Center for American Progress

Fighting Climate Change, From Capitol Hill to City Hall

Fighting Climate Change, From Capitol Hill to City Hall

How 8 States and Cities Are Mobilizing Whole-of-Government Climate Action

This report details case studies from six states and two cities to help inform how the United States can enact a whole-of-government approach to climate action.

In this article
Climate activists rally for action.
Young climate activists and their supporters rally for action on climate change on September 20, 2019, in New York City. (Getty/Drew Angerer)

Introduction and summary

Historically, states, local governments, and tribal nations have been key leaders on climate ambition. For example, in the 1960s, California set the nation’s first tailpipe emissions standards1 and continued on the path of setting the most advanced clean vehicle regulations with its Advanced Clean Cars program adopted in 2012. Meanwhile, tribal nations have been some of the first communities to address the effects of a warming climate. For instance, in 2010, the Swinomish Tribe in Washington state enacted a landmark climate action plan that has since been followed by 50 other tribes enacting similar plans.2

Likewise, cities are often the first to set ambitious climate goals, including some two dozen U.S. cities that are on track to surpass the Paris Agreement climate targets for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions goals by 2025.3 States, too, have taken meaningful action to confront the climate crisis, advance environmental justice, and ensure that more of the jobs required to build a 100 percent clean energy economy are high-quality union positions.4 Since 2015, 17 states as well as Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., have taken action on 100 percent clean energy agendas.5 Progress has occurred in blue, red, and purple states alike: In 25 key states tracked by the Energy Foundation, 2019 and 2020 saw 218 policy victories for clean energy in state legislatures and public utility commissions, compared with only 17 setbacks.6 This progress followed 2017, 2018, and 2019 state elections that saw numerous climate leaders elected to statewide office and state legislatures.

States, local governments, and tribes have passed and implemented ambitious climate action by deploying a whole-of-government strategy to tackle climate change from all angles—an approach that emphasizes the need for greater collaboration and coordination across departmental boundaries to eliminate duplication, optimize resources, create synergies among agencies, and deliver seamless services to citizens and businesses. Similarly, President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better agenda depends on a whole-of-government effort to address the confluence of crises, from public health to the economic downtown to climate change. States, local governments, and tribes are essential partners in this effort, and their examples of climate leadership must travel from the state houses, city councils, and local governments to the White House, and vice versa. As the Biden administration charts out its whole-of-government approach, federal officials can look to other jurisdictions—both state and local— for lessons learned on cross-sectoral and interagency coordination.

At the 2021 U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, John Kerry—U.S. special presidential envoy for climate—acknowledged the urgency for climate action at all levels of government, announcing a “Subnational Leadership Initiative for Climate, which will be a U.S. government interagency initiative to catalyze ambitious climate action by cities, states, and regions around the world.”7 Secretary Kerry described the initiative as U.S. subnational government actors—mayors, governors, and lieutenant governors—working internationally to demonstrate to other governments examples of successful climate action at a local level. This initiative would take states’ lessons learned beyond the White House and to other local governments around the world.

The Build Back Better agenda advances many of the Biden administration’s key climate policies, and implementing it will require an integrated and coordinated approach across federal agencies and states looking to access and spend federal funds. The case studies in this report represent a cross-section of the work being done coast to coast to take a whole-of-government approach to climate action at the state level. The administration, as well as state and local climate leaders, can draw on lessons learned and best practices from these case studies in order to inform their own efforts to maximize emissions reductions and implement clean energy and climate resiliency projects across all sectors of government.

This report offers lessons learned from a whole-of-government approach—from the perspectives of authors from politically and geographically diverse states—in order to illustrate best practices that can be applied under a variety of circumstances across the country. Where there is commitment to climate action from leadership, a whole-of-government approach can be implemented at the state, local, and tribal level. The breadth of lessons offered in this report provide the Biden administration with a comprehensive look into how it can tailor its whole-of-government approach across a diverse nation.

The authors of the following case studies offer best practices to inform the Biden administration as it enacts a whole-of-government approach capable of meeting the urgency that the climate crisis demands. The following recommendations are synthesized from the case studies:

  • Internalize climate policy as integral to the respective missions of federal agencies.
  • Establish mutual metrics between and across agencies to measure and maximize a program’s co-benefits.
  • Centralize stakeholder engagement throughout the planning, implementation, and revision processes of interagency programs.
  • Expand federal funding for state and regional coordination to enable projects at scale to reduce emissions in line with the Biden administration’s 2030 and 2050 climate goals.
  • Localize climate adaptation and mitigation solutions and uplift community-led strategies.

There are a range of approaches to deploying a whole-of-government effort as exhibited by the states and municipalities showcased in this report, including embedding climate deputies across all departments and agencies, standing up climate councils, and establishing gubernatorial climate cabinets. Simultaneously, multiple case studies exhibit the need for increased federal funding and coordination in order to meet the scale and urgency of the climate crisis.

This report offers six examples of state climate leadership from Alaska, California, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, and New York, along with two local examples from Honolulu and Philadelphia. These eight case studies outline different whole-of-government approaches to climate and exemplify how climate ambition can be driven through states and cities. Moreover, they offer examples of how the federal government can apply these lessons learned at the national level.

Case study takeaways

Alaska: Tribal success demonstrates need for sustained action that survives changes in state administrations
What worked
  • Governor-established climate strategy and interagency Climate Action Leadership Team to address adaptation, mitigation, research, and response
  • A coalition of tribal representative bodies and nonprofits working with the federal government to support local priorities and establish a process for continued collaboration
Lessons learned and future opportunities
  • Find ways to more permanently establish intergovernmental climate committees to function across administrations and election cycles.
  • Support community-led and -driven climate innovation.
  • Incorporate Indigenous knowledge and expertise in climate planning.
  • Establish more stable, robust funding mechanisms that can be used in tandem with a collaborative governance structure to finance innovative, equitable, and community-led climate mitigation and adaptation projects.
California: Making climate action circular
What worked
  • Use of federal grant funds to provide funding for resilience centers, forest health projects, and biomass business loans
  • Strong relationships built on trust and consistency across state and federal agencies and within the state executive level
Lessons learned and future opportunities
  • Embed experienced climate leaders and staff with aspirations to be climate leaders in all agencies.
  • Fund staffing and other early climate actions from general funds.
  • Track climate action and emphasize equally built and natural environment climate solutions and actions.
  • Envision and realize a circular economy approach within and across sectors.
  • Communicate a broader vision for climate action.
Honolulu: Resiliency and community at its core
What worked
  • Voter-mandated establishment of an Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resiliency charged with executing a resilience strategy
  • Efforts that resulted in aggressive clean energy, municipal fleet, and emissions-related ordinances, as well as the adoption of a climate action plan
Lessons learned and future opportunities
  • Ensure that cities and counties invest in their resilience and sustainability offices and create them if they do not already exist.
  • Establish effective sustainability offices to support broader agency and network efforts, help with grunt work, and ensure that others get their due credit.
  • Center climate strategies around constituents, having an extensive stakeholder engagement strategy.
  • Recognize that increased federal investment will be necessary to bring state and local climate ambition to scale and must build on momentum at the state and local level.
Massachusetts: Ensuring that all stakeholders are at the table for a whole-of-government approach
What worked
  • Creation of a comprehensive climate action plan requiring economywide emissions reductions goals, which encouraged interagency coordination
  • Bringing together a diverse coalition of stakeholders to address economywide emission reduction strategies
Lessons learned and future opportunities
  • Set out integrated structures through legislation to take strong, ambitious action on climate.
  • Find ways to provide the federal investment and coordination necessary to bring state-level climate projects to the scale that the crisis demands.
Minnesota: Creating a subcabinet to oversee “across the enterprise” climate action work
What worked
  • Interagency collaboration, which reduced uncertainty around energy projects
  • An Interagency Climate Subcabinet to address emission reduction goals stipulated by legislation
Lessons learned and future opportunities
  • Make reduction of whole-economy greenhouse gas emissions the key environmental goal for state government.
  • Support cross-agency collaborations on climate initiatives.
  • Generate creative whole-agency climate strategies.
  • Create a formal Climate Subcabinet supported by a broad citizen advisory committee.

These four areas offered several routes to implement a whole-of-government approach along with a 15-member Advisory Council on Climate Change.

Nevada: A new paradigm for climate action
What worked
  • Governor-directed climate action—for example, interagency coordination, GHG targets, and climate planning
  • Dialogue between nongovernmental organization (NGO) advocates and administration officials resulting in stronger outcomes
  • Robust stakeholder engagement when developing climate policy amplified by NGO advocates
Lessons learned and future opportunities
  • Ensure balance between formal policy direction and informal working relationships with on-the-ground advocacy groups.
  • Invest in climate work, making it a priority amid budgetary constraints.
New York: Harnessing the power of cross-agency collaboration
What worked
  • Interagency Climate Action Council to address the state’s emission reduction goals
  • New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) collaboration with various other government agencies to pilot a range of climate-related programs
Lessons learned and future opportunities
  • Instill strong leadership from the top down in order to empower teams and provide coordinated direction.
  • Work with team members to adopt common goals, create a shared mission, and approach challenges in joint problem-solving mode.
  • Build strong relationships that are grounded in joint efforts around a common policy goal rather than transactional and rooted in give-and-take partnerships.
Philadelphia: How to center community needs and move to scale
What worked
  • A front-line community-centered approach addressing past harms, articulating current needs, and co-creating solutions through community-government partnerships
  • Partnering with residents and community organizations to develop community-driven resilience plans
Lessons learned and future opportunities
  • Ensure that center-integrated, community-based planning is focused on front-line communities.
  • Make significant investment in planning and engagement to build and maintain community relationships.
  • Recognize that local governments play a critical role in ensuring that federal policy is informed by and accountable to vulnerable communities.

Case studies

Alaska: Tribal success demonstrates need for sustained action that survives changes in state administrations

Nikoosh Carlo, Ph.D., served as climate adviser to former Gov. Bill Walker (I-AK).

She is Koyukon Athabascan and the CEO and founder of CNC North Consulting.

The urgency of climate change and the need to transition to a carbon-free world have never been clearer. Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released new scientific reports confirming that the Arctic is warming at more than twice the rate of the rest of the globe.

