A simulation of extreme flooding from 1936 Potomac flood. Screenshot from Vimeo.

Climate change is real and happening faster than scientists ever predicted, posing devastating impacts for our low-lying and vulnerable region. So how are local governments responding to the crisis?

Activists want DC to divest, or take its money out of fossil fuel stocks as one way to demonstrate its commitment to urgent action. Tomorrow, DC Divest will hold an event to educate people about local climate impacts and the local movement for divestment.

The scientific consensus around climate change has been strengthening over the past two decades, while forecasts have only worsened. For the DC region, a 2008 report from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments predicts sea-level rise up to a foot by 2030 and over three feet by 2095.

As if our summers weren’t hot enough for local farmers or our already-struggling Metro infrastructure, scientists predict temperatures will continue to rise up to 9.5 degrees Fahrenheit by 2095. While we narrowly missed the worst of the path of Superstorm Sandy, various studies indicate more extreme weather events like last summer’s derecho storm will only become more frequent and intense.

In addition, a recent report from the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin predicts climate change could cut water flows in the river by 35% by 2040. The Potomac currently supplies 75% of the region’s drinking water.

Summary of climate impacts for the DC region from MWCOG 2008 report.
Summary of climate impacts in the DC region from MWCOG’s 2008 report.


Needless to say, climate change poses a major threat to our region’s ability to provide very basic necessities like fresh drinking water, protection from flooding and disasters, and access to fresh, local food. Despite the scientific community’s certainty and frightening predictions, a mixture of climate denialism, vested special interests, and inertia have combined to stall practically any action on Capitol Hill thus far.

However, the story at the local and regional level tends to be brighter. Local governments, which face less pressure from the fossil fuel lobby, are making some important steps towards lowering emissions from their energy, transportation, and land use sectors. DC recently completed its Sustainable DC Plan, with a goal of making DC the healthiest, greenest, and most livable city in the United States.

Earlier this year, the District got started by signing a contract to use wind power for 100 percent of the city’s electricity needs. Meanwhile, Governor O’Malley recently announced several ambitious goals for Maryland, including reducing emissions 25% by the year 2020.

Across the river in Virginia, action has been slower. But just a few days ago, mayors fed up with their gubernatorial candidates debating the very existence of climate change gathered to tell them to stop debating and start taking action to protect the state’s many low-lying communities. “The fact of the matter is, we’ve got rising waters,” said Republican state senator John Watkins. “We’ve got recurrent flooding. There are more 100-year storms in the last 15 years than we’ve ever seen.”

While local activists applaud local and state jurisdictions’ climate plans, it’s clear that we are still doing too little, too slowly to truly address a crisis of this magnitude. So in addition to the very practical and important solutions proposed thus far, local activists have begun encouraging local elected officials and institutions to take a moral stand and “put their money where their mouth is” by taking their investments out of any holdings in fossil fuel companies.

The strategy harkens back to the successful campaigns to end apartheid in South Africa and to urge universities and institutions to divest from the tobacco industry when it became clear smoking was killing people.

Fossil fuel divestment advocates around the nation argue we shouldn’t be investing in companies with business plans that rely on wrecking our planet, and that divestment sends a signal that if fossil fuel companies won’t get serious about climate change, it’s time to leave the industry behind. Here in our region, advocates in DC and Montgomery County have recently started serious campaigns to encourage their elected officials to divest.

Activists in the District are still working to get full disclosure on the amount of the city’s retirement funds, General Fund, and Health and Annuity Trust invested in fossil fuel companies. They already know that about 3.3% of the Health and Annuity Trust is invested in fossil fuels. Research shows that that moving the District’s modest investments in fossil fuel companies to more socially responsible funds is a very low-risk proposition, and could actually be more profitable.

So far, several DC councilmembers have given DC Divest organizers a warm response. Just a few days ago, Phil Mendelson introduced the Fossil Fuel Divestment Act of 2013 with several co-sponsors.

We need to move swiftly to cut emissions locally if we want a chance at maintaining a livable and competitive region. This includes shifting to wind and solar, and energy efficient buildings. It also includes many of the ideas frequently discussed in this blog, including investing in transit, not more highways, and in the compact, walkable, bikeable, and transit-oriented neighborhoods that all contribute to reducing transportation emissions.

If local governments have already committed to these principles and to action on climate change, investing in fossil fuels runs directly counter to their stated goals. Given the negligible fiscal impact, divestment ought to be a no-brainer for local governments and institutions eager to preserve a hospitable region for future generations.

To learn more about climate change’s impact to our region, and the movement to divest from fossil fuels, visit DC Divest and attend their upcoming “Draw the Line DC” event tomorrow at 2pm at Lincoln Park in Capitol Hill. Organizers will have displays illustrating future sea-level rise along the DC waterfront and other impacts we will face if we fail to act.

Kelly Blynn was a co-founder of 350.org and is currently the Next Generation of Transit Campaign Manager for the Coalition for Smarter Growth. However, the views expressed here are her own.