Clark County seeks to boost its climate change efforts with new position, coordinated planning

When former state Sen. Tick Segerblom ran for a seat on the Clark County Commission last year, one of his campaign goals was to address climate change. After Segerblom was elected, he thought he had identified the perfect jurisdictional entity to organize the Las Vegas Valley’s efforts around addressing the issue: The Southern Nevada Regional Planning Coalition.

The coalition, authorized by the Legislature in 1999, was originally formed to craft a high-level plan for the region that considered, among other things, conservation, air quality and land use. 

But its role was often duplicative with the Regional Transportation Commission, the designated metropolitan planning organization, which took responsibility for administering the regional plan. A few months into Segerblom’s term, the coalition’s board, with members from the county, Las Vegas, Boulder City, North Las Vegas and the school district voted 6-4 to disband the group.

“We thought it was going to be the vehicle to address climate change, growth and all of those things,” said Segerblom, a former coalition board member, who voted against dissolving it.

It wasn’t. And the strategy shifted to taking action within the county’s purview. 

“I went back to the drawing board to get the county to step up,” said Commissioner Justin Jones, who also sat on the coalition and spoke out against walking away from it. 

In September, one month after the coalition vote, Jones introduced a package to help the county organize its efforts around the issue. In October, the county became the first in Nevada to join the County Climate Coalition, committing to the goals of the Paris Climate Accord. The second action was to hire a sustainability manager. That job opening was scheduled to close on Friday. Once hired, the position will conduct a county climate audit and work on crafting an action plan. 

“Policy wise, there hasn’t been a lot at the county level,” Jones said.

The move was a significant and public step for a county that — with more than two-thirds of the state’s population — could play an outsized role in changing Nevada’s emissions portfolio. 

At the same time, the region is one of the places in Nevada most at risk from the effects of climate change. An April report named Las Vegas the fastest-warming city in the nation, with annual average temperatures increasing by more than five degrees over the past five decades. 

Increased heat poses a severe public health issue, in addition to slowing economic activity and causing changes in ecosystems that threaten species, habitat and the water they depend on.

Las Vegas sits within the Colorado River Basin, where changes in precipitation, soil conditions and temperature are modeled to reduce streamflow, a water source for most of the Southwest. 

Clark County’s push to address climate change comes as the state is also directing a spotlight on the issue. Jaina Moan, who works on climate policy for The Nature Conservancy, said with greater political support across the state, the county could be well placed to expand its efforts. 

“Clark County has a lot of opportunities to grow and address climate resilience,” she said.

But the county also faces headwinds. Some conservationists are concerned that a county lands bill, which would enable Las Vegas to grow beyond its current boundaries, could undermine the efforts by adding more carbon-emitting cars to the road and more asphalt, which amplifies heat. 

They see the county moving in two opposite directions. 

“I keep thinking: How can you pursue a sustainability plan and the Clark County Lands Bill,” said Brian Beffort, who leads the state’s Sierra Club chapter. “The two are absolutely incompatible.”

His comments were echoed by Patrick Donnelly, the state director for the Center for Biological Diversity and an early opponent of the bill. Donnelly said the county is missing an opportunity to use the federal legislation as a model for urban planning that integrates climate resilience.

“Instead it’s this old-fashioned regressive approach,” he said.

Marci Henson, who leads the county’s air quality department and the climate initiative, said that climate change is on the county’s mind with the lands bill. But she said that there were “realistic limitations on infill.” She said it would be important to ensure that growth happens in a way that does not exacerbate the total vehicle mileage or the heat caused by laying down more concrete.

The county has taken some steps to address the issue in the past, Henson said. In 2008, county officials had pushed an eco-initiative. Some steps were taken, such as upgrading its fleet. Efforts dissipated as attention shifted to keeping services afloat during the recession. 

“As we all come to grips with the reality of climate change, there is a need to focus and prioritize that in a way that hasn’t happened in the past,” Henson said in an interview last week. 

Jones’ initiative is meant to shift the county’s direction in a public way. Henson said that the county’s effort will look internally at how one of the state’s largest employers can improve its operations. The county will then look externally at addressing climate change across the region. 

Henson said that the county has already had conversations with other municipal organizations, including the city of Reno, which brought together dozens of regional groups to finalize a climate and sustainability plan this year. Beffort, who was involved in the Reno effort, said that involving the community was crucial, and said he would like to support Clark County in a similar effort. 

“Hundreds of stakeholders were engaged in [the] conversation,” he said.

That could address another challenge — that authority in Clark County is often dispersed across jurisdictions and agencies. From there, “the bureaucracies run themselves,” Segerblom said. 

Some local agencies, such as the Southern Nevada Water Authority, have been considering climate change in its decision-making for years. In its most recent long-term resource plan, the water authority included, for the first time, a climate scenario in its projections of growth and demand. 

But Jones echoed this concern, saying in an interview, that “unless all of the municipalities and the county are headed in the right direction, it’s going to be hard to meet carbon reduction.”

And in some cases, the research is incomplete. 

Kristen Averyt, the former president of the Desert Research Institute, is working with UNLV Interim President Marta Meana to organize research around climate change as part of a new initiative focused on urban development and sustainability. What Averyt has found is that there is not as much place-based research on Las Vegas’ overall environment as there is on other landscapes.

“There isn’t as much research there that is place-based as you might have in a place like Lake Tahoe or in the Colorado River,” she said. “There’s a lot more we need to be considering.”

Part of that is because the research itself is dispersed. Averyt said she has been working to organize research across UNLV departments, from urban affairs, public health and the sciences.

“The component that we really want to amplify is stitching all those excellent efforts together and looking at it through a climate lens,” Averyt said. “[It] is really about changing risk profiles, which need to be considered when you are investing in long-term climate action plans.”