Alaska is already witnessing the effects of climate change. Across the state, residents are losing homes and public infrastructure to erosion, flooding, and warming permafrost. Warming waters, declining seasonal sea ice, ocean acidification, and migration of species from the south are already affecting fisheries, shipping routes, and coastal and riverine communities—and will continue to do so for years to come. As governor, Bill Walker (I-AK) recognized that urgent actions are needed to address the rapid environmental, social, and economic impacts of climate change. In 2017, he issued Administrative Order 289, which established the Alaska Climate Change Strategy along with a Climate Action Leadership Team to deliver recommended actions addressing adaptation, mitigation, research, and response.8 In addition, Walker formed a subcabinet of state departments to identify early climate actions the state could take. While these two bodies delivered recommendations and actions, the new administration of Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R) abruptly halted this work. This intermittent and variable support for climate action is at the detriment of communities.

In Alaska, it has been challenging to sustain climate actions across administrations. Government authorities—commissions, task forces, and subcabinets—are essential to plan and execute actions at local and regional levels and to provide sustained guidance to support information sharing and coordination. Climate efforts should focus on ways to more permanently establish these authorities to do their work across election cycles and provide expertise and institutional memory.9

Sustained and stable financing is another requirement to support response to climate change impacts, identify solutions, and contribute to climate mitigation. Climate change in Alaska threatens to cause more than $5 billion in infrastructure damage by 2099.10 Put simply, the financial and human costs of climate change are too high to ignore. One possible solution to address this financial burden is a Climate Response Fund (CRF) led and organized by Indigenous peoples that would uplift locally grounded climate adaptation and mitigation solutions.11 A CRF could be funded through multipartner collaboration, including earnings from carbon market programs, nonprofit support, and impact investments.12 Diversified revenue sources that provide consistent funding would amplify existing local efforts to protect health and safety while providing economic opportunity amid unprecedented environmental change.

Tribal leadership provides a template for state climate action

Raising awareness and supporting engagement and leadership at all levels is essential to address the climate crisis. In Alaska, the Bering Sea Elders Group13 and two nonprofit consortia—Kawerak Inc. and the Association of Village Council Presidents, which together represent more than 70 tribes—joined forces to sustain ocean resources and ecosystems by aligning governance interests. Working with the three tribal organizations in 2016, President Barack Obama established the Northern Bering Sea Resilience Area (NBSRA) through an executive order that was promptly rescinded by the Trump administration in 2017.14 However, in 2021, the NBSRA was reinstated by the Biden-Harris administration. Importantly, the executive order responded to long-standing requests by tribes and others to include Indigenous knowledge and expertise in federal management decision-making. This established a process for continued collaboration for tribes to inform and work with the federal government to support local priorities. New mechanisms for cooperation, such as the NBSRA, could be a model to address other challenging issues that intersect with climate change and require a mix of local, tribal, regional, or statewide response.

To be sure, some might say that local actions are small-scale or inconsequential in the bigger picture. However, waiting for someone else to take the lead or act in the future is not an option. Climate actions led by and for Alaskans will be far more successful than initiatives developed elsewhere.

The future is now. The reality is that everyone has a role to play: Climate change requires actions at all levels. Local, tribal, regional, and state climate actions require coordination through reliable communication mechanisms, stable funding, and long-term organizing to support the necessary bold and urgent response to climate change.

Lessons learned

  • Find ways to more permanently establish intergovernmental climate committees to function across administrations and election cycles.
  • Support community-led and -driven climate innovation
  • Incorporate Indigenous knowledge and expertise in climate planning
  • Establish more stable, robust funding mechanisms that can be used in tandem with a collaborative governance structure to finance innovative, equitable, and community-led climate mitigation and adaptation projects

California: Making climate action circular

Ashley Conrad-Saydah works with local, regional, national, and international governments and organizations to develop and implement policies that measurably reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prepare communities and ecosystems for ongoing climate change. She was appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) to serve on the governing board of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency—from 2021 to present—and by Gov. Edmund G. Brown (D-CA) to serve as deputy secretary for climate and energy policy at the California Environmental Protection Agency, from 2012 to 2019.
From my vantage point, a whole-of-government approach is critical to combat climate change. For anyone working directly in or adjacent to policy in California, climate change as a term is both ubiquitous and necessary to embed in one’s work. Ashley Conrad-Saydah

Worldwide, no subnational jurisdiction has the history, depth of experience, and track record that California has when it comes to climate action. The world’s fifth-largest economy, home to nearly 15 percent of all Americans, and replete with 100 million acres of rich biodiversity, cherished national parks, and countless unique ecosystems, California must be all in when it comes to addressing climate change. The real, ongoing, and enormous threat that climate change poses to California’s natural resources, economy, residents, and uniqueness demands a whole-of-government approach where all branches of government work in concert on big issues.

From 2008 to 2020, I served first within the federal government as the Bureau of Land Management’s California Renewable Energy Program manager and then as the California Environmental Protection Agency’s deputy secretary for climate and energy policy. In both capacities, my role was to bring together government departments and agencies both within and outside of California, as well as organizations, individuals, and businesses who were collectively working to innovate, elevate, and represent their interests or community interests as we developed and implemented climate and energy policies. The work entailed understanding varied viewpoints, parsing disparate missions, and communicating regularly to find common ideas and paths forward—all grounded in sound science—as efficiently and rapidly as possible.

From my vantage point, a whole-of-government approach is critical to combat climate change. For anyone working directly in or adjacent to policy in California, climate change as a term is both ubiquitous and necessary to embed in one’s work. Across legislative, judicial, and executive branch offices, staff stretch to work across aisles, sectors, and geographies to develop integrated and often iterative progress in all areas of decision-making. Viewed together, the coordination and choreography of collective actions paint a picture of California policymaking and implementation where climate is at the core. From the passage of A.B. 32, the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006,15 through dozens of executive actions and laws across three gubernatorial administrations, integrated climate action is the only path forward in California.

The term “whole of government” is relatively new for climate policy, cropping up in the past two to three years as practitioners recognize the sweeping impact climate change has on budgets, communities, households, and campaigns. “Climate change” remains a politicized term, despite the evidence seen daily that extreme events and climate impacts occur across all income levels, ecosystem types, and political backgrounds. In a state like California, proposing or implementing policies without climate considerations is now quite rare.

In the early years of the second Brown administration, the state focused on budget security, with the regulatory process to implement A.B. 32 taking a second-row seat to getting California back into the black financially. Halfway through Brown’s third term, the administration collectively turned to climate, getting serious about cap-and-trade plans and how to distribute fees from the program.16 The administration began thinking more deeply about the evolution of the 1978 Urban Strategy as a blueprint for the state’s future amid rising carbon dioxide emissions, overnight temperature highs threatening the state’s agricultural sector, and the devastation of an ongoing drought that was killing tens of millions of trees across the state.17

Climate impacts and costs were already hazards to the whole of government, but the Brown administration primarily targeted the fees from the cap-and-trade program as well as a cost-of-implementation fund to reduce widespread threats and improve statewide outcomes. Though those funds were well capitalized, they remained insufficient to address the intensifying demand for climate mitigation, adaptation and resilience programs in housing, natural resources, agriculture, transportation, industry, energy, and beyond. Simply put, California’s sector-based government needed to rapidly integrate, collaborate, and develop cross-agency, cross-sector programs to make the best use of limited funds.

Following that approach yielded rapid and significant results; programs including Urban Greening, Transformative Climate Communities, and Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities emerged. Technical assistance funding followed close behind. Coalitions formed to help the state determine how best to allocate funds geographically.

Today, California funds climate mitigation, adaptation, resilience, and sequestration not just from emissions reductions programs fees but also from the general fund, special funds, and bonds. By acknowledging the damages climate-driven extreme events wreak on every area of the state’s market and nonmarket economy, California leaders in the executive and legislative branches were able to coalesce and expand support for climate programs that truly show the whole-of-government efforts and outcomes.

The next phase of evolution of this approach will be for climate action to become circular. Circular climate action is when energy cost savings, renewable energy surpluses, agricultural and forestry biomass residue, and other positive outputs of early climate actions generate funding, workforce gains, and opportunities that, in turn, can spur new innovations and opportunities to render some climate action self-sustaining.

Circular climate economics in action

An example of a circular economy model comes from Tuolumne County and the Community and Watershed Resilience Program. In 2014, the Obama administration invited states that experienced natural disasters from 2011 through 2013 to compete for funding to address the fallout of those disasters through the Natural Disaster Resilience Competition (NDRC).18 California was eligible due to three natural disasters, the most significant being the 2013 Rim Fire. At the time, the Rim Fire was the second-largest fire in California’s history at 270,000 burned acres; as of today, it is the state’s eleventh-largest fire. California assembled a five-member team—four from the state government and one from Tuolumne County, where most of the fire burned—to attend NDRC trainings and submit an application. The result was the Community and Watershed Resilience Program (CWRP),19 an integrated approach to mitigating climate change and embedding resilience through forest and watershed health improvement, small-scale biomass businesses, and community resilience centers. This inclusive approach demonstrates one path for a whole-of-government design supported by a circular economy.

Forest and watershed health projects include invasive species removal, repairing or installing new fencing for livestock areas, hand or mechanical thinning of burned or unhealthy acres, and prescribed burns. These projects require personnel, equipment, permits, and perfect timing. They produce biomass residue that the CWRP intended for use in small-scale biomass businesses to be established throughout the county, including, potentially, adjacent to a community resilience center (CRC). The biomass projects were also envisioned to generate some combined heat and power to energize both the biomass businesses and CRCs. The CRCs were envisioned to be places for community gatherings, early childhood education, trainings for personnel who could complete forest and watershed health projects, and, most critically, safe havens for residents and their animals escaping fires.

Implementing the CWRP required staff within California’s Governor’s Office of Planning and Research, Environmental Protection Agency, and departments of Housing and Community Development and Forestry and Fire Protection, as well as the Tuolumne Board of Supervisors, to work together, across missions, to evolve existing programs and develop new ones to respond to wildfire and find a path to reduce the risks of future wildfire, under strict deadlines.

