According to the majority of climate modeling studies, the Intermountain West is anticipated to feel the impacts of climate change more acutely than the rest of the nation. These effects range from an increase in the frequency and severity of drought episodes, a rise in catastrophic wildfires, more severe weather events, and the potential loss of iconic species of the West, like Saguaro cactus and Joshua trees.

So, how are western city and town planners planning to cope with these impacts and challenges? Western Lands and Communities talked with nearly 50 government staff and city officials recently from seven states, including Arizona. They told us they are encouraging efforts to deal with climate change impacts – things like managing water supplies, reducing energy consumption, building more efficient transportation systems and protecting open space. But instead of referring to climate change, a politically controversial topic, they are acting in the name of “sustainability” or “economic efficiency.”

You can download the study by clicking here Local Land Use Planning and Climate Change Policy. The focus groups and phone interviews asked planners in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming how they are addressing climate change in local land use decisions.

The research revealed a wide range of local responses to addressing climate change in the Intermountain West, with few communities tackling climate change head on. Even so, nearly every person we spoke with agreed that local governments should have a role in addressing climate change.

Western planners and officials said a significant number of their local residents remain unconvinced that climate change is real or human-caused. They said that residents perceive the issue as global and remote, characterized by melting polar ice caps and rising sea levels. In addition, Westerners may think their own cities and towns cannot make a difference in reducing climate change given the enormity of the problem.

The research also noted the following:

  • Only a few communities are actively pursuing climate change policies, and they generally have liberal populations or are influenced by local universities.
  • Those communities where natural resource extraction, such as coal or natural gas, drives the local economy are less likely to confront global warming.
  • The vast majority of policies cited by participants as addressing climate change focused on mitigating, or reducing, its impacts through energy efficiency, expanded transit, urban forestry and water conservation.
  • Particularly in smaller cities and towns, there isn’t enough staff to research and implement climate change-related policies.

Based on these findings, Western Lands and Communities recommends that local officials highlight the “co-benefits” of taking policy actions independent of climate change. Increasing the livability, energy efficiency, and economic diversity of a community greatly benefits overall prosperity, promotes cost savings, and leads to a higher quality of life. Planners should emphasize the economic benefits of a particular policy to offset local concerns about costs. The most valuable tool for local planners and elected officials in learning how to successfully implement these policies would be case studies from communities of similar size and location that have effective policies addressing climate change already in place.

This is the first report issued by Western Lands and Communities, the new name for a longstanding joint venture of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and Sonoran Institute.