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FEATURE: Climate change and challenges for local government – changes we need now

Over the last decade, partly through the popular media and partly through global political events such as the annual CoPs (the UNFCCC’s Conference of the Parties), the concept of climate change has become one of the most relevant and discussed global issues.

Given its global traction in everyday discourse, media coverage and because one is increasingly stretched to find true climate change cynics, one would think addressing the climate change issue would be at the top of every development agenda and embedded in all government planning. Sadly this is not the case and real and appropriate planning, preparation for and mitigation of climate change remains an overwhelming challenge especially at local government level.

Why then, when we collectively as a global community face our greatest challenge yet – a changing climate – do we still struggle to see real and determined commitment to tackling the issue?

I outline the changes we need now to begin to address climate change at the local level.

Local government: the six key issues

1. The location and positioning of the climate change issue

One of the biggest challenges of the climate change issue is that it is still perceived by many to be an environmental issue. This is evident in two of South Africa’s largest cities, Durban and Cape Town, where the climate change agenda is still being driven by their environmental departments. This is problematic in a number of areas, namely that anything considered an environmental issue still remains somewhat on the periphery of governance in terms of resource allocation, decision making and space on the governance agenda. Further, environmental issues or the ‘green’ agenda carries historical baggage with which climate change should not be associated.

The reality is this – climate change is an economic issue, a social issue, a development issue and a political stability issue. It challenges every aspect of our collective futures and to locate it as simply an environmental issue will ensure it remains somewhat on the periphery of governance and adequate planning.

2. Business as usual

Governments and, particularly local governments, are not renowned for being progressive institutions, open to change with long term planning horizons. By their very nature local governments focus on short term planning (3-5 year horizons), often tend towards reactive approaches as opposed to proactive management (i.e. deal with the crisis when it happens) and struggle with adapting to change or creating change.

If we are to have a hope of being resilient in a changing climate, local governments are going to have to shift their planning considerations to 30 – 50 year horizons and begin to implement those plans now. Local governments will have to be progressive and not only deal with change itself, but stimulate a change of thinking in their constituencies. This shift away from business as usual has to happen quickly if we are to avert disaster.

3. Leadership

At local government level there is a broad and pressing spectrum of economic, social and environmental issues competing for space on the agenda and for limited and constrained resources. Immediate issues of basic service delivery, housing, employment, education, etc. correctly hold centre field on most local authority agendas. Added to this, as society, as organisations, and as individuals we tend to avoid change because change often causes some discomfort. A lack of strong leadership entrenches both the competition for space on the agenda by a spectrum of issues as well as a resistance to the discomfort that change will bring.

Climate change and the challenges it brings demands leadership that is informed, willing to make bold decisions, integrate competing issues, follow decisions through – even when they cause some discomfort – and leadership that leads by determining a clear development path founded on resilience and sustainability.

4. The receiving end of global politics

At its most basic, the effects of climate change will be experienced globally but felt tangibly at the local level. Yet local governments and communities to date have had little opportunity for their voices to be heard on the global platforms such as COP. These dialogues and negotiations are currently influenced by global economics and politics with no real reference to real on-the-ground issues. In many ways local governments could be considered victims of a global ‘tragedy of the commons’.

It is argued here, that certainly with respect to adaptation and resilience, local governments are best and most appropriately placed to prepare communities for a changing climate. Yet until this critical role of local government is recognised, resourced, skilled and capacitated and the voice of local government heard on global platforms, our communities will remain vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

5. Believing in the science

Having presented the work that the City of Cape Town has done on sea level rise modelling to a range of decision making bodies, it remains apparent that an element of disbelief persists. This is understandable, as what many of the climate models show is almost beyond comprehension for all of us to consider as our future. The easiest response to this disbelief is to question the science and hold a position that the modelling is ‘extreme’ and perhaps should not be trusted.

It needs to be acknowledged that climate science is developing all the time and current models and predictions are at best open to variability, and will improve in due course. However, if we are to address the issue we have to trust in the science, as we have no other information to guide us at this critical time.

6. Are we on our own?

Finally, as the impacts of climate change become more tangible and are experienced with greater consequence, will we as a global community stand together and share resources knowledge and solutions, or will we all be left to scramble to address the challenges on our own? Much has been spoken about a global Adaptation Fund but will local authorities and local areas have access to those resources or will they be tied up in global bureaucracy?

Resilience in the face of climate change is going to require a collective effort with all parties bringing their share, yet to date, there is a sense that we may be on our own.

The changes we need now

Unless we address these key challenges at the local level while we still have a window of opportunity, the chance of being resilient and adapting to climate change is small. We must with urgency:

• Ensure climate change is located in the highest office of city government to act as a central informant and prioritised across all key strategic programmes, such as development strategies and economic plans. Further, we must move away from labelling and driving climate change as an environmental issue.
• Shift from business as usual to more progressive, determined and committed government, focussed on longer term planning horizons and proactive management.
• Foster informed and bold leadership able to integrate competing issues, make and follow through on difficult decisions and determine a climate resilient and sustainable development path.
• Recognise local governments as central and leading players in responding to climate change.
• Require that all of us – as individuals, organisations and governments – bring our share and commitment to a resilient future. Government cannot solve this issue alone.

Gregg Oelofse is the Acting Manager for Environmental Policy, Strategy, Livelihoods and Education at the City of Cape Town, South Africa. He is a conservation biologist by training and has been working in the environmental field for 20 years. Gregg is currently drafting the City of Cape Town’s Adaptation Plan and has championed the formation of the City’s Climate Change Think Tank.

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