The top-down approach of federal guidance, state application, and county implementation required strong relationships, trust, consistency, and messaging to ensure that the state could meet federal requirements of the program. Biomass business loans will be disbursed soon. The community resilience centers broke ground in summer 2021, and forest health projects are underway or complete in many areas. These innovative programs will have implications for jobs and futures in Tuolumne County and surrounding areas that California will track and review.

Lessons learned

  • Embed experienced climate leaders or staff with aspirations to be climate leaders in every department and agency, even as government branches consider departmental consolidation or separation. Unite those disparate staff at least monthly, branchwide, in a cross-agency climate team to share best practices, track and push progress, and find policy and budget efficiencies.
  • Fund staffing and other early climate actions from general funds. Climate change affects every area of our lives; therefore, jurisdictions should not await the availability of special funds, bonds, or new taxes to get started on adjusting internal operations and external policies to embed climate action.
  • Track climate action and establish baseline conditions within departments and agencies, such as energy demand, water use, and waste generation. Track progress of every indicator and publish results to encourage competition between state departments to lead in efficiencies and show state residents that government is acting as fast as policies ask individuals and businesses to act.
  • Equally emphasize built and natural environment climate solutions and actions. A history of measuring climate mitigation as carbon dioxide reductions means that many states, including California, limited funding to natural resources departments and agencies for implementation and research for years before acknowledging the critical role that natural resources play in mitigating climate change, increasing resilience, and provisioning clean air, clean water, shade, jobs, and recreation for everyone.
  • Develop programs, whenever possible, that address the full range of household and community needs. Do not piecemeal and silo reforms, such as having one program for energy efficiency, a separate program for street trees, another for vehicle charging and rebates, and so on. Offer households and communities large grants to address all the challenges at once, saving precious time navigating scattered grant deadlines and inconsistent grant guidelines.
  • Consider grant thresholds rather than grant guidelines to help simplify the requirements for applications. Be open to reforming processes that were intended to root out one or two bad actors, in order to help transform households and communities much faster.
  • Envision and realize a circular economy approach within and across sectors. Use generated savings to spur more action. Turn residue from agriculture, forestry, or waste projects into revenue-generating products that can fund innovation and more projects.
  • Communicate a broader vision for climate action from the start to articulate the starting point, plan, and ultimate goal, with roles for government, academia, public interventions, civil society, and industry. Make climate action not just a whole-of-government approach, but a whole-of-jurisdiction solution.

Honolulu: Resiliency and community at its core

Josh Stanbro served as Honolulu’s chief resilience officer from 2017 to 2021.

He currently works as a policy fellow for Elemental Excelerator, a clean tech organization redesigning the systems at the root of climate change. His daughter is teaching him how to surf.

Serving as the chief resilience officer for Honolulu offered me a front-row seat to the kind of iterative governance that will increasingly be required to meet the demands of the climate crisis.” Josh Stanbro

The climate crisis, pandemic, and racial injustice movement converging in 2020 underscored the reality that resilience will be a defining principle for 21st century America. The year also capped a four-year resilience sprint initiated by Mayor Kirk Caldwell of Honolulu, the 12th-largest municipality in the nation, propelling us from having nearly no sustainability capacity and focus in 2016 to competing as a national leader in the field by 2021.

The catalyst for Honolulu’s climate ambition was rooted directly in its residents. Voters turned out in force in November 2016, approving a city charter amendment by an 18-point margin that mandated Honolulu to establish an Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resiliency—referred to as the “Resilience Office.”20 At the time, Honolulu was the only municipal office in the nation with the words “climate change” directly named in the title. Honolulu’s experience over the past four years sheds light on what it will take at the federal, state, and local levels to survive, adapt, and thrive in the incredibly challenging years to come.

There truly is wisdom in community; that was the fundamental value Honolulu adopted in developing its resilience strategy.21 Rather than hold a few perfunctory public meetings to reach the minimum public notice standards, the Resilience Office spent evenings and weekends throughout 2017 and 2018 meeting with community members at neighborhood boards, churches, backyards, and even a car dealership. Essentially, the office was always enthusiastically willing to meet citizens where they were. Open-ended questions were asked about what kept people up at night and how they would prioritize addressing shocks and stresses that they perceived as facing our island. As a result, the O’ahu Resilience Strategy was built from the direct input of more than 2,000 residents, utilizing their words and their solutions. In the end, residents helped Honolulu shape 44 discrete actions that addressed areas of weakness and updated an area of existing strength to meet the challenges of the future.

The strategy focused on three main resilience threats: 1) addressing long-term cost of living (the median price of a single-family home in Honolulu is now more than $1 million); 2) shoring up the city’s ability to recover from natural disaster (65 percent of the city’s housing stock is projected to be destroyed or severely damaged in a Category 1 hurricane); and 3) addressing climate change impacts broadly (Honolulu has already lost more than 25 percent of its beaches to sea level rise and coastal erosion). Residents said that they felt Honolulu’s historically tight-knit community was beginning to fray due to the balance of demographics changing, recently tipping from a population mostly born “on island” to majority-born “off island.” They were clear that fostering community connectivity and retaining familiarity with “aloha ‘āina,” or “love of the land,” and other native Hawaiian traditional values were critical for long-term community resilience.

After meeting with diverse residents in their garages and community halls, it was clear that people felt local municipal leadership was going through the motions to hear but not actually listen to community concerns. It became acutely clear that equity was a foundation of trust. This led to Action #41 of the O’ahu Resilience Strategy: implementing an annual training for the mayor and cabinet regarding Hawaii’s indigenous culture, public trust and environmental laws, and colonial history. As a result, this training was first delivered in 2019, which helped provide critical context to city leaders just as protests against lightning-rod infrastructure projects as well as civil rights demonstrations erupted in 2020. The result was respectful, informed, and deeply personal discussions between city leadership and key community members that ultimately led to shared agreements and compromise.

This experience propelled Honolulu to join with Minneapolis, Houston, Boston, Tulsa, and Atlanta to start a national Racial Equity Through Resilience “Community of Practice”22 through the Resilient Cities Network.23 Together, the network developed a set of six ambitions and four action areas to help all member cities in the United States—and beyond—recognize that communities are only as resilient as they are equitable.

Resilience: Real talk

Although steeped in healthy community collaboration, the reality of launching a new office and resilience initiative was not easy. The city administration invested more than 18 months of effort in a multisector steering committee to help guide the Resilience Strategy effort that sought to build connections and bridges with and within the community. But these efforts often felt more like “drawbridges” that pulled back up once hard discussions started. In fact, a small handful of steering committee members actually publicly opposed the proposed policy changes that emerged from the resilience goals they had earlier endorsed, demonstrating that it was easier to find agreement around the theory of change at the planning level rather than the specific actions and policies required to actually implement the change. As leaders, we had to admit that we did not do deep enough work up front.

There were also challenges with peer agencies within the city. While some saw the Resilience Strategy as a holistic systems-based approach to integrating existing plans and projects and lifting up examples of multi-benefit city initiatives, other agencies understandably saw the effort as a threat to their “turf” and a distraction from preexisting mandates and goals. The only way past that was humility, authentic communication, and a deep commitment from leadership to keep bringing department heads together in a “Resilience Team” monthly subcabinet meeting. Trust was ultimately built, but it took far longer than anyone planned.

Finally, there were stumbles in the community. In trying to be innovative and inclusive, the Resilience Office used smartphone polling technology in meetings that opened up the floor to members of the public that had historically remained silent; but this also caused frustration from some “kūpuna” (elders) and other attendees that did not have access to the technology. Some communities also pointed out that the initial staff of the Resilience Office did not reflect the geographic and ethnic diversity of the entire island. Instead of denial, we acknowledged that truth and held candid conversations with community leaders, ultimately resulting in the launch of a new equity program in the office that served as a pilot for the city and county of Honolulu.

On the other end, the office was also accused of failing to reach out to certain private, special-interest groups to ensure that their views were included. This led to the careful documentation of all invitations to engage during later stages of the process, ensuring that the city’s administration and council decision-makers were aware of the multiple opportunities offered to participate. There is no substitute for hard lessons learned in the field.


Despite—or perhaps because of all of the bumps and bruises along the way—broad public support, strong philanthropic partnerships, and dedicated leadership from the mayor’s office and the city council led to real progress. Faced with a Trump administration that had abandoned the Paris Agreement entirely in 2017 and turned its back on sustainability issues, Honolulu rose to the challenge and ticked off a series of local government climate wins in just three years.

A few examples include:

  • The Honolulu City Council unanimously authorized a pioneering lawsuit against large oil corporations in City and County of Honolulu vs. Sunoco LP for damages resulting from decades of intentional deception around climate change impacts.24
  • Honolulu adopted an ordinance mandating 100 percent clean energy by 2045, carbon neutrality by 2045, and a 100 percent clean energy municipal fleet by 2035.25
  • Honolulu committed to phasing out all coal power generation on the island by 202226 and ending internal combustion fossil-fueled public and private ground transportation in the city by 2045.27
  • Honolulu passed the most ambitious energy code in the state, ensuring that new single-family homes would be “PV [photovoltaic] and EV [electric vehicle] ready” and that 25 percent of new commercial parking spaces would be “EV ready.”28
  • Honolulu quintupled solar energy production on city facilities from 2017 to 2020 —the city annually ranks No. 1 in per capita residential solar PV installation29—and passed permitting reform that leads the nation in automating and expediting additional renewable energy installations.30
  • The city council unanimously adopted Honolulu’s first-ever climate action plan.31

Each one of these simple bullet points represents countless hours of research, meetings, trust-building, citizen advocacy, compromises, and partnership work. Some of the efforts were underway before Honolulu adopted its Resilience Strategy but accelerated with the focus of the effort. While the Resilience Office was involved to some degree in all of the recent climate resilience advances made in Honolulu, the office certainly did not lead them all. In fact, the office did not want to. The most effective sustainability offices support broader agency and network efforts, help with grunt work, and artfully ensure that others get their due credit at the press conference or ribbon-cutting. This is the kind of holistic and integrated approach required at all levels of government to address the urgency of the climate crisis.

