In theory, tens of thousands of these municipal officials could vote in the election. But people running busy departments have tended to let this duty fall off their radar, with many of those eligible to vote never signing up to take part. And of those who do sign up, some are chiefly concerned with provisions like fire safety, so they stop voting when they get to the energy provisions.
By now you may be wondering why all this is important. Because when so few people vote, groups opposed to improved building codes can gin up enough no votes to kill important measures — with long-term consequences for all of us. I repeat: This is a central aspect of the energy policy for the entire country, routinely decided by fewer voters than might turn out for a New England town hall.
When the energy codes started, proponents of better buildings made some amazing gains; over the course of two code cycles a decade ago, projected energy use in buildings was cut by more than 30 percent. But the last two times the vote was held, important changes to the model building code were voted down, in some cases by relatively few votes.
And who would be against them? The National Association of Home Builders. This industry group always complains vociferously about requirements like newer window technology or better light fixtures that will drive up builders’ costs by 1 or 2 percent. Of course the buyers of those houses would get the money back in a few short years through lower energy bills, a point the opponents rarely mention.
For the coming election, a coalition of experts focused on building efficiency is aiming for a minimum improvement of 10 percent, and hoping for more. Given how slow the building industry is to change, 10 percent is a big number. The home builders are already organizing to try to block the effort.
So we need our communities to act. In particular, more than 400 American mayors have committed themselves to battling greenhouse emissions. If you are one of them, here is a concrete step: Make sure that your city or county agencies have paid their dues to the International Code Council, the group that runs this election, and that they intend to nominate voting representatives. The deadline to pay the dues is March 29, and if your jurisdiction does not sign up by then, it will not be able to cast votes this fall.
The measures themselves are pretty technical, so how can you tell which are good? Anybody planning to vote on the model code should follow the work of the Energy Efficient Codes Coalition, in Washington, which plans to offer advice on specific measures.
Once an improved model code is out next year, mayors should move to adopt it for their localities as quickly as possible. Yes, the local builders will whine. You can point out to them that we are trying to salvage a livable climate for our children and grandchildren, and we really need their help putting up less wasteful buildings.
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