County Climate Officers Think Globally, Act Locally

County governments in Maryland are hiring local climate officers to undertake projects like resolving sunny day flooding issues. City of Annapolis photo.

Climate change is an international crisis that demands action at every level of government.

Yet perhaps overlooked, with all the dire warnings about the climate crisis from the United Nations, ongoing political battles over climate policy at the federal level, and the impasse in the General Assembly over legislation earlier this year, is the work local climate leaders — sometimes called sustainability officers — are doing in a handful of Maryland counties.

The local climate officials say their job is fluid, and cuts across county agencies to ensure a consideration of the climate at all levels of decision-making.

Finding a solution to climate change cannot be one office’s responsibility alone, said Adriana Hochberg, Montgomery County’s assistant chief administrative officer, who leads climate efforts for the county.

“Building a team within the county government to live and breathe this stuff right alongside me is important because climate change is not a one person job — it crosses across different departments and takes a team,” Hochberg said.

Her counterparts in other large Maryland jurisdictions describe their duties in much the same way.

“My job is to break down any silos between any of the departments and to get everybody together in a room to talk about policies that can get us further towards our goals for reducing greenhouse gases and creating resilient communities,” said Matthew Johnston, the environment policy director for Anne Arundel County.

“I find myself playing a role that’s a little bit like a ‘jack of all trades’ — to bring good information, solid practices and partnership among our agencies to make the county more sustainable,” echoed Jennifer Aiosa, the chief sustainability officer for Baltimore County.

Some counties are seeking to systematically imbue climate change proficiency into their government by requiring several staffers to have adequate knowledge on climate change.

After several employees went through Maryland Climate Leadership Academy, which offers training for a “certified climate change professional credential” and is run by the Department of Natural Resources, Charles County surveyed all of its government positions last year and decided that eighty-five positions within the government, or 10% of its workforce, require “climate change competency,” said Mark J. Belton, the county administrator.

These positions include those in the Department of Planning, where staffers will need to understand climate change when deciding which areas of the county are suitable for growth, as well as those in the Department of Public Works, who operate water plants and maintain buildings, said Belton, who headed state DNR during the early years of the Hogan administration.

“We’ve instilled a permanency in climate change competencies within our workforce, and I think that sets us up for future and permanent success,” Belton said. The goal is to provide training to employees at no cost, Belton said. The climate change professional credential from the state’s Climate Leadership Academy is free to all state and local government agency employees.

Although other county governments have sent their staffs through the same training, most do not require the credential as Charles County does.

One of the goals in Montgomery County’s recently-released climate action plan is to review county government jobs and identify which ones require climate competency and credential requirements.

“We are following Charles County’s footsteps, but we are not quite there yet,” Hochberg said.

A paradigm shift

As new county executives came into office in 2018 with climate change among their top priorities, local climate change offices began to pop up across the state.

Howard County’s director of community sustainability, Joshua Feldmark, held the same position under former Howard County Executive Ken Ulman (D) in the early 2010s, but climate change was only a slice of what his office focused on then.

Issues ranging from forest conservation to stormwater management were thought of separately, and considering how a county project was going to be impacted by climate change was not in the conversation unless it was specifically a conversation about climate change broadly, Feldmark said.

But when Feldmark returned to county government under current Howard County Executive Calvin Ball (D), he noticed a paradigm shift in how climate change was discussed.

“It’s just a shift in thinking. Before there were climate change conversations and then there were not climate change conversations in my office. Now, every conversation that we have is — how is this going to be impacted by climate change?’” Only now can his office truly be considered a “climate change office,” he said.

Similarly, Baltimore County Executive John A. Olszewski Jr. (D) came into office in 2018 with climate change as a priority. During his campaign, he pledged to create a timeline for county government to transition entirely to renewable energy sources, and he unveiled the specifics of the plan earlier this year.

In 2019, Olszewski created a new “chief sustainability officer” position within the government, which is now held by Aiosa.

“Our county executive and county administrative officer have set the expectation that sustainability and equity are going to be interwoven into everything that we do,” Aiosa said. “There are so many opportunities in which each of our agencies can think about sustainability and climate resiliency and be part of the solution [of climate change].”

Aiosa spent the last 25 years working in the nonprofit sector, so forming partnerships and collaborating across agencies is not new to her, she said. For instance, Baltimore County is currently working on decarbonizing its vehicle fleet, which involves coordinating with engineers, the Department of Public Works and Transportation, Office of Budget and Finance for vehicle costs, and the county’s revenue authority to plan out electric car charging infrastructure in parking garages, Aiosa said.

“Maybe the role I’m playing is sort of like a ‘convener’ or a ‘conversation starter,’ recognizing that [different agencies] may be looking at the same challenge but just through two different lenses, and we can work effectively to produce a solution,” Aiosa said.

In 2019, Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman (D) selected Matt Johnston to be the county’s first environmental policy specialist, to think about how all county departments can incorporate climate change into all their missions.

Being placed under the county executive’s office demonstrates that climate change is a priority, allowing “local climate officers” to easily coordinate and compel county agencies to meet the county’s greenhouse gas emission reduction and climate adaptation goals, said Shannon Moore, manager of the Office of Sustainability and Environmental Resources in Frederick County.

“I think the jurisdictions that have [a climate change officer under the county executive’s office] have an advantage,” she said.

What local climate officers are working on

One of the key roles that local climate leaders have is to implement a plan for how a county will adapt to global warming, as well as decrease its greenhouse gas emissions.