A resilience “magic wand”

The past four years were a blur of activity for the staff of the Resilience Office and agency partners who tackled climate resilience here in Honolulu. But as the dust settles around Honolulu’s COVID-19 response, multiyear partnerships with philanthropic partners, and the emerging promise of a new federal administration, there are clear insights into what works—and where the city should go from here. If city resilience practitioners could wave a magic wand, this is what would be on their wish list:

  1. Cities and counties must invest in their resilience and sustainability offices—or create them if they do not already exist—and not let the current economic climate limit their capacity to participate in the massive economic opportunity that lies just over the horizon to build climate resilience. These chief resilience officers or sustainability directors need to sit directly in the mayor’s or managing director’s office to allow for multiagency execution and avoid being siloed and buried in one single department. They need to be a part of the cabinet. It is critical to have broader situational awareness and personal relationships with public works, fiscal, corporate counsel, and other department directors.
  2. Even with a new federal administration, philanthropy must maintain and expand its investment in local government. Honolulu benefited greatly from partnerships with national and local funders alike, including the Rockefeller Foundation,32 Bloomberg Philanthropies,33 the Hawaii Community Foundation,34 the Ulupono Initiative,35 and more. Philanthropic partners wisely moved to where they could have impact on climate during the Trump administration—at the local level. As cities and county budgets falter due to revenue declines and COVID-19 impacts, however, this is the time for philanthropy to continue, and even expand, their partnerships with cities that want to do the right thing around climate action.
  3. The Biden administration cannot give up the profound climate resilience gains at the local city, county, and state level that blossomed during the four years of absent federal leadership. The reality is that the day-to-day decisions around transportation infrastructure, capital budgets, and disaster response are largely guided at the local government level. The United States simply will not meet its national Paris Agreement goals without empowering the governors, mayors, legislators, and councilmembers who fueled the We Are Still In effort,36 Climate Mayors, and other networks.

In fact, those of us on the local and state level recommend that the Biden administration create a dedicated liaison to work directly with state and local government leaders who want to solve climate challenges with the tools and funding to build out the necessary infrastructure. Cities and counties would benefit from a new “Race to Zero” national competition based on the largely successful “Race to the Top” education program launched during the Obama administration.37 Federal funding should be allocated to a program that sets certain baseline climate policy criteria for cities and counties to apply to a competitive application. Then, a diverse array of cities should be selected to receive federal funds and capacity to demonstrate just how fast local governments can decouple their carbon emissions from economic prosperity in the race to carbon neutrality.

These kinds of ideas, among many others, have been advanced by groups such as the Resilience 21 Coalition,38 a network of resilience practitioners and chief resilience officers who have taken road-tested ideas and offered up real solutions that will bring local and federal government together to build an equitable, resilient future where no one gets left behind.

Lessons learned

  • Commit to establishing and investing in municipal and county resilience and sustainability offices.
  • Support these offices in building network effects and encourage cooperation.
  • Devote resources to fostering stakeholder engagement.
  • Demand federal investment in order to build on state and local results.

Massachusetts: Ensuring that all stakeholders are at the table for a whole-of-government approach

David W. Cash is the CEO of David Cash Climate and Energy Consulting and a distinguished fellow at the Sustainable Solutions Lab at UMass Boston—a research and action center working at the nexus of climate and equity. Previously, he was the dean of the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston. From 2004 to 2015, he worked in senior positions in Massachusetts state government in catalytic roles, helping to transform the commonwealth’s energy and environmental policy and regulatory and business landscape. His job history includes being a commissioner at both the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Public Utilities, as well as undersecretary of policy at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

“The secretary shall conduct comprehensive planning with respect to the functions of the office and shall coordinate the activities and programs of the departments and divisions within the office.”39 With this rather mundane bureaucratic legalese, Gov. Deval Patrick’s (D) 2007 statutory reorganization of the energy and environmental departments under one new umbrella agency—the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs—began an era of comprehensive and integrated environmental and energy policy that launched a clean energy revolution in the state.

In Massachusetts, the term “whole-of-government approach” was not used to describe its strategy to infuse clean energy policy and climate resilience across governing agencies; but looking back, that term suits the work being done. Spanning Republican and Democratic governors, Massachusetts sought to embed climate strategies into energy, environmental, labor, economic development, housing, agriculture, transportation, and natural resource policy.

Two central pieces of legislation that followed the reorganization statute set the framework to advance key integrated climate policy in Massachusetts. First, the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2008 required the state to create a comprehensive climate action plan by 2010 and set economywide goals to achieve greenhouse gas emissions reductions of between 10 and 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and at least 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.40 To meet these goals, the act established two advisory committees: the Climate Protection and Green Economy Advisory Committee to advise the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs greenhouse gas emissions reduction methods and the Climate Change Adaptation Advisory Committee to study and make recommendations on adaptation strategies.

These committees were strategically structured to include environmental and business nongovernmental organizations (NGOs); CEOs from utility, labor, and banking; the chief of environment and energy for the city of Boston; and mayors from several midsize “gateway” cities—cities that now would be called front-line cities with underserved populations in desperate need of economic development and that have borne the brunt of environmental harms. All advisory committee members, or their staffs, served on technical subcommittees that were staffed with energy, environmental, transportation, housing, and economic and workforce development agencies. Representation on these committees included public and private entities, as well as state and local governments, to bring a range of civic and private expertise that cut across sectors, from housing to transportation to the environment. Committees worked to understand and address trade-offs between different interests and to seize opportunities and synergies, such as transit-oriented development, workforce training to grow the solar installation industry, and comprehensive ocean planning to protect fishing communities while supporting the nascent offshore wind industry.

After completion of the advisory committee’s work and the Massachusetts Clean Energy and Climate Plan for 2020,41 I traveled around the state meeting with community groups, businesses, cities, and towns as well as environmental organizations. Occasionally, I would be met by protesters concerned that we were not doing enough. One such protestor, dressed in a 6-foot-tall asthma inhaler costume, was concerned about a proposed local biomass power plant. Another was “Officer Spew-Not,” who, in full police costume, handed me a “ticket” during a public hearing to give to the governor because we were not doing enough to curtail pollution more quickly.

Of course, they were right: The urgency and immensity of the climate crisis demanded swifter action than we could deliver. But Massachusetts was ahead of other states by leaps and bounds. In general, my travels around the state “selling” the clean energy and climate plan were met by environmental justice activists who appreciated that, for the first time, they had the ear and support of state government. I also heard from business people who were excited to save money using state incentives to retrofit their manufacturing plants with high-efficiency motors—the business could save money and hire more workers. I talked with families who were excited to save money on their electric bills and were hopeful that electric minivans would someday be available. I toured new solar manufacturing plants and met veterans proud to be on the cutting edge of a new industry. We were on the right “whole-of-government” path.

The second foundational piece of legislation for Massachusetts that kept us on the whole-of-government approach was the Green Communities Act of 2008,42 which established incentive structures and technical support for municipalities to be brought to the table on climate action and started to transform the electric and gas utility sector. State and municipal governments would ramp up their collaboration, align policies, and put in place complementary programs. The act—which has continued to be amended in 2012, 2016, and 2020—has paved the way for electric vehicle fleets for cities, electrifying buses for regional transit agencies, requiring utilities to purchase offshore wind, unleashing energy efficiency as the cheapest form of energy, and protecting low-income customers from rate shocks.

These two bills set the stage during Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration for an integrated climate approach that would continue through Gov. Charlie Baker’s (R) administration to create buy-in from state agencies and to codify the need for local and municipal governments to advance climate action.

Communicating and engaging in the clean energy revolution: Opening seats at the table and talking about what people care about

Communication around climate policy and projects has changed greatly as an integrated and more holistic approach became institutionalized and codified under state law and part of state agency culture. Climate change was not seen as just an environmental problem but as a transportation issue, an economic opportunity, a justice concern, and an engine of innovation. If climate change was all of these things and more, the number of seats at the table had to expand, more voices had to be heard, more areas of expertise had to be included. And we, as decision- and policymakers, had to listen more. When we discussed these complicated issues, we had to talk about them in ways that spoke to people in their lives, communities, jobs, and families.

Thus, stakeholder engagement efforts became a central function that allowed for Massachusetts to successfully execute an integrated approach. In 2008, when the Patrick administration sought to pass major climate legislation, its strategy was rooted in meeting and engaging with all potential stakeholders. The goal was to bring as many people to the table, with as many of the right people as possible. At the time, the current speaker of the House had a keen interest in climate legislation. That partnership between the administration and legislative leadership was critical, particularly in a state like Massachusetts where the speaker and Senate president are the locus of power in the legislature. With the speaker and Senate president on board early, informal negotiations and meetings persisted for more than a year as the legislation developed.

At the same time that the Global Warming Solutions Act and the Green Communities Act passed, three other climate facing bills passed—on oceans and coastal zone management. The secretary of environment and energy was able to offer coordinated, technical support to pass these bills and, in turn, became the convener of the private sector, government at all levels, community, and NGO and environment justice (EJ) groups’ engagement.

Over the years, there were several other programs and bills that passed. Work to electrify public buses brought in partners from regional transit, transportation, and energy departments as well as the U.S. Department of Transportation. Meanwhile, to launch solar energy training programs at community colleges, stakeholders from the community colleges and the state’s Department of Energy Resources, Executive Office of Education, and Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development came together. Massachusetts’ Leading by Example program was directed by the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, but every state agency was required to collaborate to meet clean energy and adaptation and resilience targets.

Building on the foundations from the Patrick administration, the Baker administration continued to advance these climate goals and support the policies that crosscut executive agencies and state and local government in both its first and second terms. Bills signed into law in the past two years continued to highlight the whole-of-government approach, advancing offshore wind, environmental justice, clean transportation and transit, energy efficiency, solar PV, and clean energy jobs. One example of this was illustrated by a recent transportation bond bill, in which transportation and electric utilities were explicitly linked by requiring utilities—under the jurisdiction of the state Department of Public Utilities (DPU) and not the Department of Transportation—to submit plans for rate restructuring and investments that would help increase penetration of electric vehicles. The plans must be approved by the DPU, which draws the energy agencies into work on the omnibus transportation bill—a collaboration that is rare.

Throughout these processes, there were questions around equity and how to advance programs that helped front-line communities. When working on solar deployment, we coordinated with the housing agency to make solar available in public housing. In determining emission reduction requirements, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Public Health examined how these requirements would affect overburdened and vulnerable communities.

