by Darcy Dumont
First Things First! Why was creating an Energy and Climate Action Committee the first major act of the newly formed Amherst Town Council?
On January 28, 2019 the newly formed Amherst Town Council voted to create an Amherst Energy and Climate Action Committee, whose mission it is to guide the Town in meeting its climate mitigation and resilience goals. As its first task, the committee is to submit to the Council, for adoption, recommended climate action goals with target dates for achieving those goals.
So why did the new Council opt to make this its first major action, when hard-fought Town Council campaigns had focused on downtown development, on the schools and other proposed capital projects, on roads and sidewalks, or on property taxes?
First and foremost, Councilors understood the urgency. We are seeing it in the news every day now. Our children are walking out of school to urge us to see climate change as a global emergency and to act boldly. People of all political stripes are wrapping their heads around how climate change will affect them.
The 2018 United Nations International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report underlined the impacts of global warming of 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels and urged strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change. The report makes it clear that in order to avoid truly catastrophic effects from climate change, we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions worldwide by 45% by 2030. This is will be extremely challenging, but it will be easier if we start immediately. Following the IPCC report, the National Climate Assessment detailed the multiple ways climate change is already affecting and will increasingly affect the lives of Americans in each area of the US.
So we are getting the message loud and clear. Act now.
Second, a “Sustainability Committee” was already in the works, proposed by the Town Manager over a year ago, with the help of the Sustainability Coordinator. The Selectboard chose to let the new Council take action on this, rather than authorizing it themselves during the transition after the Charter vote. So it was teed up for early action by the Council.
Third, the Council needed an act of unity. In December, after coming off some bruising Council campaigns, we had the prospect of a very divided Council—between those Councilors endorsed by Amherst Forward and those who identified as being “independent”. However, there was a strong majority of Councilors who support sustainability and climate action. Two councilors on each “side” had been endorsed by the Mass. chapter of the Sierra Club. Two Councilors, including the new Council President, had been very involved in the creation of the Zero Energy Municipal Building Bylaw. Agreeing on the creation of a new Energy and Climate Action Committee appeared to be an action the new Council could take that would show unity and start us off on a positive note.
As it turned out, we weren’t as unified as we had hoped to be. We did have an almost unanimous (one abstaining) vote to create the committee, but it then took a lot of work to develop a “charge” for the committee that could win sufficient votes.
Since the first discussion of the committee on January 7, there has been some pushback
about the creation and mission of the Energy and Climate Action Committee. Some have asked: Why should the town be concerned with national or global issues? What is the cost to the taxpayers of taking action on climate? Why aren’t we focusing on our traditional concerns about downtown development, schools and other capital projects, and roads?
Hear more about this in the next part of this series: How is the transition away from the fossil fuel economy an opportunity for Amherst, as well as a means of contributing to solving the climate crisis?