Earlier this year, the Maryland Department of the Environment released a plan to reduce state emissions by 50% of 2006 levels by 2030 and to reach net-zero emissions by 2045.

While state agencies work toward reducing Maryland’s carbon footprint, local governments are more focused on adapting to the direct impacts that climate change is already having on its residents, according to Belton.

For instance, Charles County’s biggest climate initiative now is to update its stormwater drainage infrastructure, which was not built to handle the more frequent and intense storms that the county will be facing, Belton said. And with the Potomac River making up the county’s western and southern borders, sea level rise is also an issue.

“Every time it rains, our Board of County Commissioners get flooded with calls,” Belton said.

Charles County has identified nearly 100 neighborhoods where the county does not own the stormwater infrastructure and plans to spend tens of millions of dollars upgrading these systems, Belton said. “We call it our ‘big hairy audacious goal’ or ‘big HAG because it’s a big undertaking,” Belton said.

This will be completed with the help of the Charles County Resilience Authority, which provides the county government with a funding structure for big resiliency projects, such as flood barriers, stormwater systems and green spaces.

In 2020, the General Assembly passed a bill granting local jurisdictions the authority to set up resilience authorities, which can receive money from the state, local government and non-profit organizations and can charge and collect fees for its services.

By having a separate organization that can borrow money, climate resilience projects will not count towards the county’s maximum debt ceiling, which is a real financial advantage, Belton continued.

It also “widens the universe of grant opportunities for our climate change adaptation projects,” because some foundations do not fund government agencies, Belton said.

Charles County was the first in the state to establish a resilience authority and Anne Arundel County just set up its own last month.

“With a resilience authority, you don’t have that political lens and you can make decisions based completely on urgency of need,” Belton said.

In addition, Charles County just started working on its climate action plan, which the county aims to finish in the next two to three years, according to Beth Groth, a senior planner who leads Charles County’s climate change efforts. The county plans to hire a chief sustainability officer this year, Belton said.

A decade ago, conversations about climate change in Howard County were all about reducing the county’s carbon footprint, Feldmark said. “But now we are admitting to the fact that even if we do everything right, the climate is going to warm to the point where we are going to feel it and we need to start preparing for what those impacts are going to be.”

Especially after two catastrophic floods in 2016 and 2018 in Ellicott City, Howard County is “rewriting” its climate action plan to include strategies on how to adapt to warmer temperatures and more intense floods, such as deciding which roads to repave and where to build flood control systems, Feldmark said.

In addition to updating its climate action plan, Howard County just launched a spate of solar projects on both county-owned and non-county owned property, such as on private farms and a library rooftop. In total, these solar projects eventually will supply more than half of the county government’s energy usage.

Anne Arundel County is not developing a climate action plan, but one of the government’s biggest climate initiatives is a program called Replant Anne Arundel, which led to 5,000 tree plantings last year, Johnston said. The county is currently looking at recently-released “tree equity score” data to identify the communities that need the most trees, he continued.

The city of Baltimore is working on updating its climate action plan, which will have an equity and resiliency lens, said Lisa McNeilly, the director of sustainability for Baltimore.

Prince George’s County aims to complete a first draft of its climate action plan by September after 15 months of working on it. This is at an accelerated pace compared to other counties that estimate spending two or more years developing their climate plans.

“This in line with the urgency of preparing for the climate crisis — but also reflects a very large endeavor undertaken in a short timeframe,” Andrea Crooms, the acting director of Prince George’s Department of the Environment, wrote in an email.

But one challenge is reaching communities most impacted by climate change and understanding their concerns, said Dawn Hawkins-Nixon, the chair of Prince George’s Climate Action Commission. About two-thirds of Prince George’s residents are Black and almost 20% are Latino, communities that disproportionately face greater harms from environmental factors, such as higher exposure to pollution and toxic waste.

Prince George’s County has held multiple public comment meetings on its plan, with the next one scheduled for Thursday.

A ‘nascent’ coalition of local climate officers

Leading climate efforts at the county level has been rewarding for Moore of Frederick County. “Being in local government — that’s where the rubber meets the road. People can put policies together at any scale, but where they actually make a difference is in the lives of people, and local governments touch individual people’s lives,” she said.

But there also needs to be collaboration among different regions of the state, Feldmark of Howard County said.

“Our system is set up so that each jurisdiction makes its own decisions that’s independent of every other jurisdiction, but the impacts of climate change are not going to stop at our borders,” he said. “When the Patapsco River floods, that affects Carroll, Baltimore, Howard and Anne Arundel counties.”

“In some cases, decisions need to be made for an entire region,” Feldmark added, “and I don’t think the system is set up for us to make those collaborative decisions.”

But a “nascent” coalition of local climate officers is beginning to form, according to Hochberg of Montgomery County. So far, it consists of seven of the largest counties and several municipalities, but the goal is to create something like the Colorado Communities for Climate Action — a coalition of 38 local governments collaborating on climate policy.

The purpose of the coalition is to jointly advocate for policies before the General Assembly and share information and best practices with each other, Hochberg continued.

But Feldmark thinks state legislation could also incentivize local jurisdictions to collaborate with one another, such as a tax incentive for private solar companies to build their projects in at least two jurisdictions in Maryland.

To Belton, the best that county governments can do is to set up a strong climate establishment within their own bureaucracies to prepare for whatever climate change throws at them, Belton said.

“I think the best thing county governments can do is have qualified knowledgeable professionals and organizational infrastructures like a resilience authority in place and ready to go,” he said, “so that the county can be flexible when these climate problems make themselves known to us.”

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