There are a lot of people who wish we would talk about climate change more than we do. Especially during election years, when sensibilities become even more partisanly tuned, it’s one of those issues that signals to some people (correctly or not) where an organization’s sensitivities lie on a broad number of issues. Many people want that affirmation. The fact that we don’t focus on climate as a driving passion is a turn off, even a deal killer, for some.
Strong Towns is a bottom-up revolution calling for bottom-up action. It is difficult to detangle the conversation on how to respond to climate change from the corresponding top-down political agenda that accompanies it. Like it or not, the national conversation on climate change is coded for people who are not only comfortable with broad, aggressive, top-down action, they demand it.
For example, I was a recently a guest on the Volts podcast where the host, David Roberts, asked me this question (time stamp 1:06:48):
Do you see bottom-up reform in cities moving fast enough, or being dramatic enough, to get a handle on greenhouse gas emissions? I can envision a lot of good things coming out of bottom-up [action], but it’s real hard for me to envision climate change coming under control without some centralized, top-down action.
The question is framed as an either/or—two mutually exclusive paths. Of course, it doesn’t necessarily need to be, but I answered the question in that way. Here’s my reply:
Let me make this a fair question. So, we have Option A, which is some type of a top-down action to address climate change. And we have Option B, which is a bottom-up action to address climate change. And Option A and Option B are in a race against each other to see who can get to where we need to be.
What I would suggest to you is that Option A has zero chance, or near zero chance, of getting to the finish line. People can argue with that and say, “If we just got an overwhelming number of people elected…”
Look, the most dedicated-to-climate-change president that has ever been has just done a gas tax holiday. We’re not at some tipping point where people are serious about it.
People ask me: What’s the number one strategy we can do at the local level to build a strong town? I’m like, one, go out and plant trees. Street trees are the lowest-cost, highest-returning investment that can be made.
Now, you tell me, if your strategy is to get the right people elected, they need to have the guts to pass the right package, to do the right stuff, so that we get some action on climate change… Or, we can make a bottom-up choice to emphasize communities that plant trees, get people walking, and get rid of parking—which one is going to be further along the race a decade from now?
I don’t even think it’s close.
As it relates to Strong Towns, the climate change issue is difficult to talk about because it is so heavily coded for top-down action. That coding crowds out—and often negates—serious conversations about bottom-up strategies, particularly approaches that would have greater impact while also having broader political appeal. See the question above: either/or, mutually exclusive. It is difficult to detangle what part of this is a political strategy to motivate people to vote for a specific national team and which part is a genuine policy strategy to pass important legislation. The conversation becomes even more problematic when bad federal infrastructure legislation is marketed as climate action.