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Why Would a City Need a Chief Climate Officer?

Grace Rink, who does the job for the city of Denver using a taxpayer-supported fund specifically for climate action, explains why it’s vital.

Cars on a freeway approaching downtown Denver, which is hazy with smog.
Motorists approach a hazy downtown Denver.
(AAron Ontiveroz/TNS)
After a Supreme Court ruling widely received as a major setback for federal leadership on climate, Congress flipped the script by authorizing historic support for clean energy, electric vehicles and environmental justice.

“Local leaders are on the frontlines of the climate crisis, and the provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act will support critical investments in renewable energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” said Clarence E. Anthony, CEO of the National League of Cities, in a statement after the bill was signed.

As many as 80 percent of Americans support climate action, a study just published in Nature Communications found, but almost all experience the “false social reality” that others don’t share their views, possibly inhibiting them from speaking out. According to the authors, “supporters of climate policies outnumber opponents two to one, while Americans falsely perceive nearly the opposite to be true.”

The citizens of Denver, Colo., are not reluctant to demand their leaders do something about climate, or to commit personal resources to support them. In 2020, they overwhelmingly approved a 0.25 percent increase in sales taxes to create a Climate Protection Fund (CPF).

The CPF raises $40 million a year to “mitigate the causes of climate change,” more than 10 times what the city’s general fund had been able to provide for such work. The city’s Climate Action Task Force has estimated that between averted impacts and savings, its climate investments will yield at least a fourfold return, and possibly approach sevenfold.

A Local Climate Agency

In 2020, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and its City Council created an Office of Climate Action, Sustainability and Resiliency. Grace Rink was appointed as the director of this new agency and Denver’s first chief climate officer.

Prior to coming to Denver, Rink had led her own consulting company, guiding government agencies, corporations and educational institutions through sustainability assessments and plans. She drew on previous experience at multinational consulting firm AECOM. As a senior project manager there, she led teams assisting clients with green building, water conservation, emissions reduction, nature stewardship and other sustainability programs and policies.

In a Governing interview, Rink talked about the role of a chief climate officer and gave an overview of some of her current priorities. The interview was edited for length and clarity.
Three people riding e-cargo bikes for Denver Food Rescue.
Denver’s Climate Protection Fund supported a project that provided e-cargo bikes to Denver Food Rescue. The nonprofit uses bike-powered deliveries as part of it efforts to promote health equity and decrease food waste.
(City of Denver)
Governing: Why would a city need a chief climate officer? 

Grace Rink: A lot of cities have a chief climate officer or chief sustainability officer, a more common term. The work that we do requires a lot of collaboration across agencies.

There’s no one agency that can own all of the policy work as well as the implementation, especially when it comes to infrastructure. The idea is that there should be somebody coordinating all that — a chief who reports to the mayor, regardless of where they’re located in the hierarchy.

Governing: What kinds of things might a climate officer need to coordinate?

Grace Rink: There are plenty of agencies that are doing climate work that aren’t calling it climate work. You have transportation agencies that are installing bike lanes or increasing bus rapid transit or access to bus lines.

That’s climate work, but people who are in transportation agencies don’t necessarily think of that because their job is to move people. A chief climate officer can bring a different perspective and can sometimes accelerate the priority for that type of work.

There’s general services, or whichever agency manages all the facilities for a city. All of those buildings combined have a pretty heavy footprint. A chief climate officer can bring all the different players to the table to unify around policies and programs and implementation.

Governing: There may be hundreds of people with jobs like yours, but aren’t you the first to have a tax supporting your work?

Grace Rink: Actually, Portland is ahead of us. It has had a corporate income tax since the ’60s and about three or four years ago they voted to increase it for climate action work. They’re one year ahead of us, but as far as I know our cities are the only ones that have a taxpayer-supported fund specifically for climate action.

Governing: How did your office come to be funded?

Grace Rink: In Colorado, no unit of government is allowed to raise taxes on its own — no board of commissioners, no school board, no city council. All tax raises have to go to the people for a vote.

One of the recommendations by Denver’s Climate Action Task Force was that the city should have a sales tax increase to fund our office. They presented that to the City Council, and the City Council sent a ballot initiative to the people to vote on in November of 2020. About 64 percent of the voters said “yes,” and now our office receives about $40 million a year, which is just incredible.

Very often a climate officer is an army of one. It’s one person who reports to the mayor or city manager. Sometimes they have a couple of interns. In a few cities they have actual staff, but very infrequently do they have a real budget.

The fact that we do has changed everything. Now when we’re talking to stakeholders in the community about policies that we would be pursuing anyway, we also have money to bring to the table, which opens a lot of doors.

Governing: Is Colorado’s abundance of natural beauty a factor in Denver’s willingness to support climate action? 

Grace Rink: Absolutely. Colorado has a well-deserved reputation for environmental protection and people move here and visit here because they love the outdoor life. They want to protect the places and the people they love.

Still, Americans don’t like to be taxed. They don’t like to have the fixed costs in their lives increased. Gas prices are up, energy prices are going up in many parts of the country, food and other prices as well. That creates a lot of discomfort.

The first costs required to do the work we need to do to decarbonize our economy and get off of fossil fuels are going to be disruptive, not just big to companies, but to individual lives. Even here in Colorado, we still face plenty of challenges in trying to make these changes.

Governing: There are almost 20,000 cities and towns in the U.S. Is there a size at which one might need a climate officer?

Grace Rink: Before I got this job, I was a consultant and did sustainability consulting for cities. I worked with plenty of smaller cities where it would not have made any sense for them financially to hire their own person — not just financially, but the scale or the scope of their city wasn’t big enough to justify it.

