Not Cool Ep 8: Suzanne Jones on climate policy and government responsibility

On the eighth episode of Not Cool, Ariel tackles the topic of climate policy from the local level up through the federal. She’s joined by Suzanne Jones: public policy veteran, climate activist, and current mayor of Boulder, Colorado. Suzanne explains the climate threats facing communities like Boulder, the measures local governments can take to combat the crisis, and the ways she’d like to see the federal government step up. She also discusses the economic value of going green, the importance of promoting equity in climate solutions, and more.

Topics discussed include:

  • Roles for local/state/federal governments
  • Surprise costs of climate change
  • Equality/equity in climate solutions
  • Increasing community engagement
  • Nonattainment zones
  • Electrification of transportation sector
  • Municipalization of electric utility
  • Challenges, roadblocks, and what she’d like to see accomplished
  • Affordable, sustainable development
  • What individuals should be doing
  • Carbon farming and sustainable agriculture

References discussed include:

I think everybody at some level cares deeply about the future and recognizes climate change as a real threat to the future that they want. So how do you engage them in that question in a way that’s meaningful for where they are in their life stage or for where they are in terms of their immediate needs? But I think everybody does care. 

~ Suzanne Jones

Ariel Conn: Hi everyone and welcome to episode of 8 of Not Cool: A climate podcast. Today, as members of the United Nations Climate Action Summit continue their discussions regarding international efforts to address climate change, we’ll be talking about what needs to be done at the local level. We’re joined by the Mayor of Boulder Colorado, Suzanne Jones, who will be talking about some of the policies that local communities can adopt, why municipalities will need help from the federal government, and what individuals can do to help.

Suzanne has over 29 years of public policy experience at the local, state, and federal level. She was elected to the Boulder City Council in November 2011, and currently serves as Boulder’s mayor. Her day job is serving as executive director of Eco-Cycle, a 43-year old community nonprofit dedicated to promoting and implementing recycling, composting and other zero waste efforts across Boulder County, as well as promoting Zero Waste solutions as a means to address climate change. 

Suzanne, thank you so much for joining.

Suzanne Jones: My pleasure.

Ariel Conn: So first, is Boulder one of the cities that’s trying to stick with the Paris Climate Agreement?

Suzanne Jones: Boulder is very, very committed to climate action and doing our part. We are joined by lots of other cities, which is heartening — both around the world, but in the United States. That said, we think of ourselves as leaders and we are constantly looking at ways to do more.

Ariel Conn: Since the U.S. is pulling out of the agreement, what do you think is most important for local communities to be doing to try to counter that?

Suzanne Jones: I was very heartened that when President Trump announced he was going to pull the United States out of the Paris Climate Accords, cities, counties, states across the United States stepped up and said, “Well, we’re still in.” That was a hashtag, right? And that, I think, is keeping the United States at the table. And I think it’s absolutely essential that local communities step up to the plate where our national leadership has totally abdicated their responsibility for what I think is an existential threat. And I think most leaders around the globe recognize climate as a crisis that we need to address immediately. So, it’s very important what we’re doing at the local and state level, and Boulder’s proud to be among those who are working hard on this issue.

Ariel Conn: So do you think that if enough local communities come together within the U.S., we can still at least meet the Paris climate agreement even if the federal government isn’t onboard?

Suzanne Jones: I have two answers to that. One is: it’s absolutely essential that cities, and states, counties step up to the plate. Because if we don’t, the United States will be left behind, and we are a major generator of global emissions. So it’s essential that we are doing our part. However, we will not be able to do all that we need to do as a country and as a world if we don’t get federal leadership on climate soon. So yes to local governments, but we’re not letting the federal government off the hook. We need a new leader; We need a better congress. Because we absolutely need to take measures such as putting a price on carbon if we are going to avoid the worst impacts that our scientists are predicting are just down the road.

