While researching strategies to communicate about climate change, Boise Public Works Director Steve Burgos found that painting a “doom and gloom” portrait is an ineffective method for spurring action. Instead, Burgos prefers “hopeful urgency.”
“Our hope is that people see the opportunity in what’s coming,” he told the Idaho Press in a recent interview alongside the city’s Climate Action Manager Steve Hubble.
Opportunity is a key aspect of Boise’s new Climate Action Roadmap, a document that guides the city, its residents and businesses on meeting goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, culminating in citywide carbon neutrality by 2050. Electrifying vehicles and buildings is not only necessary to mitigate climate change effects but it’s also economically efficient and can improve Boiseans’ quality of life, the plan says.
A historic heatwave in recent weeks across the Northwest is a result of climate change, a recent study found. Anticipated drought and destructive wildfires for the rest of the summer are additional indicators that climate action is urgent.
“We do have to get moving on this,” Burgos said. “This summer is going to be a great example of some of the impacts that we’re seeing.”
‘Flag in the ground’
Climate action is a priority for Mayor Lauren McLean. Last year, she created a division within Public Works to create a long-term climate action plan. Hubble was named manager of the Climate Action Division, which now has five employees. The move helped to elevate the stature of climate issues within city government, Hubble said. As a priority, it’s not new for the city of Boise.
“We help integrate the climate needs into all the regular day-to-day work that they’ve been doing for years,” Hubble said.
In 2019, under former Mayor Dave Bieter, the city adopted an energy plan with a goal of 100% citywide clean electricity by 2035. The Climate Action Roadmap goes further, proposing new goals: that city operations are carbon neutral by 2035, that the community as a whole is carbon neutral by 2050 and that the community’s resilience to climate change impacts is enhanced.
“We’re putting a flag in the ground,” Burgos said.
Ben Otto, an energy associate with the Idaho Conservation League, who consults energy utilities on sustainable practices, said Boise’s road map is among the most ambitious climate plans he’s seen. But the goals are feasible, Otto said. He would’ve liked to see the carbon neutrality benchmarks come even sooner than 2035 and 2050.
“This has got a good breadth,” Otto said. “It covers electricity and it covers methane, transportation, environmental values, affordability. Having that range of topics is really important.
“The plan makes the case that taking climate action is good for quality of life and local economics,” he said. “This is not just a burden to take care of, this is actually a positive move if we make the right investments. To frame the issue in that way is, I think, really compelling.”
Other cities in the region have adopted, or are working on, similar plans to tackle climate change, including Salt Lake City; Spokane, Washington; and Bozeman, Montana. In Idaho, Blaine County and the city of Hailey last year signed on to a 100% clean energy goal by 2045, Idaho Mountain Express reported. In December, the city of Ketchum signed on, as well.
Cities are “leading the way” on climate action, Burgos said, because they can invest in long-term solutions, while private companies can’t necessarily wait for slow returns. Boise’s new police “micro-station” downtown has an all-electric energy system and 16-year payback period on the sustainable investment. The sub-station should last for 50 years, Burgos said.
“That’s a no-brainer,” he said. “We’re demonstrating that this can happen. We can make long-term decisions on behalf of the citizens that will really pay off in the coming decades.”
The Climate Action Roadmap urges business leaders and residents to take their own initiative to reduce emissions and curb waste. For individuals, it recommends buying an electric vehicle, biking when possible and installing more sustainable heating and air conditioning systems. For businesses, it suggests supplying buildings with emissions-free energy sources and other sustainable practices. Another idea in the plan is developing a “Climate Economy Accelerator/Incubator,” to support and recruit climate action-oriented businesses.
“There’s going to be businesses that form around these solutions,” Burgos said. “Why can’t they be in Boise? Why can’t they help the local economy?”
One of the plan’s guiding principles is improving equity. That means creating energy solutions that benefit groups or communities that have not been engaged or supported by climate discussions in the past, Hubble said. One example is addressing a disparity in tree canopy between high-income and low-income neighborhoods.
Burgos and Hubble admit these climate solutions come at a cost. Electric cars are cheaper than they used to be, but they aren’t free.
A city ordinance codified in December requires builders include high-voltage outlets for electric vehicles in new homes. One builder estimated the outlets would increase the cost of a home by $500 to $1,000. That’s on top of record-high housing costs in the Treasure Valley.
Hubble said such a cost is nominal compared to the price of a home, and electric vehicles save money in the long-run.
“We tend to always focus on what things cost but we tend to not focus on the cost of not doing anything,” he said. “Yes, in that example, there may be a tiny cost to help support an (electric vehicle) in a new home, but what are costs of not doing that? In some ways, we have to take advantage of these opportunities.”
Another investment to come is a recycled water program. For an estimated $1.2 billion over 20 years, Boise plans to expand wastewater treatment capacity, replace infrastructure and establish a program to recycle wastewater and use it for irrigation and aquifer recharge.
Again, city leaders see the program as an opportunity, to build resiliency to the effects of climate change, such as drought. Hotter days, heavy precipitation, drought frequency, poor air quality and other extreme weather events are likely coming, and the road map identifies initiatives to get ahead by building resiliency.
Ultimately, the climate plan relies on public buy-in.
“We have a lot of opportunity to lead in our own facilities, but they’re a small part of a big city, and I think there’s a lot of exciting opportunities for residents and businesses,” Hubble said. “That collaboration, that’s got to be a big part of this going forward.”