But for a collection of smaller cities in the same region, contiguous to each other, or within, say, a 40- or 50-square-mile area, it would make sense to band together and have one person doing this work for them.

There are challenges in that; even when cities think alike, they still have their own building codes, they have their own zoning codes. Like everything in this work, it takes collaboration, it takes coalitions.

If smaller cities are interested in doing this, finding just one partner to collaborate with on even one subject is a start. Waste management is a good one. It can be streamlined and shared across communities and costs can be reduced for cities, residents and businesses.

That’s just one small example of how cities can pool their resources in an impactful way.
Our goal is that by 2030, the building code will require that all new construction buildings and homes have to be net zero.
Grace Rink, Chief Climate Officer, City of Denver
Governing: What are you focused on at present?

Grace Rink: In Denver, we try to focus our energies where we really have control — building codes and zoning codes, roadway decisions and electric vehicle charging.

Many cities, especially larger cities, are home rule cities. They can choose for themselves what to do with their building and zoning codes.

If you want to get your city to net zero, you do that through the building code, and we’re working on that right now. In Denver, 65 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions come from space and water heating in our buildings and homes.

Governing: What steps have you taken?

Grace Rink: We’ve done it in two ways. One was in November of 2021, when the City Council passed a policy we recommended, the Energize Denver building performance policy. It requires all of our commercial buildings that are 25,000 square feet and larger to reduce the emissions from their energy use to nearly net zero by 2040. Most buildings will have to reduce at least 30 percent by 2030.

It’s key to say “emissions” and not just energy. We’re really looking at a wholesale transition from natural gas space and water heating to electrified space and water heating. The reason that will work in Denver is that our electrical utility, Xcel Energy, has already committed that 80 percent of its electrical grid will be powered by renewable sources by 2030. They’ve estimated it might be as high as 85 percent.

That’s the first foray into a change in our building code, and that’s already been passed.

Governing: And the other?

Grace Rink: Then we look at new construction. By 2050, 40 percent of the buildings and homes in Denver will have been built since 2021. That’s a lot of buildings.

We are just now introducing the first proposals to get electrification and minimum solar requirements into the building code. Denver’s building code is updated every three years and there are about three code cycles between now and 2030. Our goal is that by 2030, the building code will require that all new construction buildings and homes have to be net zero. They’ll accomplish that through their design.

There are a lot of forces at play that are going to make that challenging. But we have a history of doing things through task forces, and the proposals that we’re working on right now are being vetted by multiple committees. There are some city staff on them, but the majority of the people are architects, designers, engineers, building owners, developers, contractors and construction managers.

They’re at the table reviewing these proposals and telling us what will and won’t work. They’re working together collaboratively to get to a place that even the practitioners can see working.

Governing: You mentioned zoning code. What about that?

Grace Rink: As much as Denver loves the environment, the zoning code doesn’t have any protections for existing trees or landscapes. We don’t have any requirements for new construction to install trees or landscapes.

We’re working on that too, and that’s another collaboration between multiple departments. Community Planning and Development is the agency that owns the building and zoning code, but when it comes to landscapes, the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure has a role to play in the permitting, especially for stormwater management and green infrastructure projects. Parks and Recreation also has a role, but nobody has domain over private property trees or green infrastructure.

All those agencies are working together, and we’re at the table too helping to facilitate. It will be revolutionary for Denver when this change to our code comes about.
Jenny Esquivel.
Jenny Esquivel is a participant in a community-based needs assessment in the city’s Sun Valley neighborhood. Feedback from residents will inform Climate Protection Fund projects.
(City of Denver)
Governing: Denver had a historically hot July this year. How much of your work is about resilience and adaptation?

Grace Rink: We’re allowed to spend money based on the language in the ballot initiative. There are six allowable uses: workforce development; renewables and battery storage; community-scale climate adaptation and resiliency; environmental justice; sustainable mobility and energy efficiency in buildings and homes. We see these as interconnecting circles.

In Denver, we look at the differences in resilience capability/vulnerability between our different communities. An average or higher income household is more resilient than a low-income household, even without taking the environmental conditions in their community into consideration.

Our colleagues in Parks and Rec are on top of green infrastructure and getting more green space in the city, the resilience of place.

We are looking at the resiliency of people and what they need in order to live a more successful and healthy life given the environmental conditions that are changing because of the climate.

Governing: How does job creation fit into this work?

Grace Rink: It wouldn’t be wise for us to create policies that incentivize work for which there are no workers to do the work. In our first year with this fund, we funded six organizations that provide a broad spectrum of opportunities in workforce development, starting with Denver Public Schools.

We have a contract with an organization that provides career exposure opportunities for high school students so that they can learn about green trades jobs. How do you get into being a solar installer or running the company that does the solar installation?

There are organizations that provide on-the-job apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship training opportunities for adults who are working in what we call “industries in transition,” like the fossil fuel industry, and giving opportunities to get straight into these jobs and off onto a successful career. These jobs pay enough for workers to live in this community, which is really important to us.

We have data to show that the work that we’re doing, that we’re paying for, creates jobs. It creates economic stimulation. This is the way that the world is going.

Grace Rink.
Grace Rink: “Elected and appointed officials need to remember that the people want this. They really want us to act on climate change.”
(Evan Semón Photography)
Governing: Any last thoughts?

Grace Rink: Elected and appointed officials need to remember that the people want this. They really want us to act on climate change. They are tired, tired of being burned out of their homes. They’re tired of being flooded.

We are already seeing climate migration across this country. People love the places where they live. They don’t want to leave.

There’s an imperative on local government to look at what is within their scope of control, around which there is some consensus.

Even in the most conservative communities, where elected and appointed officials may believe that their people don’t want to do this, I bet there is some angle, some way for them to come at climate questions that can build consensus.
Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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