Ariel Conn: I’m curious what some of the biggest climate change threats are that are facing Boulder itself or the Front Range as a whole.

Suzanne Jones: Boulder, the Front Range, and Colorado as a whole are already very much experiencing impacts from climate change that scientists have predicted. And those range from increased temperatures, which lead to greater risk of drought; We have a much longer wildfire season and more intense wildfires — you may note that in the last 20 years, Boulder County has experienced four major wildfires, each one record breaking in terms of the amount of expense and loss.

We will also see more extreme weather events, and it already feels like that’s happening. Our 2013 floods were the result of it rained for five days; it just poured. That never happens. A jet stream stalled over our community, and we had roads wash out, bridges wash out. Our stormwater system backed up. Major damage. It cost millions of dollars. So those types of events are happening, and we know that climate change is adding to the increased frequency as well as the intensity of these events.

And then we have slower, more subtle things like we’re having reduced snow pack. It doesn’t feel like it this year, but the trend is not good. We’re getting more of our precipitation as rain instead of snow, which means it melts quicker and there’s less of it. And that’s our drinking water to get us through all year. And it’s the same water that all the ranchers and farmers depend on to get them through the long summer. So those sorts of changes are already happening. 

And then with that are infrastructure changes — like just the increased temperature changes how often you have to maintain pavement, which is a huge cost to local governments. And then every time you have a flooding event, inevitably, you’ve got to do road repair, bridge repair, and that sort of thing. And I’ll just note that the most vulnerable people amongst us, most vulnerable populations, whether they are low income or seniors, or often communities of color, are the least prepared to deal with these impacts. So there’s also this whole equity piece to the climate impacts that we are already seeing.

Ariel Conn: The point about the pavement was interesting. That’s not something I’ve thought about. That’s not something I’d heard, that temperatures are going to mean that we have to pay to repave the roads more often. I don’t know either since you’ve been mayor or just in general, have there been other things like that that have surprised you about the costs of climate change that aren’t the obvious ones that we always hear about?

Suzanne Jones: Well, there are a whole array. Another thing that doesn’t affect us as directly but I was surprised to hear about is, for example, in hotter temperatures, it’s harder for planes to take off from airports. So you need longer runways. So you may know that in cities like Phoenix, they have more canceled flights when they have prolonged weather extremes. Things like that, that you wouldn’t think of that are very disruptive that have to do with the changing climate.

There’s also other insidious things, like ecologically, we are starting to disrupt things. You may know that we had a bark beetle epidemic across Colorado, killed a lot of trees. That’s a natural phenomenon, but the increased temperatures meant it was more far reaching, and it lasted longer, and it killed more trees because the bugs could mate twice in a year, and they didn’t die off in the cold winters. Things like that. Our pollinators who are already stressed are even more stressed with these temperatures, which affects how well things grow. And it goes on and on. So there’s a lot of different costs that we’re only beginning to understand.

But these costs are one of the reasons why Boulder joined with Boulder County and San Miguel County to bring a lawsuit against Exxon and other major fossil fuel companies that have headquarters or facilities here in Colorado to say, “Hey, we’re seeing increased costs from the use of your product, and we want you to help us pay for the impacts.”

Ariel Conn: Is that new? How far along is that?

Suzanne Jones: That lawsuit was filed a year, year and a half ago. And it’s slowly making its way through the court system. Other cities have filed mostly on coasts, because of the impacts of sea level rise, which are very dramatic and very costly. We were one of the first communities inland to look at this other suite of costs, like costs of dealing with pavement repairs, which adds up. I would add that I think most municipalities cannot afford the impacts that the climate scientists are predicting for us down the road.

Ariel Conn: Okay. That seems important.

Suzanne Jones: Yes.

Ariel Conn: How far down the road is this, or we’re already starting to see costs. Are we starting to see already that municipalities are struggling to pay for these costs? How far into the future or how soon do you think this will become an even bigger challenge?

