Over the past fortnight all eyes have been on Glasgow for COP26. There’s an awful lot to process from this conference but one issue that stands out is how many different layers of action tackling climate change involves.
We know we need action from individual nation states and international agreements and standards that operate between countries – and this has been a key focus of COP and its commentary. We also know that there is action that starts with us as individuals: how we eat, travel and heat our homes.
But the space in-between these levels can seem very big. And the role of local government can be lost. That role is both crucial and multi-dimensional.
Councils can push decarbonisation through active travel, adapting homes and switching to renewables. But in reality, local government’s carbon reduction role is comparatively minor compared to the impact that states and individuals can have.
They have a far more significant role to play in relation to adaptation: designing climate-resilient public spaces, flood preparation and driving economic development towards industries that can take advantage of a green economy and making sure that communities have the skills and information they need to cope with a changing climate.
And this points towards another role for local government, perhaps the most important – one that goes beyond the actions they take themselves and draws directly on their democratic mandate.
Councils are the only actors in the public sector that have democracy hardwired into their function.
This puts them in a unique position to hold the ring for communities, bringing them together around climate goals and working through the compromises, disagreements and challenges that are always present but sometimes unacknowledged.
Councils as diverse as Oxford, Brent, Adur & Worthing, Devon and many others have all held climate assemblies, which is a good way of doing this.
But it is not just about the people who take part in the assemblies or the decisions that get made, it is about generating a conversation: getting people to talk about their hopes and fears.
The discussion about climate change can feel overwhelming, technically daunting and can become doom-laden very quickly. Councils have a key role in helping people talk about this in ways that connect with real communities and are accessible to everyone.
By occupying this discursive space, councils can act as a bridge between the individual and national levels of action, helping people feel part of a bigger whole and helping them see how individual actions can aggregate to create bigger change.
So, if we think about local government’s role in responding to climate change, it is not just what councils do directly that is important – although that matters, of course – but the structural position local government occupies as a democratic institution and the most local part of the state.
If we want to connect the local and the global – and climate change demands that we must – councils are the vital connective tissue.
Dr Jonathan Carr-West is chief executive of the LGiU