While the integrated approach to climate proved successful in many areas, we—the Baker administration—fell short when we did not engage with the correct stakeholders. For example, during the raft of climate and clean energy bills that passed in 2008, we passed a biofuels bill that required biofuel content in heating oil and transportation diesel. Critically, during all of these efforts, we neglected to include a critical group of stakeholders. The home heating oil industry at the time was largely unregulated. Roughly 700 small oil delivery companies essentially own their own trucks and drive throughout the Northeast to pick up oil and deliver it to their Massachusetts customers. The administration did not have a strong understanding of this industry. For a variety of reasons, the biofuels plan we put forth with the input of many other stakeholders fell short. For example, we did not understand the transportation and storage challenges of the industry—how to protect against congealing diesel at very low New England temperatures because of the required bio-content or where the mixture of fossil-based and bio-based fuels would occur. Without these business voices at the table, we missed a critical opportunity to pass a bill that could have worked.

Charting a whole-of-government approach

Massachusetts generally has the right footing and has made substantial progress toward embedding climate action across government agencies. Through legislation, regulation, and a change of ethos, the integration across former silos has begun and continues to evolve. While the structures put in place have shown strength, the level of ambition must still be raised. Admittedly, state leaders are not being aggressive enough to meet the scope of the emergency and the urgency of the climate crisis, including bringing equity more to the front and seizing opportunities for economic development and job growth. In order to increase ambition and make more meaningful efforts to fight the worst impacts of climate change, there must be federal investment to improve state and regional coordination.

In the Northeast, and in many places across the country, it is challenging to get meaningful and significant cooperation across a region without federal coordination or requirements. For example, one challenge has been figuring out how to advance a state’s renewable energy targets that depend on transmission lines that traverse other states. States are already limited in capacity to fully address climate change, and interstate coordination requires federal investment. A true whole-of-government approach would be more like a whole-of-governments approach, bringing town planners to the same table as state commissioners and federal agencies while assuring that stakeholder voices are at the table too, especially those that have historically been excluded.

Lessons learned

  • Set out integrated structures through legislation to take strong, ambitious action on climate.
  • Create durable institutional and organizational relationships that require breaking down silos and approaching challenges and solutions using an integrated and comprehensive approach.
  • Be more inclusive and intentional when it comes to who has a seat and a voice at the table.
  • Find ways to increase federal investment and coordination, which is necessary to bring state-level climate projects to the scale the crisis demands.

Minnesota: Creating a subcabinet to oversee “across the enterprise” climate action work

Steve Kelley is an adjunct faculty member at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. He also served as the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Commerce, the state’s energy agency, from 2019 to 2020. Kelley taught at the Humphrey School in the science, technology, and environmental policy area for 12 years and, before that, served in the Minnesota Senate and the Minnesota House of Representatives.

Minnesota’s path to a whole-of-government approach to climate change began before the 2018 election when then-Rep. Tim Walz and State Rep. Peggy Flanagan committed themselves to environmental sustainability as Democratic candidates for governor and lieutenant governor, respectively. After winning election, they selected agency heads who shared that commitment. When the Walz-Flanagan administration took office in January 2019, there was little question about their direction on climate.

Early all-day meetings of the full cabinet reinforced the collaborative spirit advocated by the governor and lieutenant governor. The administration identified the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and its commissioner, Laura Bishop, as the leads for cross-agency efforts. Craig McDonnell, the MPCA assistant commissioner for air and climate policy, led the cross-agency staff work.

The whole-of-government work began in earnest with meetings of climate-interested commissioners and staff hosted initially by the MPCA. The departments and agencies represented in those meetings included the Minnesota Department of Commerce, with responsibility for analysis and advocacy related to energy; the Minnesota Department of Transportation; the Metropolitan Council; the Minnesota Department of Agriculture; the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry, which had jurisdiction over building codes; the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources; the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency; and the Minnesota Department of Health. During the meetings, commissioners and staff shared information about the climate-related initiatives already underway or being started. The collective information sharing enabled all the agencies to see the breadth of activity across Minnesota government and to spot gaps where additional efforts should be started.

The commitment to a whole-government climate strategy produced multiple outcomes, four of which are described here: 1) identifying reduction of economywide greenhouse gas emissions as the key environmental goal for state government; 2) supporting cross agency collaborations on climate initiatives; 3) generating creative whole-agency climate strategies; and 4) creating a formal Climate Subcabinet supported by a broad citizen advisory committee.

Economywide greenhouse gas emission goal

During early strategic planning sessions, the governor and lieutenant governor stressed the importance of setting measurable goals that would guide strategic decisions across state government. The administration understood that Minnesotans embrace a broad range of environmental values, including clean air and water and access to forests and lakes. One of the first questions for the leaders and staff of the agencies with jurisdiction touching on the environment was whether to set multiple goals or a single goal related to climate change. Discussions throughout 2019 gradually led to focusing on a single climate change goal: reducing economywide greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and increasing climate resiliency.

That outcome was relatively easy to reach because the Minnesota Legislature had set a goal in 2007 that GHG emissions from all sectors would be reduced at least 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 and 80 percent below 2005 levels by 2050.43 The statute also required an early version of a whole-of-government strategy by directing the commissioner of commerce to consult with commissioners of the MPCA and the departments of Natural Resources, Employment and Economic Development, Agriculture, and Transportation, along with the chair of the Metropolitan Council on climate change, to develop a climate change approach. Agency heads in the Walz-Flanagan administration recommended to the governor that the cross-sectoral GHG reduction goal be the primary measure of success.

While Minnesota had done well early, it was not on track to achieve the 2025 goal. The governor’s office directed the broad group of agency leaders to identify actions that would get the state back on track. Among these was a clean car rule developed by the MPCA.

Cross-agency collaborations

The multiagency conversations, along with direction from Gov. Walz and Lt. Gov. Flanagan, established an environment that eased a process for cross-agency collaboration on specific initiatives. One of these focused on energy efficiency in commercial and multifamily residential buildings. The commissioner of commerce and the commissioner of labor and industry convened a working group of stakeholders to discuss next action steps. The meetings were also attended by legislators who had introduced legislation aimed at accelerating the adoption of more energy-efficient building codes in cities. The two commissioners personally chaired the meetings, demonstrating to the stakeholders the administration’s commitment to taking action. The outcome was a report that, among other things, recommended that the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry accelerate its review of new building energy codes so that all buildings constructed in 2036 and after would be net-zero in energy use.44 In December 2020, the department acted to carry out a portion of the recommendations by announcing that it would seek to adopt a new commercial energy code in 2022.45

Meanwhile, the Minnesota departments of Commerce and Agriculture started another cross-agency collaboration in 2019 to develop guidance for the development of solar energy facilities in agricultural areas. The state Public Utilities Commission had asked the two agencies to convene a workgroup to look at the issue. They brought in a third agency, the Minnesota Department of Management and Budget, to conduct a survey and facilitate workshops with stakeholders that included farm organizations, energy developers, and other state agencies. A report on the stakeholder process was completed in 2019.46

The departments of Commerce and Agriculture then developed their “Solar Energy Production and Prime Farmland” guidance document, which was completed in 2020.47 It provides solar energy developers with clear direction about issues they must address in seeking solar facility siting approval from the Public Utilities Commission. The interagency collaboration has helped to reduce uncertainty in the energy development community.

Creative whole-agency climate strategies

The Minnesota Commerce Department is one of the most complex regulatory agencies in the state, with few agencies of similar scope even in other states. In addition to its Division of Energy Resources, the department has two other divisions that have responsibilities related to climate change: the Division of Financial Institutions and the Division of Insurance. In many states, these regulatory activities take place in separate agencies. Consequently, the Commerce Department’s intra-agency work on climate change was a logical extension of the whole-of-government approach being pursued by the Walz-Flanagan administration.

The department’s Division of Financial Institutions oversees state-chartered credit unions and banks as well as state-regulated securities firms and professionals. Banks and credit unions, as lenders and investors, face climate-related risks that can affect their long-term solvency. Internationally, there is a movement to encourage identification and more transparent reporting of those climate risks. In 2019, the Commerce Department began discussing with other states the challenge of how to address climate risks as a bank and credit union regulator. Federal agencies have just begun having those same conversations.

Similarly, the Division of Insurance regulates insurance companies doing business in Minnesota. Under federal law, the states are the key regulators of insurance. As investors, insurance companies face climate risks similar to those of other financial institutions. In providing property insurance, insurers also face the risk of direct loss from the effects of climate change. States have an interest in understanding how the companies estimate the risk of loss from events such as wildfires, floods, and hail storms, as well as how they encourage insureds to reduce those risks through loss-reducing strategies such as hail-resistant roofing. The Department of Commerce joined with many states through the National Association of Insurance Commissioners to create a national task force to look at climate risk and action in the insurance industry.

These actions within the Commerce Department’s own jurisdiction engaged across economic sectors and with other states and were supported by the Walz-Flanagan whole-of-government strategy.

Creating a formal climate subcabinet

On December 2, 2019, Gov. Walz issued Executive Order 19-37, formally establishing a Climate Subcabinet composed of the top leaders of 15 state agencies.48 The executive order summarized the purpose of the subcabinet by saying, “[O]ur state government must work across the enterprise in a coordinated approach to develop equitable strategies that will mitigate climate change and achieve greater resilience.” The subcabinet provides a publicly recognized structure for carrying on the “across the enterprise” work that started at the beginning of 2019. The executive order also acknowledged all-sector GHG reduction and enhanced climate resiliency of Minnesota’s natural resources, working lands, and communities as aims of the subcabinet’s work.

[O]ur state government must work across the enterprise in a coordinated approach to develop equitable strategies that will mitigate climate change and achieve greater resilience. Executive Order 19-37

The subcabinet was directed to develop climate mitigation and resilience strategies in four focus areas: 1) working toward the GHG reduction goals and achieving 100 percent clean energy by 2050; 2) identifying ways to mitigate climate change that intersect with the work of each of the agencies; 3) identifying ways to enhance climate resiliency and help Minnesotans prepare for the effects of climate change; and 4) considering how climate change mitigation and adaptation could address innovation and job creation, ensure equitable benefits, and address disparities in the impacts of climate change.