Suzanne Jones: I think it’s already started, and we will see municipalities and counties, states increasingly struggling to keep up with the impacts. And you think about the hurricanes that devastated Houston, New York City, New Orleans over the last five to 10 years. And recovering from them has cost millions, even billions of dollars. So as the pace of extreme weather events and these longer term chronic pressures like just temperature increase, it’s going to become more of an issue.

We’ve always had extreme weather events, but not of the intensity and frequency that we’re going to see them. And it’s going to be very disruptive to things like water rights, water quantity. Boulder happens to have very good water rights. So we are better set up than most communities as we look at what that means for a drying west. But there’s a lot of communities that are going to struggle just to meet water demands, for example.

Ariel Conn: So I think this ties back to this question of equity. And I’ve been looking at this from a more global perspective where we’re hearing about third world countries and developing countries that are going to be struggling the most. But when we’re looking at even just something like the city of Boulder, or Boulder County, or sections within Colorado, how does equality and equity play a role? How can we ensure that the poorest communities are getting the support they need?

Suzanne Jones: Well, let’s look at a couple scales. Globally, it is very clear that the industrialized nations — the United States at the front of the pack — have created the emissions that have led to climate change through the industrial revolution. Basically, we’ve gotten rich and had a much higher quality of life as a country from burning fossil fuels. And now other countries, especially the poorer countries, are bearing a lot of the brunt of those impacts.

Think of Africa, which tends to have some of the poorer countries: They’re going to have massive droughts, displacement of people from their communities as farming dries up. They’re going to have a huge refugee issues. Think about global island communities. Sea level rise is going to inundate and do away with whole cultures. They didn’t create the climate crisis, but they’re going to bear the brunt. So there’s a huge international equity issue, and I think the Paris Accords was the first time where the developed nations agreed to step up to the plate and start paying to help the poorer countries begin to adapt. So that’s at the global scale.

But more locally, I think it’s incumbent upon Boulder as a municipality to make sure that we are taking care of low income people in our population generally, such that they are better able to deal with the added costs and stresses of climate change. So everything from, let’s raise our minimum wage so people are making a livable wage, so that if they experience flood damage they can pay for it. Things that basic: making sure that we have a robust, resilient emergency setup so that seniors living alone, somebody is checking in on them when the temperatures go up. Everything from that to making sure that everyone is a part of the climate solution.

For instance, we have a low income solar program to help put solar panels on low income roofs, because maybe they’re less able to participate in those solutions. But everybody should be a part of and have access to sustainability solutions for the future. We’re looking at it from both angles and trying to do better, and use equity as the lens through which we view all of our climate actions.

Ariel Conn: The solar panels are an interesting example, because that’s a question that I’ve had in the past. It does seem that it’s much easier to put solar panels on your house, switch to an electric vehicle, if you have the income to do it. But there’s a lot of people who can’t afford to do that. So I guess this is one of the ways to address that.

Suzanne Jones: Right, and we also have a very robust affordable housing program, and also a sustainable transportation program. A lot of people that work in Boulder commute in, and we are looking at both of those issues — housing and transportation — with other municipalities in Boulder County, so that we come up with regional solutions, so that affordable housing and transit, biking, walkable communities are accessible to everyone. More equitable solutions that actually meet our larger goals as a community as well.

Another important element to the equity issue is making sure that folks that have typically not been at the table are there to be a part of crafting the solutions that work best for their communities. So that’s another big emphasis of Boulder’s, is how do we involve low income folks, people of color, maybe recent immigrants, youth, seniors? The folks that don’t generally show up at a Tuesday night city council meeting: How do we make sure their input, their suggestions, and their leadership are incorporated into the plans and the solutions that we embrace. So we’re really focused on that as well.

Ariel Conn: How do we get people more involved, and how much should people have a responsibility for trying to make sure that they can attend meetings? And how much is it the city’s responsibility to make sure it is more accessible to people?

