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Unlikely pioneers: creative climate change policymaking in smaller U.S. cities

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With the U.S. federal government stepping away from climate change, a number of cities have indicated that they will continue their efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Broad statistical analysis and case studies of larger and often progressive cities have provided some insight into what drives local governments to act on climate change mitigation. However, the vast majority of U.S. municipalities, most of them small, do nothing. Understanding what might drive smaller, poorer, and less progressive places is important if local governments are expected to take the lead on this issue of the global commons. In this exploratory study, I examine a group of “unlikely pioneers”—communities that statistical modeling indicates are the least likely to undertake climate change action, but then do act. Using interviews and document reviews in 12 of these communities, I seek to answer the question: what drives these unlikely pioneers to act? I find that local leaders reframe climate change action as a way to save money and attract economic development. Personal environmental ethics drive small town leaders to reduce greenhouse gase emissions. Citizen committees can provide technical resources and political support. Otherwise, and more subtly, citizens can create a political environment that reduces resistance to climate change policymaking. Despite research that indicates fiscal health is correlated to increased sustainability, no communities in this study initiated climate change mitigation from general revenues. All required grants or other revenue to act. In four of the communities, the income from municipally owned utilities provided the fiscal resources for climate change programs.

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This research was supported in part by a 2014 United States Department of Agriculture, Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, Foundational Agricultural Economics and Rural Development grant (no. 2014-68006-21834).

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Correspondence to George C. Homsy.

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Homsy, G.C. Unlikely pioneers: creative climate change policymaking in smaller U.S. cities. J Environ Stud Sci 8, 121–131 (2018).

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