The subcabinet was also directed to engage with the public through a broad range of strategies aimed at building partnerships with nonstate actors, better understanding the impacts of climate change on diverse Minnesotans, and highlighting the regional differences within Minnesota regarding the effects of climate change. The governor established a 15-member Advisory Council on Climate Change to assist the subcabinet in its work. That council has been appointed and reflects a broad diversity of stakeholders engaged with climate change issues.

The subcabinet has been conducting outreach and providing an online platform for members of the public to comment, as part of its outreach program while agencies continue to pursue strategies that have been identified to lead to the GHG emission reduction targets. Although the pandemic slowed some of the work, the Walz-Flanagan administration remains committed to its whole-of-government or enterprise approach to meeting the challenges of climate change.

Lessons learned

  • Make reduction of whole-economy greenhouse gas emissions the key environmental goal for state government.
  • Support cross-agency collaborations on climate initiatives.
  • Generate creative whole-agency climate strategies.
  • Create a formal Climate Subcabinet supported by a broad citizen advisory committee.

Nevada: A new paradigm for climate action

David Bobzien serves as the director of the Nevada Governor’s Office of Energy for Gov. Steve Sisolak (D). Bobzien holds a B.A. in government and politics from George Mason University and a Master of Public Administration from Boise State University, with an emphasis in natural resources and public lands policy. Prior to his service in the Sisolak administration, Bobzien served as a council member for the city of Reno and served four terms as an assemblyman in the Nevada Legislature.
Let me be clear: I will not spend a single second debating the reality of climate change. It is real, and it is irresponsible to ignore the science that proves it and the lives it has already upended, especially across the West. Gov. Steve Sisolak

On January 16, 2019, the first Democratic governor of Nevada in 24 years delivered his inaugural State of the State address to a joint meeting of the Nevada Legislature.49 Having campaigned on the need to raise Nevada’s renewable portfolio standard to 50 percent by 2030, Gov. Steve Sisolak reiterated his pledge to revisit legislation that had been vetoed two years prior by his predecessor.

While the call to regain the clean energy leadership mantel set in motion unanimous passage of legislation that the governor would sign at an Earth Day ceremony later that spring,50 his State of the State climate call also provided new context and urgency for Nevada’s long history of bipartisan renewable energy policymaking, which had previously been grounded in a primarily economic development imperative. Furthermore, it signaled the beginning of the needed shift from power sector policymaking to broader focus on other greenhouse gas (GHG)-emitting sectors, a shift that is still very much evolving.

Finally, it was a signal to the members of his recently assembled cabinet in the gallery that January evening. The message was that a new paradigm was needed for their work, and they would be tasked with contributing to the Silver State’s climate action from a whole-of-government perspective.

Early action and organizing

The shift to a broader focus on all GHG-emitting sectors was memorialized on March 12, 2019, when Gov. Sisolak announced that Nevada would join the U.S. Climate Alliance and its attendant commitments to GHG reduction.51 Later that spring, legislation was signed by the governor establishing GHG statutory reduction targets and mandating a more regular reporting schedule for the already existing emissions inventory performed by the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection (NDEP). This also established the sectors to be analyzed: 1) electricity production; 2) transportation; 3) industry; 4) commercial and residential; 5) agriculture; and 6) land use and forestry. Moreover, the legislation provided a needed whole-of-government cue by mandating that the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR)—in which NDEP is housed—consult with the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada (PUCN), the Governor’s Office of Energy (GOE), the Nevada Department of Transportation (NDOT), and the state Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) and consider policies for the reduction of GHGs.

While the Sisolak administration took shape, cabinet officials took the leadership cues and began meeting to formulate the specifics of the climate agenda, primarily in the context of how to engage with climate-related legislation that session. The directors of DCNR and GOE were the first to engage during hearings and media events as voices for the administration’s climate policy. But other cabinet officials—including the directors and staff of NDOT, the PUCN, the Nevada Department of Administration, the Nevada Department of Wildlife, and others—also joined the emerging policy conversation.

By now, advocacy NGO partners were also engaging with administration officials, providing policy input and a valuable feedback loop of public thanks and communications amplification at each new announcement and accomplishment, further emboldening the governor’s office to progress on climate action. Early action on a range of climate policy initiatives, such as adopting clean car regulations, did not come at the pace hoped for by advocates. However, the developing dialogue between advocates and administration officials, who were able to ground expectations on the legal, regulatory, and resource constraints on policy initiatives, arguably resulted in stronger, more durable outcomes later on.

From the informal to the formal

An example of this dynamic was the issuance of Executive Order 2019-22, directing the executive agencies to advance Nevada climate goals.52 Requests had been made for early executive order issuance by advocates, but the governor’s office deferred consideration until after the conclusion of the legislative session. The resulting schedule provided the two agencies emerging as the climate leads in the administration— GOE and DCNR— to refine a Nevada-grounded executive order for the governor’s consideration sensitive to the unique opportunities and challenges of Nevada.

Building on the progress of the previous legislative session, the executive order formally established that the entire administration was responsible for advancing Nevada’s climate goals. Among a list of directed tasks, the order directed the formulation of the state’s first-ever climate strategy and made formal the leadership roles of the DCNR and GOE directors in coordinating the work.

After a brief celebration of the issuance of the order, the agencies got to work planning its fulfillment. Into early 2020, brainstorming ensued for a robust calendar of in-person listening sessions for input into the state climate strategy targeted at Nevada’s diverse geographies and stakeholder communities. With the onset of the pandemic, this work program for stakeholder engagement shifted to virtual listening sessions, by sector and topic. While there was disappointment in realizing that “meeting people where they are” was not fully practical in a pandemic, NGO advocacy promotion and amplification for the listening sessions yielded robust participation and even resulted in the addition of a Spanish-language session.

Accomplishments and work still to come

With the pandemic raging, its impacts particularly devastating to Nevada’s tourism-based economy, the state pressed forward with its climate action. The Nevada Climate Initiative was launched as the branded face of the administration’s work, a climate coordinator was hired to guide the work of the executive order, and the state’s climate strategy, grounded in a science assessment from Nevada academicians, was delivered to the governor at the end of 2020 to broad acclaim from stakeholders.53

With these formal accomplishments accumulating, examples of more informal, not-as-visible progress continued in response. Over time, the communications teams of DCNR and GOE evolved a seamless relationship with the governor’s office communications team. Nevada’s “Clean Car” regulations adoption initiative,54 launched in 2020 and assumed at the outset to be contentious, resulted in a compromise regulation supported by a broad range of stakeholders.55 Finally, an NDOT study process to modernize Nevada’s fuel tax-based highway funding structure, convened with a specific recognition of the need to include climate in the deliberations.

While much of the administration’s approach to climate action deserves applause, shortcomings of the balance between formal direction and informal working relationships guiding the work are also apparent. In the 2021 legislative session, despite strong cues in the Nevada Climate Strategy that policymakers need to begin the complex task of transitioning away from the state’s reliance on direct use of fossil gas, the strategy itself came under attack for an alleged lack of consideration of the gas industry’s viewpoints, providing cover for legislative inaction, despite strong engagement from advocacy NGOs. Finally, Nevada, a state that has always struggled to budget and provide resources for needed services, has made little progress in investing in climate work—a shortcoming made more acute given the state’s pandemic-induced budget difficulties.

Since that January 2019 State of the State call to action by Gov. Sisolak, Nevada has developed a strong climate effort that has both built on the state’s long history of clean energy policy and dramatically shifted the policymaking focus to all sectors of GHG emissions. Formal structure and informal working relationships have coalesced in a whole-of-government approach delivering results on a variety of fronts. However, resource constraints and political complexities surrounding the tough decisions around decarbonization pathways persist.

Lessons learned

  • Ensure balance between formal policy direction and informal working relationships with on-the-ground advocacy groups.
  • Invest in climate work, making it a priority amid budgetary constraints.

New York: Harnessing the power of cross-agency collaboration

Dale Bryk is director of state and regional policy at the Environmental and Energy Law Program at Harvard Law School.

She served as New York State’s deputy secretary for energy and environment from 2019 to 2020 and held a variety of positions over the course of her 20-year career at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

In 2019, New York State adopted the landmark Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA),56 which requires the state to reduce economywide greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions 85 percent by 2050 in a just and equitable way. Specifically, the law requires that 35 to 40 percent of the benefits of clean energy investments accrue to disadvantaged communities that have historically been overburdened by pollution and underserved by clean energy solutions.

While the CLCPA sets out several specific targets within the 85 percent reduction mandate,57 it leaves the details of New York’s decarbonization pathway to a new Climate Action Council (CAC).58 The CAC is charged with developing a scoping plan to meet the legislative targets and to stand up the agencies that will develop the implementing regulations that flow from the law and the scoping plan.

The CAC’s role is to institutionalize a whole-of-government approach to climate and clean energy policy. As such, it should encourage relevant agencies to jointly design and internalize climate policy as integral to their individual missions. It builds on several cross-agency efforts that predate it—with varying degrees of success—and that, together, should inform the work ahead.

Early cross-agency collaboration on climate

The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI)59 is the Northeast and mid-Atlantic states’ regional cap-and-invest program for the power sector. Launched in 2009, it sets a declining cap on carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel-fired power plants. The states jointly auction pollution permits to plant owners and, for the most part, invest the proceeds in energy efficiency and renewable energy projects that will both expedite the transition to a clean energy economy and reduce the cost of getting there.60 While that may seem old hat from the vantage point of 2022, it was revolutionary at the time. Indeed, RGGI was one of the first major policy initiatives jointly developed by the environmental protection departments and utility regulatory agencies—one of the first in the United States to scale the concept of auctioning pollution permits and to tie energy efficiency to air pollution reduction within a single regulatory scheme.

Air agencies had worked together regionally on Clean Air Act implementation and through organizations such as the Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management (NESCAUM),61 but they had primarily approached power plant pollution as something to be addressed at the stack, with scrubbers, or by deploying less-polluting fuels. While utility regulators led the charge on energy efficiency and renewable portfolio standards, their primary focus was safety, reliability, and affordability, not reducing power plant pollution. When the two groups came together to create RGGI, for some, it was the first time they had ever really collaborated with their counterpart in the sister agency, and in many respects, they spoke different languages. The notion that scaling energy efficiency would reduce demand for fossil fuels, thereby reducing demand for pollution permits, thereby putting downward pressure on permit prices, was inconceivable for regulators narrowly focused on power plants. But by bringing environment and energy thinking together, the creators of RGGI quickly realized that efficiency was a least cost compliance strategy, and they developed an innovative program that reduced emissions at low cost, created tens of thousands of jobs,62 and set the stage for future state and federal policies aiming to deliver the same suite of benefits.