Suzanne Jones: Everybody should feel responsibility. I think it is both responsibility of local government to engage people, And of course on the other end, people need to take it upon themselves to get engaged. But if you don’t think local government serves you, or doesn’t share what you think, you are less likely to be engaged. So I think it’s incumbent upon us as leaders to reach out to folks that, maybe they have two jobs, they don’t have time to come to a meeting. Or maybe they’re at home feeding the kids, taking care of a senior or whatever. So they can’t come to meetings.

So we are doing everything from of course using electronic means and encouraging people to email us using all forms of social media. We’re also going to where they are. So let’s go hold a public meeting in the trailer park. That way it’s really easy for people to walk outside and go give their input. Or using existing nonprofits or service agencies who are already interacting with various populations we don’t hear a lot from, and getting their input — rather than adding it onto their list of to do’s, interacting with them where they’re already at those agencies. They’re at the food bank: Get their opinion while they’re at the food bank. We’re trying to be as creative as possible.

I also think that engaging students at all levels — we have a Growing Up Boulder program where they’re actively involving elementary and middle school students, which is really exciting: everything from how would you design a park so it’s inviting to you. We get great input from kids; They know what they want. But then involving high school students, and we have a University of Colorado here. A third of our population are people under 25, at least. So involving them in much deeper thinking about the future, I think, is essential. And they have ideas, and they have opinions, and that needs to be incorporated.

Ariel Conn: Are you seeing an increase in youth involvement? I mean we’re certainly seeing globally that young people are getting more interested in climate issues.

Suzanne Jones: Well if voter trends be any guide, yes, absolutely. And we have groups like New Era who are actively working to ensure folks are registered to vote, for example. But they’re voting, and I think they really do care. So we’re trying to provide the opportunities, but also we try to make it interesting, right?

I think everybody at some level cares deeply about the future and recognizes climate change as a real threat to the future that they want. So how do you engage them in that question in a way that’s meaningful for where they are in their life stage or for where they are in terms of their immediate needs? But I think everybody does care.

Ariel Conn: So one of the things that surprised me to learn recently is that we have days in Boulder and Denver and along the Front Range where air quality is as bad as it is in Beijing.

Suzanne Jones: Frightening, isn’t it?

Ariel Conn: Yes. So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how that happens and what policies we can try to put in place.

Suzanne Jones: So we have two main factors that are contributing to poor air quality here in our region and in Boulder County. One of them is vehicle emissions. It is the number one source of greenhouse emissions nationally. It’s the second in Colorado. But when automobile exhaust mixes with sunshine, you get ozone. And we are in a nonattainment zone for ozone.

Ariel Conn: What does that mean?

Suzanne Jones: To be a nonattainment, the Environmental Protection Agency set standards nationally based on what’s good for public health. Also aesthetics, visibility: we’re getting our brown cloud back. So we’re not meeting it. And one of the other reasons we’re not meeting it is oil and gas drilling. And you’ll note that Boulder’s just down wind from Weld County, which is one of the most drilled counties in the United states. That produces a lot of emissions. One of them is methane, which is actually what natural gas is mostly made of, is methane. It is a very, very potent greenhouse gas. So it’s bad for climate. It does not last as long in the atmosphere as CO2, but it’s much more potent in the short term. So, that is a big concern. 

But oil and gas also releases things like benzenes, which are toxic carcinogens. And it also releases other volatile organic compounds, VOC’s, that also in the presence of sunlight create ozone. So, it’s cars, and it’s oil and gas drilling that are leading to a lot of our ozone concerns, which you may know, prompt asthma attacks in kids and seniors and is a considerable public health hazard.

