts," Niemann said.


Like Tucson and Phoenix, Flagstaff's plan relies on changing public behavior to decrease much of its emissions. To make that happen, governments need to change policy to make it easier for people to make environmentally friendly choices, Niemann said.

"The reason why people don't recycle or the reason why people drive to work instead of taking the bus isn't because they hate the environment; it's probably because that's the easiest choice for them, for their situation," Niemann said. "So we need to think about, from a city perspective, how do we make those choices easier?"

Options include improving the bus service or increasing recycling options, Niemann said. She said much of it also comes down to education, something she hopes to improve with city programs.

In early April, the city hosted a training for its first cohort of Climate Ambassadors. More than 20 residents sat around a long table in a conference room in city hall, sharing why they wanted to learn more about climate change. Lifelong residents shared stories of the changes they'd seen in their neighborhoods; young Northern Arizona University students spoke about wanting to speak to their peers about climate change.

Niemann gave a quick overview of the climate adaptation plan to the newly minted ambassadors, reminding them of key points to bring up when having conversations with their community, such as the increased risks of wildfires in neighborhood homes.

She's excited about the plan taking root and people coming together to make it happen.

"We have some really good opportunities to make change and do some great things," she said.

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