The Transportation Climate Initiative (TCI)63 expanded on the RGGI model by bringing departments of transportation into the mix. In addition to reducing transportation greenhouse gas emissions, agencies working on TCI had to think about how to deliver more and better transportation choices to urban, suburban, and rural communities, as well as how to sustain funding for road maintenance, as a shift to electric vehicles reduces consumption of gasoline and, therefore, gas tax revenues—a major source of funding for such maintenance.

Agencies working together to develop TCI were often working individually to design programs to transition away from gasoline and diesel fuel. For example, programs were stood up to deliver funding to build out the electric charging infrastructure, to provide incentives to purchase electric vehicles (EVs), and to develop standards to drive investment in the full suite of low-carbon fuels. In New York, those agencies included the Department of Public Service (DPS), Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA)64 as well as two public utilities, the New York Power Authority (NYPA) and the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA). These entities were not working at cross purposes, nor were they approaching the work as a coherent statewide initiative. TCI, and later the CAC, created space and, ultimately, a mandate to collaborate in a more intentional way and to bring the full array of solutions to the table, including mass transit and strategies to reduce vehicle miles travelled.

The Healthy Homes Pilot

In the buildings sector, the need for such collaboration is even more critical. In many states, there is a long history of housing agencies administering home weatherization programs and utilities or an energy agency separately administering low-income energy efficiency programs. As with EV programs, the agencies may be coordinated but not jointly developing a comprehensive strategy, in this case, to scale energy efficiency—and now building electrification as well—especially in affordable housing.

That was the case in New York, where NYSERDA and the Homes and Communities Renewal (HCR) operated complementary programs separately. They were able to scale investments when the Obama-era American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stimulus program substantially increased funding. But the agencies never integrated operations and were unable to leverage funds for longer-term market transformation. Nevertheless, staff in both agencies realized the opportunity to do so and, along with teams from the New York Department of Health and the DPS, came together to jointly design and evaluate a pilot program to improve home energy performance, health, and quality of life in low-income housing in a comprehensive and integrated way. By coming together with the express goal of delivering multiple benefits, and actually measuring those benefits, they could craft superior programs and build a stronger case for more investment. In the wake of decades of underinvestment in housing and deferred maintenance, it was incredibly challenging to rise above a perceived trade-off between more housing and more investment in each building to make it as efficient, resilient, and healthy as possible. Working together as a team on a single initiative helped build the trust needed to address that challenge and laid the foundation for joint efforts to secure additional resources.

NYSERDA now regularly collaborates with housing agencies, as evidenced by recent announcements on a joint effort with the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development to invest $24 million in a new pilot to decarbonize affordable housing,65 as well as a partnership with HCR to create highly efficient and all-electric affordable homes.66

Workforce development

NYSERDA and the New York Department of Labor’s long collaboration on job training rose to a new level with the creation of the Offshore Wind Training Institute,67 in conjunction with New York’s award of two large-scale offshore wind projects in 2020. They now sport a suite of programs with particular emphasis on pulling more members of disadvantaged communities into the clean energy workforce.

Both agencies have a solid understanding that the transition to clean energy will bring many jobs but not necessarily the same quality jobs, or jobs in the same location, as the jobs that are going away—such as those in the coal plants that have all shuttered. New York has required prevailing wages in its offshore wind solicitations and encouraged investment in workforce training, but we do not yet have a clear strategy for the 10- to 20-year transition required to meet the workforce needs of future nuclear plants, gas plants, gas utilities, and home heating oil and propane distribution companies. Many workers will retire during the transition period, and many have the skills needed to join the industries that will electrify our building and transportation sectors, which must grow exponentially. But those positives do not ensure an orderly and equitable transition without a plan.

The Climate Action Council

The CAC is co-chaired by the president and CEO of NYSERDA and the commissioner of the New York State DEC. Members of the CAC include the leaders of the following state agencies and authorities, as well as eight legislative appointees and two gubernatorial appointees, for a total of 22 members:

  • Department of Agriculture and Markets
  • Department of Transportation
  • Long Island Power Authority
  • Empire State Development
  • New York Power Authority
  • Department of Labor
  • Public Service Commission
  • Department of State
  • Homes and Community Renewal
  • Department of Health

The CAC is staffed by NYSERDA and the DEC, and much of its work is conducted through official advisory panels and working groups, comprised of a mix of agency staff and stakeholders representing these groups and areas of interest:68

  • Agriculture and forestry
  • Energy efficiency and housing
  • Energy-intensive and trade-exposed industries
  • Land use and local government
  • Power generation
  • Transportation
  • Waste
  • Climate justice

Conceptually, the CAC structure should promote cross-agency collaboration. Ideally, the governor’s office is providing direction to agency heads, and those leaders are encouraging their teams to move beyond silos and invest themselves in cross-agency teams, building coherent and comprehensive approaches that are designed to deliver multiple benefits. But only some of the agencies have a history of working together and can rely on the relationships and lines of communication that flow from shared work. Others needed to build these strengths from scratch. There is a similar challenge within the governor’s office, where the 12 participating agencies report into at least six deputy secretaries, but no one has been empowered to bring together those secretaries—for energy and environment, transportation, economic development, labor, and health—around a common undertaking of this nature, scale, and duration. Some deputy secretaries have worked together on smaller-scale projects, but many have not. Despite a receptiveness to a more integrated approach at the secretary level, coordination is not institutionalized.

Several of the CAC advisory panel recommendations reflect an integrated approach to tackling climate.69 For example, the industrial panel recommended low-carbon procurement standards for building materials as well as actions to directly support emission reductions at industrial facilities. The buildings panel addressed not only efficiency and electrification but included cross-cutting recommendations to make buildings more resilient to direct climate impacts and part of a more resilient energy infrastructure. The funding and financing recommendations reflect a shared understanding that a trade-off between more housing and better housing is unacceptable.

However, there are stark examples where this is not the case, most notably the absence of meaningful recommendation for transitioning gas utilities—a topic that initially fell entirely through the cracks. As the state adopts policies to drive building efficiency and electrification and phase out the use of gas, oil, and propane for home heating, hot water, and cooking, the companies delivering those fuels will need to adopt entirely new business models or go out of business altogether. The New York Public Service Commission (PSC) has launched a generic proceeding to institutionalize a gas utility planning process that is aligned with CLCPA mandates, and the CAC buildings panel did propose “a managed, phased, and just transition from natural gas,” while the power sector panel has called on the state to “decommission natural gas infrastructure to the maximum extent possible and as quickly as possible.”70 But arcane regulatory proceedings are not conducive to the kind of interdisciplinary thinking and public engagement that the CAC could have supported.

Similarly, while the CAC recommendations call for increased financing for building energy improvements, there was almost no effort to reimagine the New York Green Bank, a billion-dollar enterprise capitalized by the Obama administration’s stimulus that, to date, has focused almost entirely on large-scale renewable energy projects. If the mission of the bank were indeed reimagined, it could be deployed to upgrade affordable housing and finance clean transportation options for underserved communities.

Finally, when it comes to jobs and the economy, we have yet to see economic development leaders provide a full-throated embrace of clean energy policies. There appears to be little understanding of the major economic shifts that decarbonization will bring. For example, New Yorkers currently send billions of dollars a year out of state to import heating and transportation fuels. Decarbonization means transitioning both of those sectors to electricity and relying almost entirely on homegrown renewable resources such as solar power and offshore and onshore wind—and possibly sustainable transportation fuels from the state’s agricultural sector. It also means keeping most of those billions in the New York State economy, bringing enormous economic benefits to state residents even though most of them have nothing to do with the renewable energy industry. Moreover, there is a disconnect on the jobs front, where the economic development focus is largely on attracting manufacturing—of EVs, wind turbines, and heat pumps—and construction of transmission lines and ports to support offshore wind. However, NYSERDA’s own “Clean Energy Industry Report” shows that the overwhelming majority of jobs are in the building trades that will focus on improving energy efficiency and, ultimately, electrifying every home office and shop in the state.71

Moving forward

Meeting the state’s climate goals means transforming every sector of the economy. New York has committed to doing that and doing it in a just and equitable way. It is not a small task. And it is not just about carbon. New York has to become more resilient; it has to ensure nuclear safety; and its citizens have to breathe. Moreover, New Yorkers want to thrive, not just survive. There is no way to do these things without a holistic, systems approach and without integrated teams bringing their full suite of talents and their “A game” to the challenge.

There are three crucial elements to this approach:

  1. Leadership: Leadership is number one. Teams need direction and empowerment from the top to work together toward a common goal, and each member of a team has to provide that same direction and empowerment to everyone who looks to them for leadership.
  2. Team mentality: Team members have to adopt one another’s goals, create a shared mission, and approach challenges in a joint problem-solving mode.
  3. Relationships: It is almost impossible to do any work, much less difficult work, without trust and relationships. Large organizations are frequently siloed, and people must build relationships from scratch, often with the added challenge of some historical animosity. It takes time to build relationships, and the best way to build them is by doing real work together that is not transactional and that anticipates long-term engagement.

It remains challenging to unite people across agencies into a team. There are varying levels of engagement and enthusiasm at the top. It is easy to be cynical, and it is hard to build trust. In government, there are not a lot of resources to support things such as shared meals, outings, and retreats that help to foster relationships more quickly. Everyone still has their day jobs, and the “cross-agency interaction” can look like an extracurricular activity. Nevertheless, agencies are learning to talk to one another and are making progress. Moreover, success breeds success.

Lessons learned

  • Instill strong leadership from the top down in order to empower teams and provide coordinated direction.
  • Work with team members to adopt common goals, create a shared mission, and approach challenges in a joint problem-solving mode.
  • Build strong relationships that are grounded in joint efforts around a common policy goal rather than transactional and rooted in give-and-take partnerships.