In terms of what we can do about it, I am pleased to say that citizen engagement — residents protesting and letting their concerns be known — has paid off. We now have a new governor and a new legislature that took very important action this past session setting climate goals. They also took important action in terms of oil and gas regulations, and giving more local control to communities to put more limits on oil and gas drilling. It also set up some rulemakings for the Air Quality Control Commission to address pollutants that are released in oil and gas drilling. So those are all positive things that happened this past legislative session. Of course, now we need to make sure they’re implemented. And I’ll just note that it was citizen engagement that really fueled that action at the legislature. So, citizens need to keep letting their views be known and we need to have leadership that’s responsive.

Another important area of action from the governor and the legislature was around electric vehicles. The Air Quality Control Commission just adopted a rule around zero emission vehicles, which will greatly enhance the access to different electric vehicle models in our state, and will help with the increase, hopefully, in purchasing electric vehicles. The state administration has also been working to make sure that we have charging stations across the state. So that’s another positive aspect. Moving to electrification of our vehicles system is a big part of the answer for climate change and also air pollution. And of course, we need to make sure that the electricity that those vehicles are using is clean. And that’s also a work in progress.

Ariel Conn: So Boulder has a reputation of being fairly progressive. And I’m sure that even with that, there’s still things that we could be doing, that you would like to be doing, etc., that we haven’t passed yet. So actually maybe before I get to the challenges, are there any other policies that have passed in Boulder that you’re most excited about that you think are really helpful?

Suzanne Jones: There are a whole handful of policies and programs that Boulder has put in place that have become national models, that we’re quite proud of. They range from things like building codes: We have one of the strictest building codes in the country, and we are on an accelerating path to net zero buildings for all new construction for residential before 2030. So that’s exciting. For commercial buildings, which are a little trickier, we also have a building for performance ordinance that we’ve put in place that starts the reporting, and tracking, and monitoring, and improvement process for commercial buildings. And like I said, that’s trickier because a lot of industrial processes use energy differently. So you can’t just have a one size fits all. But that’s very exciting.

We have a SmartRegs ordinance, which applies to all the rental housing in our city, which is half of our housing stock. We worked with all the landlord associations to come up with a plan, and then phase it in over time, over eight years. But it required energy efficiency improvements in order for people to renew their rental licenses. As a consequence, we have buildings now that are being rented that use a lot less energy, and frankly are more comfortable to live in, and ultimately reduce the costs for the renters as well.

We have a Universal Zero Waste Ordinance, which requires recycling, composting, In every residence, every business, and all the institutions like schools and whatnot. And that’s been very important in increasing our waste diversion. Most people don’t realize that our consumption emissions, which comes from producing and using and discarding our stuff and our food, is some 40% of emissions nationally. So getting a handle on those consumption emissions has also been really important. And our Universal Zero Waste Ordinance is a model nationally. We’re one of only a handful of cities that has that.

We also have worked together realizing that, hey, Boulder alone can’t solve these problems. So we, along with Boulder County, established an organization called Colorado Communities for Climate Action, or CC4CA, as it’s known. It now includes over 20 counties and cities across Colorado, together making up I think some 14% of the population, that are now working together at the state legislature to advance policies. And that indeed was an important part of some of the progress we saw this past session.

And then finally, I’ll note that when I first ran for city council, I was really intrigued by the city’s effort to municipalize our electric utility. So that’s what got me to run for office, and that is an effort where Boulder would like to be in charge of its own electric utility rather than be under Xcel. Even though they’re a good company, we are very limited in terms of what we can do, being under that regulatory scheme. 

We are still working through all of the court cases and whatnot to actually take over that system so that it can be owned by the city just as our wastewater utility is, and our storm water utility is, and our drinking water utility is. But that is another effort that I think has really pushed Xcel and the big statewide investor on utilities to get greener, because cities like ours are saying, “Hey, your renewable energy is too small, and we’re too dependent on fossil fuels. So we want to take over and do it better.” So we’re kind of the dog nipping at Xcel’s heels.

