Red County, Blue City Work Together on Climate Resilience

Kansas City Area Works Across the Aisle to Get Things Done

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Jasmin Moore is sustainability manager for Johnson County, Kansas.

Dennis Murphey is chief environmental officer for Kansas City, Mo.

Posted: Wednesday, October 11, 2017 4:46 pm | Updated: 6:18 pm, Wed Oct 11, 2017.

The Greater Kansas City area is known for the state line that divides its two metropolitan parts between Kansas and Missouri. There are many other borders: county lines, city limits and political stripes.

It’s the latter that makes action around climate resilience seem insurmountable at times, but a coalition has come together to develop a strategy.

Jasmin Moore, sustainability manager for Johnson County, Kansas, and Dennis Murphey, chief environmental officer for Kansas City, Mo., said at the Growing Sustainable Communities Conference in Dubuque, Iowa, last week that they've been able to work across the aisle to identify available tools and leverage existing resources and programs to advance climate resilience in their two very different, but adjacent jurisdictions.

Johnson County is both the most populous and wealthiest county in the state of Kansas, with school districts that rank among the top in the nation. It is also highly white, conservative and Republican. Several counties comprise Kansas City, Mo., the most populous of which is Jackson County. This area struggles with poverty and school districts that have trouble remaining certified. Its population is diverse and progressive, and mostly votes Democratic.

Combined, these two areas comprise about half of the two-million-person metropolitan area.

Within the framework of these two very different political climates, Murphey explained, the language around climate change differs. For example, he uses the term "climate change" when speaking with city officials and community members. That same term makes residents of Johnson County uncomfortable, according to Moore. She has to pick language that doesn't evoke images of human-caused disaster. Her county officials and residents are more comfortable talking about "extreme weather patterns."

In the end, Moore and Murphey agree that for now, language matters less than developing a plan for dealing with all the ways a rapidly changing climate affect people in their area, particularly those who are most vulnerable to disruption.

The governments of Johnson County, Kan., and Kansas City, Mo., began their collaboration in 2013 when they worked with a consultant to help them use the same protocols and metrics to discuss climate change, which Murphey called "very beneficial." Then in 2014, they partnered with the Mid America Regional Council, at the request of the Department of Energy, to be designated a Climate Action Champion.

According to its website, the Climate Action Champions Initiative supports local and tribal government climate actions by targeting federal support to accelerate greenhouse gas emission reductions and climate resilience in Champion communities across the U.S. Its "champions" represent a diverse group of communities so that lessons learned have national applicability – providing replicable models for both communities demonstrating continued climate leadership and underserved communities seeking to scale their climate action.

In 2015 the two governmental entities took part in the Sustainable Communities leadership academy, sharing ideas with 10 other communities and regions represented at the event. Murphey said they discussed looking at "the economic impacts of climate change and the reasons to work at making the economic case for a climate resilience strategy."

Murphey called this event a "launching point" to talk with climatologists about anticipated impacts of extreme weather trends and think about those things regionally. One result of thinking regionally was the document Climate in the Heartland: Historical Data and Future Projections for the Heartland Regional Network. It was prepared for the Heartland Regional Network of the Urban Sustainability Directors Network and published in 2015.

Murphey said that report led to a general framework for a regional climate resilience strategy, which he called a "30,000-foot view approach in our metro areas to use as a launching point for climate resiliency plans."

Building from work of the two governments, partnerships spanned the metro area, including Kansas City Power and Light, stakeholders in public health, emergency management, water management and people from various neighborhoods. There were "conversations discussing extreme weather in the KC area, looking at it from a system-based approach, knowing all things are interconnected," Murphey said.

Guiding their discussions were two other publications by the Risky Business Project, which Murphey recommends as resources: Risky Business: The Economic Risks of Climate Change in the United States, and Risky Business: Heat in the Heartland. According to the project website: "The mission of the Risky Business Project is to quantify the economic risks to the U.S. from unmitigated climate change." The first report "highlighted these risks across every region of the country, with a focus on three sectors: agriculture, energy demand, and coastal infrastructure. We also looked at overarching issues such as changes in labor productivity, heat-related mortality, and crime. The follow-up report "zeros in on the Midwest and offers a first step toward defining the range of potential economic consequences to this particular region if we continue on our current greenhouse gas emissions pathway.

