Acting Locally in the Absence of Higher Leadership

July 24, 2019

Why This Matters is a series from Roosevelt staff connecting our individual work—from papers to reports and everything in between—to our broader vision of creating a better, more equitable economic and political system. This series will give readers the top takeaways from our latest writing and thinking, with a focus on why they matter as we redefine the rules that guide our social and economic realities.

The climate crisis is happening now. Across the planet, our oceans are warming, our weather is more extreme, and natural disasters are more frequent and more severe. And it’s only going to get worse: The UN predicts that by 2040, increased coastal flooding will affect nearly 50 million people, and a “disproportionately rapid evacuation” of people from the tropics and uninhabitable geographies will render some of the world’s borders irrelevant. Efforts to resettle our first climate refugees here in the US have already begun.

This is no time to despair; it’s time to act—and no one understands this better than the young people fighting for their futures. They’re leading the charge, backed by scientistspolicymakers, and activists, who have worked for years to build a different pathway forward for our planet. And progressive strongholds in states like MinnesotaCalifornia, and New York have made tremendous strides recently.

At the national and global levels, however, key leaders are still falling short and leaving this generation of young people with the ever-present fear of irreparable disaster. The Trump administration denies that climate change is real; the new Brazillian government led by Jair Bolsonaro has threatened to join the US in withdrawing from the Paris AccordCorporations and billionaires, some of the leading perpetrators of climate change, have largely gone unchecked and unregulated.

Despite the grim political reality created by those with the most power who are doing the least to create solutions, young people are fighting back and winning—by starting locally and pushing local institutions to do their part. In his paper “Achieving Campus Sustainability at Northeastern University Through Carbon Pricing,” Roosevelt Network Emerging Fellow Karl Meakin lays out a pathway for Northwestern to employ carbon pricing and reduce campus emissions by 80 percent by 2050. This is a vital contribution to the ongoing debate about carbon pricing’s possible role in a carbon-neutral future, as well as a notable plan to protect the environment and economy both locally and at large. Carbon pricing helps decision-makers understand the true costs of our actions (and inaction); as Karl’s paper explores, such decisions at the university include compliance with building standards, offsets to travel, and possible investment in an electric vehicle fleet.

The paper should remind us all of the fundamental role that local institutions can play in addressing our collective challenges, including combating the climate crisis. While fully and rapidly decarbonizing the economy will take bold action by governments at all levels, local action can help pave an even stronger path forward. By changing who writes the rules, and acting locally in the absence of higher leadership, young people like Karl are reclaiming the power to define their own futures and rewrite the future of our planet.