That one’s still ongoing. The jury’s still out. It’ll take another vote of the people, once we figure out the ultimate costs, to decide whether or not we go ahead and part ways with Xcel, and do our own utility. But that’s been an exciting process and would lead to us being able to try so many more creative things around energy use, like creating microgrids and whatnot.

Ariel Conn: What are a lot of the benefits of having a city utility system as opposed to the bigger one? You mentioned that you can control more how much renewable energy is involved. What are some of the other benefits?

Suzanne Jones: Well, we’re pursuing municipalization of our electric utility for three basic reasons. One is to decarbonize, the other is to decentralize, and then finally democratize. And that’s a cute way of saying we’d like to have more control over our energy destiny.

Right now, the investor-owned utility is regulated by the public utility commission at the statewide level. So we can’t as a city choose what energy sources we want to use. For example, we’d like to go to renewable energy 100% by 2030. We’re one of those cities that is committed to getting there. As of last year, we had some of the dirtiest electricity in the country. Now since then, Xcel’s committed to greening up faster, which is great. But they are still not on a pathway to 100% by 2030. If we were in charge of our own utility, we could choose where it came from: wind, solar, etc.

The other thing is we could do all these creative things, like rather than being all on one grid we could have microgrids. Right now, if you have a great roof for solar and you can produce extra electricity, you can’t sell it to your neighbor. Well, why not? Why wouldn’t we want everybody to be in the business of producing clean energy? It also means you’d be more resilient if the grid went down. Well, all these microgrids around town would keep performing. So stuff like that that we’d love to pursue, we can’t do.

Also, I’ll just note that if we had our own electric utility, we would invest any additional revenues back in the city. Right now, we send over $30 million of profits to the shareholders of Xcel. So that’s money that exits our city and goes to other people, as opposed to being invested back in our system here. And we could invest in lowering rates, or we could invest in more renewable energy on everybody’s roof, or we could invest in undergrounding of lines. There’s all sorts of things that we could do if we were in charge of those decisions.

And I’ll note that there’s 28 other municipal electric utilities in Colorado. So this isn’t new, it’s just that nobody has done it recently to strike out on their own. But there are plenty of cities that are right around us who own their own electric utilities. And they’re getting to do all sorts of things that represents their community values much faster than we can.

Ariel Conn: And then looking back at some of the challenges that you face, what are some things that you think would be really helpful that we haven’t been able to accomplish yet?

Suzanne Jones: We still have a long way to go. And I would say some of the trickier issues we have to deal with are around transportation and housing. We would love to invest more in our transit system, but we have to work with RTD, our regional transit authority, to do that. Well they are having financial issues, and they have priorities across the Denver metropolitan area that don’t necessarily match with Boulder’s ambitions. So we’re limited in what we can do on that front.

But other things like we would like to do more on bicycling. We have some of the best rates of cycling in the country, and yet it pales in comparison to what they do in Europe. We have a great regional network of trails with underpasses that go onto the roads that is well used and loved by cyclists, but we need more on street protected bike lanes. That’s been tricky here in Boulder because there’s a lot of people that also need to drive. So that tension between in particular commuters and bicyclists is one that we’re still wrestling with.

On the housing front, you probably know that smaller, more closely aligned units — like multifamily housing — is much more efficient from a climate perspective. But like a lot of cities, we have single family zoning with houses with yards, and that’s sort of the character of the neighborhood. So figuring out how we add in more dense housing in a way that fits with the character of the community, and also ambitions about how big the community wants to go, is very tricky.

There’s a lot of agreement in Boulder that if we’re going to develop, we should make it affordable. And not just hope it’s affordable, but deed restricted, permanently affordable housing. That is what we’re focused on. But there is disagreement in our community about how big we want to get as a community. So that’s a tension. Because people like Boulder as it is, and they don’t want more cars and people. And yet we also want to be a diverse and vibrant community that’s more energy efficient, and a transit-using population. And usually that means more density. So, that’s something that we’re working through as a community. But we are making great progress in adding more affordable units, and slowly enhancing our multimodal transportation network. But a lot of folks would like to see us go faster.

