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Thinking Globally

County Council explores ways to lead the fight against global warming.

More than 100 people turned out last week as the Montgomery County Council held a public form on global warming.

“It’s taken years and years to get our country to accept the reality that our world is warming,” said Mike Tidwell, the director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. “Now we need to get our country to recognize that that warming is occurring very, very rapidly.”

Tidwell was one of nine speakers who participated in the public forum on Wednesday, March 14. The event was sponsored by Roger Berliner (D-1) of the Montgomery County Council and was intended to explore ways that the county government could lead the fight against global warming.

“Given the international scope of the crisis, some may question why local governments should devote their energies and resources to solving it,” said Berliner. Berliner said that approaching a problem on a global scale had to begin with local efforts. “Seventy-five percent of the energy consumed in our country is consumed within major metropolitan areas. That would be us.”

Berliner said that recent initiatives enacted by the county have provided a good start and made Montgomery County a national leader in the fight against global warming. The county council has committed to purchasing 20 percent of the power that is used in county facilities from wind power, and the recent Green Building Initiative is among the first programs in the country to require energy-efficiency standards to be followed in all commercial construction.

Berliner said it is imperative that more be done, and that waiting for change to come from the national level would be a waste of time.

“We [at the local level] have the necessary tools and the necessary power to effect real change politically and environmentally,” Berliner said. “Indeed, it may well be that only when local governments act aggressively will we get the kind of national leadership we long for.”

FOUR PANELS of experts spoke before the assembled council and discussed the necessity of a local response to global warming, energy efficiency in buildings, fuel use in transportation, and the importance of proper land use and tree preservation.

All members of the county council were present except for Phil Andrews (D-3), Valerie Ervin (D-5), and council president Marilyn Praisner (D-4). During the three hour event open to the public the audience grew as large as approximately 100 people, though the forum was not open to public comment.

Tidwell said that any changes and improvements would have to be made through legislation.

“We are a nation of laws — we need to change the laws and we can change the laws right here in this county,” Tidwell said.

Tidwell suggested the council ban the sale of incandescent light bulbs in Montgomery County because they consume significantly more energy than fluorescent bulbs. Tidwell also urged the council to form an Office of Sustainability and Climate Change within the county’s government that be devoted to creating other legislation to control energy use in the county.

Other proposals discussed included the possibility of requiring all new home construction to meet energy-efficiency standards, the use of biodiesel fuels in county vehicles, and increasing the county’s energy tax to discourage excessive use.

Dr. Lowell Ungar, a senior policy analyst for the Alliance to Save Energy said that increasing energy efficiency in buildings was essential.

“We believe energy efficiency is really the first response to combat global warming.” Though building more energy-efficient buildings is more expensive initially, Ungar said that the financial benefits of using less energy typically offset that difference in three to five years and save significant amounts of money over the life of the building.

George Leventhal (D-At-large) said that the production of energy used in buildings and emissions from buildings made up 68 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions.

Leventhal said that the county council’s staff would draw up a list of all of the recommendations made during the public forum and begin to look at the feasibility of those proposals in the coming weeks.

ONE TOPIC that was not discussed explicitly was the looming construction of the Intercounty Connector and the controversy surrounding it. Instead the subject lurked just beneath the surface, as evidenced by a woman who wore a polar bear suit with anti-ICC stickers adorning its fur.

Paul Ferguson, the chairman of the Arlington County Board said that he would not take any questions about the ICC since the public forum was supposed to deal exclusively with global warming.

“It’s the same thing,” said Mike Harold from the audience. Harold is the ICC Campaign Director for the Audubon Naturalist Society.

“You’re right,” said Ferguson, but did not elaborate.

Dolores Milmoe of the Audubon said later that the ICC flies in the face of the county's efforts to reduce global warming.

"You can have all the conference's you want," said Milmoe, "but supporting the ICC is supporting global warming."

Marc Elrich (D-At-large) was the only member of the council to address the ICC and its potential environmental impact. Elrich said that looking for ways to combat global warming without scrutinizing transportation within the county would be to look at only part of the picture.

“The biggest [question about] the footprint that we lay down is whether we lay down roads or we lay down public transportation,” said Elrich. “It is impossible to have this discussion without discussing our transportation choices.”

Christopher B. Leinberger, Metropolitan Policy Scholar at the Brookings Institution said that increased public transportation and the urbanization of the areas surrounding Metro stations was the way of the future for Montgomery County. Leinberger said that urban environments result in one-third less pollution per household unit than suburban sprawl, and that it was a “moral imperative” to increase density near Metro stations. Leinberger said the expansion to do this and the opposition from suburban neighborhoods nearest to those areas would be the county’s defining issue for the next century.

“The American dream is being rewritten from the car and the house in the suburbs to walkable urbanism,” said Leinberger. Leinberger said the challenge would be to convince the public that cities and urban areas are safe places to raise children.

“Cities are great places to raise kids,” Leinberger said. “We’ve been doing it for the last 5500 years; we just forgot how to do it in the last fifty years.

Convincing the county’s residents that such a future is in their best interest will be up to the county council, Leinberger said.

“It’s really up to you all [on the council] to provide that leadership.”