The science has spoken: Human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes across the globe and in the Triangle. We have years, not decades, to drastically reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases or face the dire consequences of climate change.

These consequences include increases in the frequency and intensity of heat waves, increased flooding and droughts, sea-level rise, and greater damage produced during more numerous and more intense hurricanes. We will all suffer, but those most impacted will be poor people, Indigenous groups, immigrants, people of color, and all other marginalized groups.

As global leaders meet at COP26 to discuss solutions, here in the Triangle our leaders must do their part at the regional scale to urgently reduce emissions and build resilience against an unpredictable future. We need to start by creating a methodical and comprehensive, multijurisdictional, Triangle-wide climate action plan. The plan would both assess our current emissions and resilience status as a region, including each of the local governments and major institutions, and chart a path forward with measurable goals, tangible actions, and accountability. The planning process should include a highly visible and engaging week-long climate action summit, with expert panels, discussions, and bold commitments from our governments, institutions, developers, and major employers. Future summits should be held to monitor progress and to hold local governments and regional institutions accountable.

Young people have made their voices heard loud and clear, calling on leaders to act. Duke and UNC have held climate-related events, and other organizations have advocated for climate justice. The Museum of Life and Science is even hosting its own youth climate summit for Triangle high school students. We need a summit hosted by government leaders, with Triangle-wide leadership among attendees and resulting in concrete and significant climate action commitments. 

Historically, political and corporate leaders have called on individuals to change their behaviors to solve this and other systemic problems; however, that is insufficient. We need systemic solutions to this systemic, existential problem. 

One major cause for the high levels of carbon emissions in the Triangle is our sprawling built environment. Our buildings and streets are disconnected and spread far apart, making nondriving transportation options like walking, biking, and bus travel dangerous, difficult, and unreliable. Only 4 percent of Triangle workers can realistically walk, bike, or use transit to get to work, a percentage that is not improving due to current sprawling land use and transportation policies. As a result, automobile-generated greenhouse gas emissions have increased by 74 percent in the Triangle since 1990, more rapidly than population growth, and today the average household drives 20,000 miles annually. Our current zoning, infrastructure, and development practices continue to take us in the wrong direction.

This reality presents challenges and solutions that can be uniquely addressed by local governments. At the local and regional level, a key transformative climate initiative is the systemic reform of land use policy, urban growth, and our daily transportation options, while ensuring that inclusive engagement remains at the heart of major policy change. Thus far, most land use change initiatives that have taken place in municipalities around the Triangle have not achieved the bold and creative transformations we actually need. Perhaps decision-makers have not realized the immediacy of our climate problem, or perhaps resistance from powerful profit-motivated finance and real estate industries has been too strong. Whatever the case, it is unequivocally time to end auto-oriented sprawl in the Triangle, manage growth, and build walkable, sustainable, and equitable places. By making policy changes in this area, we can actually make our cities more green, inclusive, affordable, and livable.

Raleigh and Chapel Hill each have strong climate action frameworks and recently adopted plans, but there is little in place to monitor their implementation and hold them accountable. There are no consequences, political or otherwise, if they do not follow their plans. Meanwhile, Durham’s carbon-neutrality plan only addresses government emissions, which consist of less than 2 percent of community-wide emissions. These local climate action initiatives are important but lack the opportunities that come from regional collaboration.

To achieve carbon neutrality in the Triangle, we need to think regionally, coordinate across jurisdictions, commit to more engagement with communities, and even reimagine what metropolitan-wide governance looks like. “Raleigh-Durham” may not be a city, but the Triangle needs to recognize itself as a single interconnected metropolitan region with many shared interests. We need a Triangle-wide plan and climate summit that addresses growth and development, open space, transportation, energy, and jobs. Solutions need to center the needs of working-class people, especially our most vulnerable populations.

If we are going to enact the transformative changes necessary to achieve carbon neutrality, we need all of our local governments working together, with shared goals, metrics, and systems of accountability. Urgent change is required, and we owe it to future generations to act boldly. 

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