The Oregon coast has always been rugged. It is lined with sturdy Douglas firs and precipitous rock formations that, when pummeled by the Pacific waves, produce an oceanic cacophony. It has always been the kind of hostile place that reminds humans of their smallness.
But with rising sea levels, coastal conditions have become unusually more hostile, and communities unusually more threatened. In some areas where seawalls have eroded to the point of collapse, residents fear for the safety of their homes while local governments grapple with orchestrating a coordinated response.
The ocean’s rise is only one of the climate issues Oregon faces. In the south, wildfires rage so intensely that they’re capable of changing wind patterns and creating fire vortexes. In the Willamette Valley, where 70% of the state’s people live, drought and water shortages have crippled farmers’ crop yields. And in the Columbia and Snake Rivers, climate-related warming has increased water temperatures and caused large numbers of salmon – about 250,000 in 2015 alone – to die from heat stress without spawning. Mount Hood has been drier than ever. Portland’s record-breaking 116 degree heat overwhelmed emergency rooms this past summer and jeopardized the many households that couldn’t afford air conditioning.,
I spent most of my summer in my hometown, Lake Oswego, a suburb of 39,000 just south of Portland. While not on the front lines of Oregon’s climate crisis — it hasn’t been pummeled by waves or scorched by wildfire — Lake Oswego is not immune to the effects. During the time when I researched and wrote this piece, for example, my town’s temperature climbed to 113 degrees. Thousands of suburbs across the country are like Lake Oswego, suffering climate change slowly — and addressing the issue at an even slower pace.
As the climate crisis becomes increasingly more personal, for a small city like Lake Oswego, the question arises: Given the lack of federal leadership, who has the authority and the resources to address these vast, life-altering issues?
The answer is not so straightforward. In Oregon, the legislators who submit proposals at the state capital in Salem are merely a segment of a much larger network which has developed organically among local governments, grassroots community organizations, and regional nonprofits. Notably, while leaders have emerged within the network, there is no singular director of local or statewide initiatives. This “headless” phenomenon is double-edged: On the one hand, it leaves room for members of this loosely connected sustainability network to put forward solutions targeting even the smallest communities, but on the other, their impact is sharply limited without the ability to tap into federal and state resources or shape policy in Salem or Washington.
Going It Alone
Jenny Slepian, who stepped down in July after six years as Lake Oswego’s sustainability analyst, became familiar with the agonizingly sluggish pace of climate action in a small city. While its community response to the climate crisis has been effective, Lake Oswego lacks the power and internal capacity to set substantial, long-term climate policy.
Slepian explained how these issues took form in her office. As a “one-person sustainability department”, she was responsible for overseeing the city’s renewable energy investment, electric vehicle infrastructure, solid waste management (including trash, recycling, and compost), and for the development of the city’s Climate Action Plan. She also served as its representative on the Solid Waste Advisory Committee of Metro, a regional authority that helps govern Portland and 23 nearby cities.
Slepian championed several initiatives, including banning plastic shopping bags and purchasing wind energy from Portland Gas and Electric. But those efforts became a “political hot potato”, she said, because partisanship was frustratingly endemic in the town’s climate conversation. In response, Slepian adopted strategies to anticipate and neutralize opposition. When she proposed buying wind power, she said, she had to frame it in economic terms as an investment in renewable energy infrastructure in the Pacific Northwest, as opposed to a measure to prevent further climate damage. When she pushed for the ban on plastic bags, she “got ahead” by organizing a community forum with representatives from the Northwest Grocery Association, the Surfrider Foundation, and a local recycling facility. She also collected sponsorships from local businesses to give away 14,000 reusable bags.
As a one-person office, Slepian was compelled to rely on her relationships with the Clackamas County sustainability employees, who were responsible for specific policy areas like business relations, waste management, or multifamily residential units. Serving as the lone employee in Lake Oswego—which required developing, presenting, and then defending policy—became “really hard”, Slepian said, acknowledging the substantial demands on her.
Other Oregon cities have found themselves similarly reliant on a single sustainability employee – that is if they have the budget for such a person. Some cities don’t have anyone specifically responsible for their sustainability effort. This is why it has become essential for town officials like Slepian to have a large hub of expertise to call upon for support. For each new hire or intern, however, building those relationships can take vital time away from implementing solutions.
The bottom line is that the lack of capacity and resources limits what local governments can do, especially in smaller municipalities. It’s part of the reason why, when another ostensibly promising plan for emissions reduction or climate resilience is announced, especially one that depends on local implementation, its success – without sufficient resources from within and beyond the community – is in doubt.
Lake Oswego Sustainability Network
While environmental staff like Slepian push for climate response within local government, a host of community-based organizations push from the outside. The Lake Oswego Sustainability Network (LOSN) is one of them. It is a small group, defined as a “citizen organization” of community members and sustainability experts who have remained steadfast advocates for their town’s climate response and resiliency.
LOSN is composed of 10 “action teams”: Economic Vitality, Education, Energy, Emergency Preparedness, Water, Climate Change, Faith-based, Community Solar, Transportation, and Food. Some team members are retirees, others former consultants. One is a local pastor. Each team has identified its own goals, action steps, and partners.
