When President Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement, backpedaling on a commitment to join 195 other nations in taking on climate change, Santa Clara County launched a campaign to rebuild that commitment—one local government at a time.
Since summer of 2017, the County Climate Coalition, led by Santa Clara Supervisor Dave Cortese, has lobbied county governments across the nation to adopt the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius.
Supported by a unanimous vote of the county’s Board of Supervisors, Cortese’s office recruited 10 other counties to the coalition in 2017 and early 2018. These original members include jurisdictions in Utah, Colorado, Maryland and New Jersey, and five California counties: San Mateo, Santa Barbara, Alameda, Marin, and Contra Costa. In recent months, five new counties in three additional states have also signed on.
By signing on, county governments would pledge to implement comprehensive sustainability plans in line with the Paris target. These jurisdictions employ hundreds if not thousands of workers and often control major public systems such as transportation, sanitation and health care. “This is not a political action,” Cortese wrote in his initial appeal to counties. “It doesn’t matter what party you belong to or who you voted for in the last election. Climate change affects all of us.”
Santa Clara County has experience with this kind of coalition-building.
Seven years ago, the county brought together 41 cities and counties to oppose Arizona’s controversial law SB 1070, which required police to routinely solicit immigration documents and detain anyone who could not present them. Though the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately upheld the Arizona law, the effort demonstrated Santa Clara County’s power to unite local governments in taking action, Cortese said.
“[We realized] we can put these coalitions together,” he said, “and frankly, we need to, because there’s only a couple of counties that are as big as us, and that are as focused as us on these issues.”
Santa Clara County has nearly 2 million residents, similar to the state of Nebraska.
Still, Cortese is the first to admit that the climate campaign so far has been less successful than he hoped. The original 11 signatures were a start, he said, but they weren’t nearly enough. “Climate change is much more urgent than ‘let’s see if we can build this coalition over three or four years,’” he said. “It needs to be done now.”
Early last year, Cortese reached out to the Climate Reality Project, an advocacy foundation led by former Vice President Al Gore. At the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco in September 2018, Climate Reality announced an official partnership with the County Climate Coalition. The partnership includes a $170,000 grant from the county to help expand the coalition.
Climate Reality’s model is to train and organize individuals who care about climate change, said Kathleen Collins, the nonprofit’s campaign strategist. The organization has more than 80 chapters nationwide, and has trained 17,000 “Climate Reality Leaders.”
Since the launch of the partnership, the coalition has gained five new members including Humboldt County in California and jurisdictions in Arizona, New Mexico, New Jersey and Michigan. Climate Reality chapters are targeting an additional 35 counties, and have more than 20 pending meetings with county officials, Collins said.
“Each success in one county shows another that they can do it, too,” Collins said. “It sounds simple, but it’s true that success creates success.”
The ultimate goal is to recruit five new California counties and 25 nationwide by the end of the year, the partnership’s agreement states. In addition to the Paris goals, these new counties would also pledge to switch to 100 percent renewable power.
The County Climate Coalition is not the first effort to unite non-federal governments in fighting climate change. At the state level, the U.S. Governor’s Association has facilitated joint climate action for decades, and Michael Bloomberg’s American Cities Initiative recently provided a similar forum for cities. Before the county’s campaign, however, there was no comparable organization for counties.
“[Counties] are a layer that policy-makers sometimes forget about,” said Susan Gilbert-Miller, the county’s sustainability director. However, she said, they play a vital role in creating policies and initiatives around large, region-wide issues—issues like sustainability. “Counties are influencers and coordinators,” she said. “They bring cities together to work collaboratively.”
Gilbert-Miller is currently designing a “Sustainability Master Plan” that will guide the adoption of environmentally-sound practices across the county. Earlier in her tenure, she led an initiative to expand infrastructure for electric vehicles, and helped to make 100 percent renewable power available to local cities. These and other projects are a response to the county’s 11 environmental stewardship goals, which were adopted in 2009 and include a 50 percent reduction in energy use and a plan to fully recycle wastewater.
If local efforts like these can be made widespread, Cortese said, the effect on the planet will be real. “[Cities and counties] are a fourth branch of government,” he said. “Our level of government, if you knit it together coast-to-coast, is the United States of America.”
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect new information about the number of jurisdictions who are participating in the coalition. Since October 2018, five more counties have signed on to be part of the effort. This story originally appeared on Peninsula Press, a project of the Stanford University Journalism Program.