Overlooking the city of Eugene.

Opinion: Eugene must act now to address climate change

by Bethany Cotton, Conservation Director for Cascadia Wildlands
Originally published in The Register-Guard, March 26, 2022

The city of Eugene is suffering from the same chronic inaction on climate change as the global community, referred to by the United Nations Environment Program as an adaptation gap: “the difference between actually implemented adaptation and a societally set goal.”  

In just a few weeks, Eugene City Council has an opportunity to shift that trajectory and finally execute its Climate Action Plan by adopting an ordinance that will help the city electrify our energy sector — a key step in becoming more resilient in the face of climate change. 

Beginning in 2020, community members, climate and tenant’s rights advocates brought forward a plan for Eugene to move our community away from its reliance on fossil fuels. The first essential step is to ensure future construction is all-electric, the next is to develop a just transition plan for existing buildings. 

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report is profoundly dire, with the U.N. Secretary-General stating this week, “we are sleepwalking to climate catastrophe.” Understanding the dire consequences of inaction to address climate change is also impacting people’s mental health. A recent study by The Lancet found young people are overwhelmingly experiencing climate anxiety, compounded by government inaction. 

Local school kids protest after walking out of school and gathering downtown to call for climate change action in September 2019. The march was inspired by the youth climate activism movement School Strike for Climate, spearheaded by 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg (photo by Andy Nelson/Register Guard).

Eugene residents who testified before the City Council urging the passage of the building electrification ordinance raised myriad valid points, each enough to justify adopting it: gas stoves pose a risk to the elderly and otherwise forgetful who may unintentionally leave burners on; indoor air pollution caused by gas appliances increase risk of asthma by up to 42%; the roughly 50% of Eugene residents who rent have no control over the energy source used by appliances in their homes; fracked gas is a potent, dangerous greenhouse gas, and more. 

Like so many aspects of the climate crisis, the health impacts of residential gas use is an environmental justice issue. The Oregon Health Authority concluded in 2014 and reiterated in 2018, “Low-income and minority populations in Oregon have existing environmental exposures and burdens of disease that place them at higher risk.” Noting, “[t]hese groups are more susceptible to climate-related health effects and have fewer resources to plan for, and recover from, climate impacts.” 

In addition to being the clear public health choice, electrification is less expensive, more efficient and better for our climate. The for-profit gas utility Northwest Natural is seeking approval from the Oregon Public Utility Commission for a rate increase that would result in an average 11.8% rise in residential ratepayer bills. Moreover, homes primarily heated by gas are not eligible for EWEB subsidies and zero-interest loans to make homes more energy-efficient. 

It’s time to ensure that we are building a livable future. Literally. New construction must be built in a manner that will not require retrofitting in just a few years to function with a decarbonized grid. Whether you are motivated by improving indoor air quality, addressing social justice inequities, reducing our dependence on energy sources that fuel global conflicts and complicate their resolution, cutting costs to renters and homeowners, or confronting climate impacts and their associated anxiety with action and hope, supporting a fossil-free Eugene is the clear path forward. 

Born, raised and educated in Oregon, Bethany Cotton is an environmental attorney and the Conservation Director for Cascadia Wildlands, cascwild.org.