Philadelphia: How to center community needs and move to scale

Katherine Gajewski is a partner in City Scale, a collective of sustainability practitioners supporting the evolution of city-climate field strategy. She consults and collaborates on a range of climate equity projects with a focus on ensuring that climate policy is informed by and responsive to community needs and priorities. Before founding City Scale, Gajewski served as the director of sustainability for the city of Philadelphia.

A persistent tension in climate policy and planning is whether the pace and scale of action required to confront the climate crisis can coexist with place-based, community-led processes and solutions. The two are often juxtaposed as an either/or, sometimes with an insinuation or assumption that community-based approaches are simply too slow or too fraught to rely on as integral components of comprehensive national climate strategy.

In local climate planning, the paradigm is decidedly shifting toward a both/and model. The current crop of climate action plans emerging from local governments is increasingly equity centered, community engaging, and intersectional. The plans are built around core community priorities such as housing, education, economic development, and health, and they involve a broad range of local government agencies and functions that extend beyond the “environmental quality” locus of early climate work. Although it may sound counterintuitive, local governments’ experience suggests that the best way to get to speed and scale is to start small, resist off-the-shelf approaches, and allow for contextualization and variability.

Rooting in the neighborhood scale

What does a whole-of-government approach look like at the city and neighborhood scale? Philadelphia is one city that provides a great example. It has been engaged on climate action for nearly two decades, making it one of the U.S. cities that has been at it the longest. The work there has evolved over time, mirroring trends in the field while also helping to shape them. Today, Philadelphia is working to take a whole-of-government approach to climate planning, confronting complex, interconnected problems by starting at the neighborhood scale and coordinating across government agencies to address them. This approach starts by understanding the needs of front-line communities—addressing past harms, articulating current needs, and co-creating solutions through community-government partnerships.

Philadelphia’s heat resiliency program, Beat the Heat,72 is an example of this emerging approach. The program provides a model for integrated, community-based planning, starting with an intensive effort in a heat-vulnerable community.

For context, climate change means that Philadelphia, like many places, is getting hotter and wetter. Extreme heat presents an immediate and growing risk, especially for the most vulnerable and those underserved by cooling resources. In the summer, some Philadelphia neighborhoods can be 20-plus degrees warmer than others.73 Low-income residents and people of color are more likely to live in hotter neighborhoods, where there tend to be lower tree canopy, fewer green spaces, more exposed asphalt and dark surfaces, and land-use and development patterns that are the result of racist policies and practices, such as redlining.74 The Hunting Park neighborhood in North Philadelphia is one of the hottest and most heat-vulnerable neighborhoods in the city and, thus, is where the city decided to start.

In 2018, the Philadelphia Office of Sustainability partnered with residents and community organizations, including Esperanza, the Hunting Park Neighborhood Advisory Committee, Hunting Park United, and North10 Philadelphia, along with Drexel University, to develop the city’s first community-driven resilience plan, Beat the Heat Hunting Park: A Community Heat Relief Plan.75 From the start, the city focused on inclusive engagement, trust building, context-relevant communication—for example, focusing on how the community experiences heat—and the development of planning processes that would allow for authentic co-creation. Staff with the skills and cultural competency to work in this way served as the project leads representing the city.

Philadelphia has had a strong partner in Esperanza, a faith-based nonprofit serving Hispanic communities and an important anchor for early outreach. One such effort was a survey to understand how people in Hunting Park see the problems and solutions surrounding heat. The city worked with Esperanza to meet residents where they are, literally going to barber shops, salons, restaurants, and other neighborhood gathering spots to talk with folks and garner input.

A key recommendation to emerge from that process was to create a heat relief network of cooling centers and other resources to be made available across the neighborhood. Community leaders had begun fundraising and collaborating on implementation planning when COVID-19 hit. As a result, the program’s focus shifted from establishing public cooling centers to helping residents to stay cool at home.76 The ability to adapt so quickly and skillfully was a good early test of the approach and a reflection of how responsive place-based efforts can be. As crises tend to do, the pandemic created an opening to question status-quo thinking and practices as well as a willingness to consider new and different ways of working.

On the city government side, no single department or agency “owns” heat, but many touch it, reflecting the myriad ways in which heat shows up. The Office of Sustainability facilitated the formation and coordination of a city “heat team” that brings together the Office of Children and Families, which focuses on expanding the “Play Streets” program to include a heat focus; the Office of Emergency Management, which focuses on supporting a citywide approach; Parks and Recreation, which focuses on tree planting and greening; the Philadelphia Water Department, which focuses on green stormwater infrastructure; and the Department of Public Health, which focuses on heat index and data analysis. The goal is for the bureaucratic navigation and coordination burden not to fall to the residents, but rather for that alignment to happen internally so that the city can show up in the community in a way that builds trust and maximizes positive outcomes.

The plan came to life in summer 2020. Faced with the challenge of helping people to stay cool during the pandemic, when traditional tactics such as swimming pools and cooling centers in public spaces were off the table, Philadelphia’s heat team got creative, including by getting feedback from Hunting Park stakeholders in considering new approaches. For example, the city worked with Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA), the local transit agency, to use buses as mobile cooling stations in heat-vulnerable communities. Philadelphia also used outreach teams, including those at food distribution sites, to promote the temporary expansion of the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) for summer cooling needs—a program that was funded through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act allocation.

Beat the Heat is not only proving successful in delivering positive outcomes in Hunting Park, but it is also informing other citywide policy and planning efforts in Philadelphia, starting with the Hazard Mitigation Plan update led by the Office of Emergency Management and the Urban Forest master planning process led by Parks and Recreation.77

The Hunting Park pilot shows what effective place-based, community-rooted, whole-of-government work looks like. It also sheds light on what is required to center the needs of community and get to scale—and it is a lot. Multiagency coordination can be challenging to sustain, especially across administrations and funding cycles. Planning and engagement require a significant and ongoing investment to build and maintain community relationships. Community leadership and ownership require resourcing. Implementation typically requires the artful blending of resources from across sectors, agencies, and levels of government.

All this is to say that scaling is hard. In a city with so many vulnerable neighborhoods, how might the promising work in Hunting Park be equitably replicated in other hot neighborhoods? What did Hunting Park illuminate about other policies and programs that need adjustment to better meet the needs of residents? These are the questions that the city is considering as it reflects on lessons learned and determines how to sustain and expand the program. At least in the near term, part of the answer is that Philadelphia likely cannot replicate that level of engagement in every neighborhood. The heat team will need to assess its collective resources and perhaps consider taking a lighter touch approach in more areas while remaining focused on partnering with community-based organizations. As the federal government mobilizes to address extreme heat, local governments will have a critical role to play in ensuring that federal policy is informed by and accountable to heat-vulnerable communities.

As the heat work in Hunting Park exemplifies, the scale and complexity of issues related to inequality and climate change are bigger and broader than any one agency’s purview or what any single level of government can solve on its own. The work ahead is simple: building collaboration across agencies and across levels of government to address these big, complex, and intersectional issues, so that efforts such as those in Philadelphia can be sustained and scaled.

Lessons learned

  • Center integrated community-based planning focused on front-line communities.
  • Make significant investment in planning and engagement to build and maintain community relationships.
  • Recognize that local governments play a critical role in ensuring that federal policy is informed by and accountable to vulnerable communities.


The Biden administration and Congress should draw from states’ and cities’ experiences implementing transformative policies on the ground and engage with their existing advocacy coalitions. Crucially, the administration and Congress should also pursue a policy and investment agenda that directly engages states and further empowers state, tribal, and local governments to continue their climate leadership. The same advocates and lawmakers who have fought to make this progress happen across states and cities by their example can help guide the federal government.

In addition to passing ambitious legislation, the federal government can also leverage the executive branch agencies to combat climate change. A whole-of-government effort traveling from Washington, D.C., to the state and local level enables policymakers to maximize existing opportunities. Consistent among these case-study authors’ reflections is the assertion that meaningful federal engagement to support subnational climate ambition is imperative. Building strong relationships centered on shared values and commitment creates the conditions necessary to tackle the interdisciplinary challenges presented by the climate crisis. The Biden administration can draw from the lessons of how state, local, and tribal leadership engaged with communities, with colleagues, and between agencies to inform stronger subnational engagement and support.

Since the announcement of President Biden’s climate agenda in early 2021, his administration has committed itself to a whole-of-government approach to tackling climate change.78 In a series of executive orders, President Biden established a White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy, led by the first-ever national climate adviser and deputy national climate adviser. President Biden also established an interagency National Climate Task Force composed of 21 leaders from different federal agencies and departments, enabling a whole-of-government approach to addressing the climate crisis. A whole-of-government approach can better address the intersectional root causes of climate change, and meaningful interagency and cross-sectoral government coordination allows leadership to examine the issue from a range of perspectives.

Announcements made at COP26 in Glasgow by White House National Climate Adviser McCarthy and Special Envoy John Kerry indicated the Biden administration’s commitment to engaging at the subnational level. The addition of a subnational and nonfederal working group to the National Climate Task Force presents a promising opportunity for the federal government to engage with state, local, and tribal governments.

The case studies highlighted in this report present a range of lessons learned that can inform these federal endeavors and strengthen the subnational-to-federal pipeline. The Build Back Better agenda and the enacted bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act offer large, promising investments that require the federal government to support states in order to maximize climate opportunities across sectors.


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  57. These include requirements to deliver 100 percent zero-emission electricity by 2040, 70 percent renewable energy by 2030, 9,000 megawatts (MW) of offshore wind by 2035, 3,000 MW of energy storage by 2030, and 6,000 MW of solar by 2025 as well as 22 million metric tons (MMT) of carbon reduction through energy efficiency and electrification.
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  75. City of Philadelphia, “Beat the Heat Hunting Park” (Philadelphia: 2019), available at
  76. Haley Jordan and Cheyenne Flores, “Beat the Heat Initiative Pivots to Help Residents Stay Cool at Home Last Summer,” Philadelphia Office of Sustainability, December 28, 2020, available at

  77. City of Philadelphia, “Philly Tree Plan,” available at (last accessed January 2022).
  78. The White House, “FACT SHEET: President Biden Takes Executive Actions to Tackle the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad, Create Jobs, and Restore Scientific Integrity Across Federal Government,” Press release, January 27, 2021, available at

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