Can a town go fossil fuel-free? Takoma Park and Ann Arbor are about to see

In the fight against global warming, how far should governments go in forcing residents to change? One Maryland suburb is testing the limits. This story is part of an occasional series on “Climate Realities.”

Michael Bonfigli/Special to The Christian Science MonitorA house in Takoma Park, Maryland, sports solar panels on March 30, 2020. The suburb was one of the first places in the country to declare itself “nuclear-free,” and now aims to go fossil fuel-free by 2045.

April 2, 2020 by Timmy Broderick Staff writer @broderick_timmy

Gina Mathias has what many would consider a dream job.

A lifelong environmentalist, Ms. Mathias is the sustainability manager of Takoma Park. The leafy Maryland suburb is one of the most progressive cities in the United States – a place where residents boast about their town’s preponderance of solar panels and electric vehicles. They’re proud it was one of the first places in the country to declare itself “nuclear-free.”

But many of those same residents were in an uproar in February when Ms. Mathias brought a resolution to the City Council that laid out an ambitious agenda to combat climate change in the coming decades. The most contentious idea: making Takoma Park a fossil fuel-free community by 2045, a feat that has not been done before in the U.S.

Becoming fossil fuel-free would entail everything from retrofitting gas stations to retiring gas-powered water heaters and leaf blowers. The debate at the council meeting centered around the potential cost and timeline – and whether the Takoma Park city government should be able to force residents to phase out their gas stoves and furnaces.

As Ms. Mathias sees it, the question of whether such a program should be mandatory has already been answered.Eating in: How to transform pantry staples into comfort food

“That’s why we’re in the climate crisis to begin with – voluntary programs. If they worked the way that we would hope they would, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” she says.

Michael Bonfigli/Special to The Christian Science MonitorThis station, located on Carroll Avenue in Takoma Park, Maryland, and shown here on March 30, 2020, was the first in the nation to switch from gas pumps to electric vehicle chargers.

The council passed a revised resolution in early March, but the surrounding tumult made it clear that city leaders will have to carefully consider when to make mandates and how citizens will take the mandatory approach.

Takoma Park’s experience is likely to be a precursor for other fights that could soon bubble up as more and more towns reckon with the climate crisis.

“What we do in Takoma Park makes its way around the country,” says Ms. Mathias. “We get calls pretty regularly from other cities looking to implement … other environmental programs that we’ve implemented already. All the cities – we talk to each other, we share what we do, we learn from each other.”

If governments want citizens to back their ideas and proposals, they will need to be savvy about how they frame the discussion, says Reuven Sussman, a social and environmental psychologist at the nonprofit American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

“Some people think that implementing policy is all you need to do in order to get the change made,” he says, “[but] if you’re able to create a situation where the default behavior is the one you’re trying to do as opposed to the default being something that people are already doing, you can get a lot done.”

Like many things today, Takoma Park’s fossil fuel-free moves are temporarily on the back burner as the coronavirus crisis commands attention. Mayor Kate Stewart noted in an email that amid the crisis, “we are still figuring out how committees can meet.”

Planting the seeds in 2014

For years, the environment has been a top issue in Takoma Park. In 2014, the city entered a nationwide contest to reduce home energy use and placed third. The competition planted the seeds for this year’s resolution, as it helped the city determine the best emissions-cutting strategies.

It also exposed the limits of voluntary participation programs. Ms. Mathias struggled to get 20% of the city’s homes to participate.

“We did direct mailing; we did dozens and dozens of public education events, neighborhood meetings in people’s homes. We hit every single kind of public outreach over a two-year period, short of having a marching band go up and down every street at 6 a.m. to get people to wake up,” she says.

Despite the high-ranking finish in the contest, the city’s mobilization of resources has proved somewhat ineffective. Per capita emissions barely declined from 2012 to 2017, and total emissions still increased for the 2-square-mile town. The tepid results have motivated city leaders to push for more aggressive measures, like hitting net-zero emissions by 2035.

Transportation is responsible for the bulk of those emissions, but the city has more control over housing. It is calling for building-based interventions like lighting upgrades, the establishment of minimum energy-efficiency standards, and the swapping out of gas appliances for electric ones.

More and more cities are considering such reforms, particularly after Berkeley, California, became the first American city to ban natural gas infrastructure in new buildings last year. A recent report suggests that expanding the renewable energy industry and aggressive electrification could reduce U.S. building emissions by nearly 80% by 2050.

The trend concerns Takoma Park residents like Ariel Woods, who worries that electrification costs will unfairly burden renters and low-income homeowners.

“We like saying that we’re nuclear-free, [and] I see the appeal of saying, ‘Takoma Park, a fossil fuel-free town!’ But I would rather be a town that has lower income inequality than be a fossil fuel-free town,” says Ms. Woods, who used to rent and now owns a home in the city.

The cost to replace appliances

If residents had to replace every appliance at once, it would cost roughly $25,000, says Ms. Mathias. However, the city is working on a sustainability fund, she adds, and still has funds left over from federal and state grants that not enough residents used – part of the reason they’re opting for requirements instead of more voluntary programs.

However, forcing residents to give up their incandescent lightbulbs and gas stoves – albeit at the end of their natural life cycle – sparked heated discussions in council meetings and neighborhood online forums.

Michael Bonfigli/Special to The Christian Science MonitorA sign along Carroll Avenue welcomes people to Takoma Park, Maryland, on March 30, 2020. For years, the environment has been a top issue in this suburb.

Mike Lastort has lived in his house since 1994 and doesn’t always care for the domestic intrusions.

“I guess I’ve got a bit of a ‘Don’t tell me what to do’ attitude sometimes when it comes to government,” says Mr. Lastort, a self-declared social democrat. “I don’t want government to say, ‘Do this just because I said so.’ And that seems kind of like what Takoma Park did with this proposal; it doesn’t seem like they thought [it] all the way through.”

If people feel their freedom is being infringed upon, they will do the opposite of what is asked of them, says Mr. Sussman – what social behavioral researchers call “reactance.”

“[Reactance] can really derail progress in policy. That’s why many policymakers will not go so far to make those expensive things mandatory,” he says.

The City Council softened the resolution’s language in a revised version after the initial outrage, but that only prompted a corresponding backlash from fervent environmentalists, who started a petition to encourage the council to restrengthen the framework.

“In the 1960s, we didn’t approach bigoted Southern sheriffs and say, ‘Will you voluntarily commit to integration every other Saturday in public facilities?’” says Mike Tidwell, who directs the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. “The consequences of lighting coal, oil, and natural gas on fire are so existentially harmful to every living being on this planet, that the moment has arrived where we have to commit to banning the practice of lighting this fuel on fire.”

The environmentalists’ gambit worked. The City Council revised the resolution again, writing the most ambitious document yet before passing it on March 4. The petition impressed Ms. Mathias.

“Generally in local issues the negative voice is what we hear the most, so to have a petition with that many signatures and to have this many people come out and support something that [City] Council is doing was really unusual,” she says. “I don’t remember in my last six years at the city anything drawing this level of support.”

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As for the gas stoves, Ms. Mathias says the uproar showed that they are a touch point, and she hints at potential exemptions. But the city may not need them. When asked to choose between his stove and a cleaner world, Mr. Lastort doesn’t hesitate.

“Yeah,” he says. “If it would be a little bit more difficult for me to make an omelet or something, if it would help save the planet, I’d rather save the planet.”

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