Ariel Conn: So again, Boulder’s pretty progressive. When you look at other communities in the country that are more conservative or even more centrist, what tips do you have to leaders in those communities for trying to be more environmentally friendly and go greener?

Suzanne Jones: Well, one big argument is going greener is also often a very smart approach economically, especially over the long term. Climate change is going to hit conservative communities as much as it’s going to hit progressive communities. And most municipalities aren’t going to be able to afford the impacts. So we are all in this together. A lot of the solutions — for example, I mentioned energy efficiency. Well, if you build energy efficient houses or you retrofit them to be more efficient, that’s energy saved that you don’t even have to produce, let alone produce it as green energy. That’s just smart. Energy efficiency is actually a conservative notion, which is don’t waste.

So those are good arguments I think for a conservative community is let’s not waste. That’s inefficient. It’s not cost effective. So let’s not do that. So those types of arguments I think are useful in this country. We subsidize fossil fuel development, even though it’s not a new industry. It doesn’t need subsidies. A lot of the policies end up subsidizing fossil fuels even as we understand that we need to transition off them.

I think it’s also a conservative viewpoint that we should quit subsidizing things that don’t need to be subsidized. And if we are going to subsidize anything, let’s subsidize the new technologies that we want to see more of. So I think doing things like incentivizing people when they buy a car to go ahead and buy an electric car, that is preparing for the future. And it’s also a good way to support new technology, and ultimately save people money, because the fuel for an electric vehicle costs a whole lot less than the fuel for a fossil fuel burning vehicle.

So those are some of the arguments. But mostly I’ll note that we need to make drastic change, and we need to make it soon. The sooner we take action both to mitigate and adapt to climate change, the less it will cost. And all the damage that we see coming down the road is going to be extremely costly. There are all these efficiencies and new technologies, even if climate change didn’t happen, would be good investments. They’re smart investments that pay off over the long-term. But knowing how much climate change is going to cost, it just makes no sense not to act. And I think people, regardless of their political persuasion, are starting to see that.

Ariel Conn: So we recently had the House climate crisis committee meet at CU Boulder, and one of the things that you and the mayor of Fort Collins were asked was do you need help from state and federal level? And it was a very resounding yes from both of you. So I was hoping you could talk a little bit about some of the things that communities like Boulder and any other city or community needs from the state government and the federal government, in order for the smaller, local areas to do what they need to do.

Suzanne Jones: The single most helpful thing that we could get from national leadership is to put a price on carbon pollution. Because if you do that, if you tax it or if you do a cap and dividend program, you will signal to industry, “It costs more to use fossil fuels, so come up with alternatives — and the sooner you do it, the more money you’ll save.” That sends all the signals to the market to get on with things. That will make it easier for governments all over the country to then move forward if they’re not fighting industry. If industry is leading the way, running ahead, trying to figure out ways to adapt to a price on carbon, that would be extremely helpful.

Some states have done it, like California, and they’re big enough in order to have it be meaningful. But to do it state by state or city by city is totally inefficient, and it means it’s cheaper to do business elsewhere, maybe. But if you level the playing field and you tell the market, “Go develop solutions, technologies, products that use less fossil fuels, less carbon,” that will be the engine that drives us forward.

There’s also a whole other suite of things that federal government could do to help communities, and one is invest in infrastructure that is resilient to the effects we’re going to see: more resilient to sea level rise, more resilient to more flooding, more drought resistant. Those sorts of things. That would be extremely helpful because that’s stuff local communities are not going to be able to afford.

And then there’s policies like a zero emission vehicle standard, which would be very helpful and would help all of our residents who are consumers of these new technologies to be a part of the solution faster and more cheaply. So there’s a whole range of things that would be better done at the national level, that we’re doing piecemeal as communities and states in the absence of their leadership.

