Article by Jeremy Sigmon, Director, Technical Policy, U.S. Green Building Council for Community Science Forum: Changing Environmental Governance Landscape
2017 has been quite a year. The 2016 election illuminated an electorate yearning for change and new leadership in Washington... but what, specifically, did the majority want, and how can we achieve it?
According to research and polling on environmental issues, most Americans really do want clean air and water, and are concerned about a changing climate. According to a 2017 Gallup poll, concerns about water pollution are at a 15 year high. In 2016, Yale University researchers found that a large majority of Americans support regulating CO2 as a pollutant (and lots of other interesting stuff). A 2015 poll conducted on behalf of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) uncovered that 79 percent of Republicans and 89 percent of Democrats support the use of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) in buildings.
So what's standing in our way? Some might argue, "Politics!" We know that the 115th Congress and the 45th President have set some priorities for 2017 and, generally, have found relatively little capacity to deliver. Of course, the potential for backsliding on energy, environment and public health policy looms large, and some steps backward have been initiated. However, this also has emboldened advocacy groups, private citizens, subnational governments, and businesses, too.
Environmental advocates should indeed remain vigilant against these very real threats, and also recognize that there are many paths to progress. The good, no, great news is that green buildings can address so many of today's environmental, energy, infrastructure, development, community, and equity issues... and green building is good for business! (See benefits of green building and the business case from USGBC).
When businesses are motivated to harness the money-making power of going green and sustainability standards are maintained and strengthened, we can leverage the market force of competitive differentiation to drive deeper sustainability investments to establish leadership. The result is a market transformed. This evolved state of expectations then creates space for public policy. This is, in a nutshell, the theory of change of USGBC, where I have proudly hung my hat for the last ten years.
In Reinventing Fire, founder and chief scientist of Rocky Mountain Institute Amory Lovins' newest manifesto on a bold new energy economy, Lovins points out that climate protection is "not costly but profitable---a very convenient truth." We must remind ourselves that these business motivations are a very powerful force that, if working in concert with public policy, can be catalytic.
Complementing the free-market force of business driving towards sustainability is the role of subnational policies and programs. In a federalist system like the U.S., states have an enormous amount of power, and there's a lot of good news. Just this year, New Mexico continues its nation-leading green building incentive program, Rhode Island has established a new leadership initiative for sustainable public landscapes, and more than half the states are working to advance green schools!
Cities may be even more important. 2008 was the first year in human history where the majority of global citizens lived in cities, says The Economist. That doesn't change how the Electoral College works, but it does set the table for cities to lead. More than 1,000 U.S. mayors have signed the Climate Protection Agreement and mayors from across the world were essential in making the Paris climate agreement a success. Again this year, mayors and several U.S. governors traveled to Bonn, Germany to push the UN climate talks forward.
After more than ten years in environmental policy and advocacy, I've learned that there are many paths to progress---and it's urgent that we pursue them. As 20th century author, altruist, and acclaimed medical researcher Jonas Salk said, "Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors," and there's no time to waste.
So, if we want to move swiftly towards cleaner air and water, healthy and equitable cities, and a growing and sustainable economy, we need to spend time pursuing progress on all fronts. Let's remain vigilant on the federal front, advocate for sustainability in state and local policy, celebrate green business leadership, buy what you believe in, and cultivate citizen science. National elections and national policy will be influenced by evolved expectations that we can set through these many areas of work... so let's get going!
Photo Green Building Interior: Located in Emeryville, CA, Cliff Bar's LEED Platinum certified headquarters has a low impact on the environment while offering a desirable place to work and conduct business. (c) Cliff Bar & Company Photo courtesy of USGBC.