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Climate Change: What Can Local Governments Do?

Climate Change: What Can Local Governments Do?

By early September, wildfires up and down the West Coast blazed, scorching millions of acres, razing entire communities, displacing thousands, and causing over a dozen deaths. In Washington State, the Town of Malden was virtually destroyed. Other communities also suffered extreme losses, including loss of life. The Pacific Northwest experienced prolonged exposure to toxic smoke—with cities here registering the worst air quality in the world. Scientific experts are telling us that we can expect these climate-related disasters to both continue and worsen in the decades to come—even if we act aggressively now to curb greenhouse gas emissions. And unfortunately, local governments end up absorbing many of the costs associated with these events.

While climate change may feel “too big” to tackle locally, the reality is there is a lot that can be done to address climate-related issues in our own communities. Indeed, many local governments in Washington State and around the country have adopted ambitious Climate Action Plans and other policies intended to both cut emissions as well as anticipate and prepare for climate-related impacts. Additionally, Washington State has prioritized a clean energy future. In 2019, the legislature passed SB 5116, which will eliminate coal power from the electrical grid by 2025 and transition the state to 100% clean electricity by 2045.

This blog will cover the basic elements of a Climate Action Plan, provide examples, and share some of the many resources related to climate policy available to local governments.

The Basics of Climate Action Plans

Climate Action Plans (CAPs) are “comprehensive roadmaps that outline the specific actions that a community will undertake to reduce greenhouse gas emissions” and adapt to the effects of climate change. See Institute for Local Government. This Climate Action Planning Guide describes a CAP as:

A strategy document that outlines a collection of measures and policies that reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Using the GHG emissions inventory as the foundation, a CAP defines GHG reduction goals based on local priorities for reducing emissions and provides the guiding framework for achieving those goals. A CAP can be a standalone document or it can be integrated into an existing plan, such as a comprehensive plan or a sustainability plan.

Local governments often incorporate adaptation and resiliency policies into their CAPs, as well (e.g., relating to sea level rise, drought, or wildfires).

Jurisdictions are wise to approach climate change policy through an equity lens. Equity in the climate change context means ensuring the just distribution of the benefits of climate protection and alleviation of unequal burdens created by climate change. See this Primer on Climate Action Plans developed for the City of Bend, Oregon. Effective CAPs will also quantify the benefits and co-benefits of implementing the various policies, demonstrating both the economic and ecological gains of such policies.

According to this Climate Action Audit prepared for the City of Salem, Oregon, in 2020, a CAP will typically cover the following five topic areas:

  • Buildings and Energy
  • Land Use and Urban Form
  • Transportation and Fuels
  • Consumption and Materials Management
  • Natural Systems and Community Wellbeing

A CAP will generally include policies in each of the identified topic areas intended to reduce emissions and promote sustainability — including, for example, incentivizing high-quality and energy-efficient buildings, planning for transit-centered and walkable communities, and adopting waste-reduction strategies.

Salem’s aforementioned Climate Action Audit includes a comprehensive review of 12 adopted CAPs (including CAPs from the cities of Tacoma and Bellingham), a ranking of different policies as “essential, priority, and additional,” an analysis of various public engagement strategies for the CAP adoption process, as well as a review of existing city policies that advance several of the goals of a CAP.

Examples of Climate Action Plans

If your community has not yet adopted a CAP or is looking to update its existing plan, there are many examples to model from — including several on MRSC’s Climate Change webpage. Cities and counties in Washington State with ambitious and comprehensive climate and sustainability-related plans are listed below.


Many resources are available to assist local governments of all sizes in developing CAPs and climate adaptation strategies. The following are just a handful:


MRSC recognizes that addressing climate change and its impacts will necessarily be a priority for local governments in the years to come. In line with this, we aim to improve and expand our existing climate-related content on our website. We also intend to provide timely and useful guidance to assist local governments through blog posts, trainings, and our inquiry service. We would love your feedback regarding what would be most helpful to your local government’s climate-related efforts moving forward. You can email any ideas or suggestions to

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

Photo of Jill Dvorkin

About Jill Dvorkin

Jill joined MRSC as a legal consultant in June 2016 after working for nine years as a civil deputy prosecuting attorney for Skagit County. At Skagit County, Jill advised the planning department on a wide variety of issues including permit processing and appeals, Growth Management Act (GMA) compliance, code enforcement, SEPA, legislative process, and public records. Jill was born and raised in Fargo, ND, then moved to Bellingham to attend college and experience a new part of the country (and mountains!). She earned a B.A. in Environmental Policy and Planning from Western Washington University and graduated with a J.D. from the University of Washington School of Law in 2003.