Another recommended resource is Climate Look Report: A Better Choice for Climate Analysis, which was prepared specifically for Kansas City, Mo. It concludes that individuals should expect a slight increase in average rainfall in different patterns, more intense storm water events, longer periods of drought in between. For example, in August Kansas City saw record rainfall, creek flooding, water rescues, and businesses losing the desire to rebuild after recurrent flooding. Murphey said that the report predicts Kansas City will continue to see warmer temperatures. Not just record highs but record high lows. "That means less night cooling so people who have trouble affording air conditioning bills are disproportionally impacted, which stresses them out even more," Murphey said.

Compared to Kansas City, Mo.'s straight forward approach to climate discussions, Johnson County's had a more tentative feel. Moore said, "Before the recession, Johnson County did a lot of sustainability work but referred to it as sending out 'green teams.' They did innovative things because they could afford to and it was the right thing to do." She explained that in the early 2000s, before she began working there, they had built some momentum around sustainability and had commissioned a greenhouse gas inventory and energy audits. There had been support internally for sustainability efforts. When the recession hit, the influence of the Koch brothers in Johnson County made itself felt, Moore said. Johnson County had a sustainability director but Moore said that person was told not to talk publicly about climate change but to focus internally on the incoming energy conservation block grant stimulus money, which was important and time consuming. Five years later that person moved to a different position and Moore returned to her native Kansas City area to take the job.

"There had not been a lot of community education around climate or sustainability," she said. She developed a definition of sustainability to use in Johnson County, at every meeting or event she attended: "The responsible management of resources to meet our environmental, economic and human needs of today and for generations to come."

Moore realizes this definition can mean many things, "from managing resources, to tax dollars, to having a high quality of life in our community." She said she uses the definition because "it helps to break down barriers.”

Another thing Moore did when she took her position with Johnson County was to move the greenhouse gas measurement plan into action. She connected with Murphey through the Urban Sustainability Directors Network. Because they operated just across a state line in the same metro area they decided to work together, to use the same methodology so they could aggregate their data, among other advantages.

One result of their efforts is that in 2017 the Mid America Regional Council board of directors, composed of elected officials and representatives from across the region, formally adopted the Regional Climate Resilience Strategy. "This group represents a wide political landscape so it was quite an achievement," Murphey said.

Moore said the strategy includes resilience principals, action steps, planning opportunities, and goals and strategies around the areas of transportation, energy, water, ecosystems and public health.

Murphey noted the strategies that help make communities more resilient to climate change — such as planting trees and growing food — also mitigate the pace of climate change. "For people for whom the concept of climate change is so outside what they think about, this gives them the opportunity to connect with people because the actions of resilience hits them right at home" he said.

In conservative Johnson County, Moore said, "We don't talk about climate change, we talk about extreme weather. We use different language to talk about the same results." Her county is working to weave equity into climate resilience, making sure not to lose track of low status communities. Although Johnson County is affluent there is poverty, but it is more spread out and harder to see compared to Kansas City, Mo.

"There is no red line," Moore said. "We're looking to find hidden poverty and discrimination so when climate change events happen, we can know where they are, and be there to provide assistance."

Moore said community cohesion and connectedness are essential to surviving disasters, so building neighborhood relationships is important. "We're one region with a dividing state line, which doesn't matter that much. Residents don't care about the line. If the city fails, the region is failing. Our approach is a system based, joint approach. Kansas City can be the greenest city in the world, but if Johnson County works to undo it all, nobody wants to come to that place — there will be an economic development impact, a community impact, a quality of life impact. We want to stay a community of choice."

Julianne Couch is the author of Traveling the Power Line: From the Mojave Desert to the Bay of Fundy.

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