What makes the organization most valuable is its acute awareness of its place within the community and the broader Portland metro area. In partnership with Clackamas County, for example, the LOSN Economic Vitality team has implemented a “Leaders in Sustainability” certification system allowing businesses to proclaim (through plaques and window decals) their commitment to sustainable practices. One LOSN member, Jan Castle, created an offshoot organization, PrepLO, which has partnered with Lake Oswego Neighborhood Associations to help the community prepare for climate-related emergencies like extreme heat and wildfire smoke.
In Lake Oswego, like many small cities, rapid turnover on city councils has impeded long-lasting change. And so groups such as LOSN provide an essential resource for the government and community members alike.
Oregon Environmental Council
While people like Slepian and the leaders of LOSN work at the local level, other actors are seeking to implement and adjust climate policy across the state.
Long established as a leading environmental advocate, the Oregon Environmental Council (OEC) is a key member of the state’s climate change response network. By championing initiatives that can be implemented in communities across the state, the five-decade-old nonprofit group has been carefully influencing climate policy with a goal of long-term sustainability.
In recent years, OEC has been pushing back against the Oregon Trucking Association and AAA, which advocates for car owners, as they have lobbied for more spending on roads. The OEC supports a more sustainable plan: more state spending on bike lanes, sidewalks, and buses. For Lake Oswego and other suburbs of Portland, these transportation initiatives can help dramatically reduce emissions by promoting alternatives to car-driving on a large scale.
Securing funding for these projects, though, requires more than just promotion of sustainable infrastructure — it requires reform of existing funding rules. Under current regulations, funds collected from the state’s gasoline tax and vehicle registrations may only be spent on such roadway improvements as paving and expansion. OEC is seeking to abolish this restriction. In doing so, it’s compelling the state’s Department of Transportation and the Legislature to shift focus from the state’s bridges and highways to transportation initiatives focused on people’s health and safety and “equitable access to the places they need and want to go”.
This isn’t the only area where OEC is aiming to change the policy landscape. Coastal localities are faced with crumbling seawalls and increasing incidents of flooding. OEC, partnering with similar environmental organizations, has backed local governments’ efforts to implement a sustainable solution: “natural infrastructure”, creating wetlands or other natural landscapes to protect communities., Such projects can serve as a durable buffer against the pounding waves and function as a water filtration system and a method of capturing carbon dioxide (CO2). Natural infrastructure is also much less expensive than traditional construction for such purposes, such as rebuilding and maintaining concrete seawalls.
Again, the bureaucratic funding process has limited the reach of this concept. Numerous municipalities, including Lake Oswego, have expressed interest in constructing natural infrastructure, but only a few —namely Arch Cape, Astoria, and Rhododendron – have received state funding for their projects. Because there isn’t a program to pay for such projects, these towns have had to ask the Legislature to include special line items for their plans in one of the annual state budget bills – a time-consuming process that puts potential funding at the mercy of largely unrelated and often politicized legislation.
A separate fund specific to natural infrastructure and other sustainability projects, though, could remove such political uncertainty while still allowing for project review. This is what OEC advocates: creation of a dedicated pot of money in the state budget that cities could tap for climate fortification, water purification, or air purification.
Some Oregon communities have experienced more severe consequences of climate change than others. While towns in the south have been scorched by wildfire, for example, places like Lake Oswego have experienced milder effects like poor air quality from the smoke of those distant fires. Still, every community in the state is coming to terms with the challenges of adaptation. If the state government changes the way it helps localities pay for their mitigation efforts, widespread change is likely to happen faster.
Like the OEC, Sustainable Northwest has been working to reinvent the very mechanisms that create policy, but with a twist. The Portland-based organization, founded in 1994, has become essential to the process of relaying small-town climate concerns from across the Pacific Northwest to state and federal governments; it’s basically a translator for rural communities.
What makes Sustainability Northwest successful, according to its Director of Government Affairs and Program Strategy, Dylan Kruse, is its longtime focus on strengthening local mechanisms to respond to climate change. In 1996, it created the model of the forestry collaborative, a coalition of stakeholders from the forestry industry, county governments, environmental groups, and the public that identifies opportunities for consensus on forest management and land protection. Not only has Sustainability Northwest incubated several collaboratives, Kruse said, but it has strengthened their “capacities on the ground” by helping them obtain nonprofit status, secure state and federal grants, and partner with other organizations.
Now that these collaboratives have become powerful environmental advocates, Sustainability Northwest is shifting its focus to federal climate legislation. Kruse is working with staff in the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, for example, on a bill to help alleviate delays in implementing advancements in forest management and water conservation. He’s also lobbying Congress to create a dedicated federal tax to pay for forest management. As is the case with those advocating for dedicated funding for natural infrastructure, Kruse labels the current process of one-time appropriations for the forests as an unpredictable “drop in the bucket”.
So far, there has been no action on these proposals in a nearly evenly divided Congress, where President Biden’s first round of proposals for combating climate change are facing stiff opposition.
The worsening climate crisis demands that we distinguish between policies that are truly effective and those that are not. These organizations are dedicated to developing strategies for enacting effective climate policy: OEC has been reforming existing policy, Sustainability Northwest has been crafting entirely new policy, and LOSN has been raising awareness about the local impact of both kinds of policy. At the very local level, however, as in Lake Oswego, community officials may still have limited ability to take action.
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