04/27/2011 05:54 pm ET Updated Jun 27, 2011

The Distance Between Antarctica and Your Community

Earth Day serves as a time to appreciate and celebrate the natural wonders of our planet -- and a moment to rally ourselves to do the work necessary to save it. Several weeks ago, I was given an opportunity to experience this appreciation and motivation in an entirely new way. I was invited on a trip to Antarctica, one of the most extraordinary places on Earth, and one of the most threatened. My trip put the work of local governments, and the urgency for action at all levels of government, in a new perspective.

What Antarctica Reveals

In Antarctica, I saw the evidence of climate change firsthand as our expedition circled the remnants of the Larsen B ice shelf that so famously shocked the world when it disintegrated in 2002. You can view my video above to get a sense for yourself.

2041 Expedition - Martin Chavez from ICLEI USA on Vimeo.

The trip was hosted by 2041, explorer Sir Robert Swan's expeditionary group dedicated to educating the world's environmentalists, academics and corporate leaders about the direct, damaging effects of greenhouse gases on our planet. 2041 is not just an arbitrary name or number, it is the year in which the Protocol on Environmental Protection expires for Antarctica, and it serves as a constant reminder of the urgent need to address climate change and that time is a factor. Antarctica is the last great wilderness on earth, a point that was poignantly reinforced by the 2041 team during our trip, as we saw with our own eyes the indisputable evidence that climate change is happening now, and it is happening fast. Sir Robert Swan, the first person in history to walk both the both the North and South poles, is simply awe-inspiring and the driving force behind the global effort to preserve the Antarctica for future generations.

Local Governments on the Front-Lines of Climate Change

In the same way that the polar extremes reveal to us the front lines of a changing climate, local governments show us the front lines of our response. They have long been the first responders in the climate crisis; their examples continue to inspire and challenge us to do more each and every day.

Big Challenges, Innovative Opportunities

A survey of America's current environmental challenges can seem bleak at best. We find ourselves without comprehensive climate and energy legislation, facing attacks on the EPA's existing authority to regulate atmospheric pollution, and watching our climate warm as greenhouse gas concentrations continue to rise.

But once again, we can look to local governments for inspiration and innovative solutions. New York City's PlaNYC sustainability plan, for example, spells out how to reduce carbon emissions by 4.5 million metric tons by 2030. Its Greener, Greater Buildings Plan envisions dramatic energy and resource savings for 24,000 of the city's largest buildings, which take up half of New York's citywide square footage and are responsible for 45 percent of the city's greenhouse gas emissions. The plan, first signed into law in 2009 by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, makes it the most comprehensive set of energy efficiency laws in the country.

On the opposite coast, the City of San Jose, CA, has set ambitious renewable energy goals for itself, striving to meet 100 percent of its energy needs through renewables by 2023, as outlined in the city's Green Vision. To reach this goal, San Jose is implementing projects with support from DOE's Solar America Communities program, which ICLEI USA is helping to scale across the country. San Jose's progress will occur incrementally, as the city aims to increasingly rely on solar energy to power its community. Over a two-year period, San Jose will increase solar installations by 15 percent, and the ultimate goal of the project is reduce the level of greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2045.

Innovation Factories

Again and again, we see climate solutions coming not from the top down, but the bottom up. Local governments are our innovation factories, where successful new ideas can be tested and eventually replicated at a nationwide scale. This is the work of ICLEI USA, to foster local innovation and provide the opportunity to our members to innovate in their communities in ways that complement their unique local interests and situations. As we continue to address climate change and encourage sustainability, it's heartening to know that we are also contributing to Sir Robert Swan's mission of safeguarding the pristine splendor of Antarctica.

ICLEI USA is the leading nonprofit organization devoted to local governments engaged in sustainability, climate protection, and clean energy initiatives. The local governments we serve -- including more than 600 active U.S. members -- recognize the importance of creating livable, prosperous communities, addressing climate change, and saving energy and money in the process. ICLEI USA provides the expertise, technical support, training, and tools to help its members advance their goals. See for more information.