Blur of headlights
A blur of headlights, on left, and tail lights, on right, illustrates traffic problems facing large metro areas. Photo credit: Alice Wu via Unsplash.

For Shannon Binns, fighting climate change means not talking about climate change.

Binns is executive director of Sustain Charlotte, a nonprofit that advocates for smart growth in booming Charlotte, North Carolina. Since founding the organization in 2010, he’s led initiatives ranging from an annual sustainability awards program to a popular competition promoting alternatives to solo driving.

But although the ideas he champions – less sprawl, fewer cars – mirror those recommended by climate experts, carbon is not one of his talking points.

“It’s not something that’s talked about in Charlotte, because it’s so politicized,” he said. “We’ve just learned over the years that we can impact climate change without having to talk about climate change.”

Climate co-benefits

In a partisan political climate divided over global warming, Binns’s work presents an instructive example of how “co-benefits” can be harnessed to support mitigation efforts.

According to the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, “action on urban-scale mitigation often depends on the ability to relate climate change mitigation efforts to local co-benefits.” All cities face a number of challenges, the thinking runs, which can range from environmental pollution to economic malaise. At local levels, these issues affect a wide range of people in an immediate and highly personal way. Finding solutions for these problems that also lower greenhouse gas emissions can be an effective way to build support for climate initiatives.

Sprawl and climate change

Although sprawl doesn’t generally top the list of cities’ climate mitigation priorities, it has massive implications for greenhouse gas emissions.

“When people think about climate action, they think about ending coal,” Binns said. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s only half the battle. A tremendous opportunity is designing our cities in a way that people can move around them efficiently.”

Sustain Charlotte hosts monthly public events focused on the city’s future, with space provided by popular local breweries. Pictured: A 2018 event entitled ‘What is Smart Growth?’ Photo credit: Sustain Charlotte Facebook page.

Transportation is the most obvious link between sprawl and emissions: The more car-dependent suburbs you build, the more cars you’ll see on the road. One 2014 study projected that the world’s cities could prevent more than 3 trillion pounds of transport-based carbon emissions by 2030 if they reduce car ownership and prioritize compact growth.

Infrastructure is another key source of emissions. Building, operating, and eventually replacing extensive road networks, water lines, and other enablers of suburban life is extremely carbon-intensive. Consider the construction stage alone: The manufacture of two common building materials, steel and concrete, accounted for almost 16 percent of all carbon emissions in 2006.

A turning point for Charlotte

Boasting a strong economy and relatively low cost of living, metropolitan Charlotte added nearly 50,000 people between 2016 and 2017. This rapid growth is expected to continue. While some of the newcomers are moving into new condos downtown, many opt for suburban developments that push the city’s boundaries outward. In 2009, researchers at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte predicted that Mecklenburg County, which is dominated by Charlotte, will be fully built-out by 2030.

For Binns, these boom years represent a critical turning point. Charlotte will either go the way of larger Sunbelt cities, fully embracing auto-dependent sprawl – Atlanta serves as a cautionary tale for many – or opt for denser development and a healthier transportation mix.

To push for the latter, Sustain Charlotte focuses on both top-down action and bottom-up change. There’s a vital feedback loop between government policy and public opinion, the theory runs:  If average citizens consider public transportation, biking, and walking to be inconvenient or socially unacceptable ways to move around the city, for example, they’re unlikely to support government efforts to reduce automobile domination.

As a result, Binns and his team spend much of their time developing public events and messaging aimed at convincing locals that dense, well-connected communities can be more practical – and more enjoyable – than sprawl.

And in a city where road congestion is a common complaint, laying out visions of easier, more pleasant commutes is an obvious place to start.

“It’s so easy to turn people off and create opponents,” he said. “We’ve taken the approach of, ‘Let’s talk about things that we know are less controversial’ – which is not being stuck in traffic.”

Economic incentives

Rob Phocus, the sustainability director in the Charlotte city government, sees the work of Sustain Charlotte and other local advocacy groups as crucial. Official sustainability efforts in the region often falter as a result of a lack of support, he said, and his own two-person office hasn’t historically had the bandwidth to implement public outreach programs. Binns and other activists help to fill this critical communications gap.

Phocus also understands the logic of leading with co-benefits when talking to local stakeholders about climate change initiatives. (Case in point: Although he’s currently leading the development of what will effectively serve as Charlotte’s climate mitigation plan, it’s known as the Strategic Energy Action Plan.)

When speaking to city leaders, he finds messaging focused on the economy to be particularly effective. Charlotte is a major banking city (in the U.S., it’s third only to New York and San Francisco) that prides itself on attracting businesses from around the world.

As more and more companies commit to taking action on climate change, environmental policy is one of the factors they consider when deciding where to open new offices – particularly when they’re coming from places that have a strong environmental ethos.

“Often I’ll get a call from the Chamber [of Commerce] or someone in our ED [Economic Development] department and some company wants to know, what’s our position on sustainability? What are the things that we’re doing?” Phocus said. “In talking about our Strategic Energy Action Plan, that’s one of the things we mention to our council members and our mayor: This is really an issue about global competitiveness.”

Making it personal

For Binns, successful advocacy ultimately boils down to the notion of self-interest. When it comes to issues like where people live and how they get around, appeals to altruism go only so far, he said. Understanding what different stakeholders want and how you can help them get it has a much greater chance of succeeding.

“My understanding of behavior change: You’ve got to make it easy, and you’ve got to make the benefit clear,” he said.

Sarah Wesseler is a Brooklyn-based writer focusing on cities, culture, and climate change.