Ariel Conn: At the other end of the spectrum, what would you like to see more individuals doing that would make your job easier, other local leaders’ jobs easier, or just in general?

Suzanne Jones: Well, there’s two ways that each individual can have a big difference. One is let your money do your talking. Spend your money on things that represent progress towards climate solutions. So wherever you can, reduce, reuse, recycle. Those sorts of choices add up. They drive policies. So don’t spend money on, say, single use disposable plastics. Don’t do that. Tell the industry, “You know what? We’re not interested in paying for those sorts of things.”

But the other way is to be engaged politically. Tell your leaders at the local, state, and national level you want to see action on climate. And then vote. Vote, vote, vote. We are in the current situation we’re at where cities are having to lead because there’s not national leadership because of what’s happened in terms of voting. And of course there’s huge industry pressures. The folks that are making money off of the current status quo have every incentive to lobby officials to prevent progress, and they’re doing that very effectively. So the power of the people needs to come to the fore, and actually get leaders in power. They’re going to stand up and do the right thing. So we want people to practice good individual behavior, and demand action from our leaders at a much larger scale.

Ariel Conn: I really liked that. I think that’s a nice place to end. Is there anything that you think is important that we didn’t get to?

Suzanne Jones: I want to just plant a seed about something that I think is hopeful, because it’s very easy to get depressed when you look at climate projections.

Ariel Conn: It is.

Suzanne Jones: The trends are bad. I will quote René Dubos who said, however, “Trends are not destiny.” So the trends are bad, but we can change the trends. And one of the hopeful solutions that is coming to the fore is carbon farming. And that’s related to restoring soil health by doing things like adding compost, by other agricultural practices like cover crops and no-till — don’t plow it up. And you add compost to soil, and you greatly enrich the nutrients. You feed the little microbes in the soil that support plant growth, and you can supercharge photosynthesis.

Plants take CO2 out of the atmosphere, and they produce oxygen. And if we can supercharge photosynthesis by reinvesting in our soils — because we have depleted soils through mass agriculture, through poor soil management, top soils blowing away, etc., etc. — if we reinvest in our soil health, not only will we grow healthier food, but all that CO2 that the plants suck, a lot of it gets stored in the soils. And it creates this virtual cycle of healthy soils, healthy plants, more photosynthesis. We can really draw down atmosphere carbon using the natural systems of the planet. If we do that, you can really scale it up to a meaningful reversing climate change.

Now that’s going to take a lot of political will. But again, we get to eat healthier, we can support our farmers and our ranchers, and we can start to reverse some of the damage that we’ve done. Even while we reduce emissions and we adapt to the changes already baked into the system, we can start to reverse climate change. So that’s a hopeful solution that I hope people will learn more about and help support.

Ariel Conn: So generally, do you feel hopeful?

Suzanne Jones: Tough question. I have to wake up every morning and take action, and work hard in the belief that we can turn this ship. But the trends are not good. So we really need each and every person to take responsibility for their choices, and also to engage their leaders. Or frankly run for office yourself. I was a climate activist. I ran for office. Now I’m mayor. Get in there, and help be a part of the solution, and demand leadership from your local, state, and national elected officials.

Ariel Conn: Great, thank you so much.

Suzanne Jones: My pleasure.

Ariel Conn: On the next episode of Not Cool, we’ll be joined by Andy Revkin, a climate journalist and author who’s been covering climate change for roughly 30 years. He’ll talk about some of the surprising things he learned in that time, what we can do to address and adapt to climate change, and why communication is so important.

Andy Revkin: “We need to decarbonize our energy systems and our food systems — you know, we need to stop what we’ve been doing unintentionally for 100 years.”

Ariel Conn: Episode 9 of Not Cool, a climate podcast, will go live on September 26. If you’ve been enjoying the show, please take a moment to like it, share it, and leave a good review. And join the discussion on Twitter using #NotCool and #ChangeForClimate.