Like many people, Portland, Oregon Mayor Charlie Hales endured a long election night. But surprised as he was at the outcome, he knew that one thing would not change:
“Cities are where the action is on climate, and there will be no turning back,” he said. “If we get it right, the world will get it right. And we can get it right without the support of the national government.”
This was true, in fact, even before the stunning upset election of Donald Trump as president. And Trump — who has called climate change a hoax and vowed to dismantle President Obama’s environmental record — can’t change that.
He will likely, as he has promised, keep the United States from fulfilling its obligations under the landmark global Paris Climate Agreement. He also may try to reinvigorate the fossil fuel industry by rolling back proposed federal regulations on emissions controls and by opening up oil drilling in protected lands, among other things.
Make no mistake: These measures threaten lasting harm to the climate. But Trump cannot stop cities — both in the United States and abroad — from cutting emissions and promoting sustainability. Even without rigorous federal policy, U.S. cities can take meaningful steps to protect the climate.
“If the national government is supportive, so much the better,” Hales, a first-term Democrat, said. “But if not, they will be irrelevant, and not a block to the actions we are taking at the local level.”
Cities are responsible for about 75 percent of the world’s total energy-related greenhouse gas emissions, while the vast majority of them are located on or near the coast, making cities especially vulnerable to the dangerous effects of climate change.
“The government has been trying to suppress science since Galileo, and it doesn’t work,” Hales said. “The storms are bigger. The heat load is going up. Floods and drought are worse. As mayors, we are dealing with real stuff. The climate movement is real and strong in cities because we are feeling these effects. We can’t base our decision-making on ideology.”
“As mayors, we are dealing with real stuff.”
Portland, Oregon — which first adopted a climate plan in 1993, at least a decade before most cities began coping with climate change — has replaced a waterfront highway with a park, brought back the modern streetcar, and enacted a green building policy, among other things. It also boasts the highest bike ridership in the country. The city council is considering a measure making it illegal for fossil fuel companies to build storage facilities in the city.
“We like to be a trailblazer,” Hales said.
Portland and other cities will continue to set transportation, building, and power standards that substantially lower emissions. Businesses will make sustainability a core practice all the way down the supply chain, recognizing that it is not only sound environmental policy, but that it will also bolster profit margins. Local governments will look to “green bonds” investments. They will require more city buildings to rely on renewable energy. They will switch to LED lights, electric vehicles, and clean diesel engines. And, they will divest from fossil fuel companies.
Kate Meis, Executive Director of the Local Government Commission in Sacramento, an organization that works with cities in California and across the country to build sustainable communities, agreed that local actions — and local activism — can bring major change.
“You can work with communities at the local level to develop solutions and innovations in a way that you can’t at the federal level,” she said.
“Leadership happens at the city level,” she said. “If you look at individual measures — recycling, for example, drought-tolerant landscaping, bike share and carpooling, solar panels and energy efficiency retrofitting — they all happened at the local level first.”
She described a number of activities going on throughout California cities, including one of particular pride, CivicSpark, an initiative of the state and the AmeriCorps program that helps local governments address climate change and water management needs. Each year the program recruits 68 “fellows” who contribute more than 65,000 hours at the local level to help California communities respond to climate change and water issues.
“This program is training future environmental stewards, which is where we need to go,” Meis said. “We’ve got these great pieces of hope happening all across the state. Instead of dwelling on what happened in the election, we need to focus on what we are doing now — and moving forward.”
Indeed, the focus on local action did not, unlike the Trump election, arrive overnight.
“Before [election] night, it was important that mayors and cities took the lead on climate change, today it’s essential,” said Mark Watts, executive director of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, a global network of cities fighting climate change.
He said that Trump’s election — and the likely U.S. exodus from the Paris Climate Agreement — does not represent a “rerun” of the Kyoto climate protocol, another international treaty intended to curb carbon emissions which, in 2001, former President George W. Bush declined to implement.
“There is just too much international commitment and too many governments, businesses and mayors shifting to a low carbon economy,” he said. “The debate has largely ended on whether or not we need to take action. I don’t think there’s a chance of derailing Paris, or the faintest glimmer of stopping city mayors, because their commitment is real.”
Watts also pointed to several encouraging outcomes from last week’s voting, which indicate a movement towards clean energy, efficiency, and climate mitigation:
- In Los Angeles, a major transit funding initiative, Measure M, passed with more than two-thirds of the required votes. It will generate an estimated $120 billion in the coming decades to revitalize the region’s transit systems, including system maintenance and fare subsidies, as well as a major expansion of the county’s growing rail network.
- In Boston, voters approved the Yes Better Boston local tax measure to fund affordable housing, open space improvements, and historic preservation.
- In Hales’ city of Portland, voters approved an affordable housing bond that will raise almost $260 million over the next 20 years. It allows the city to acquire and build affordable housing in Portland. New buildings will be in walkable neighborhoods, near public transit, improving the city’s per capita emissions.
And progress will continue. On November 30, mayors from a global network of 86 major cities, known as the C40, as well as business, climate and intellectual leaders, and representatives from non-governmental organizations, will meet in Mexico City for the group’s biennial summit.
New data is expected to emerge that will almost certainly indicate an increase in mitigation efforts and results. Last year at this time, cities already had undertaken almost 10,000 climate actions in the six years since the Copenhagen climate meeting and committed to reducing their CO2 emissions by three gigatons by 2030.
“One thing I am not worried about at all is the commitment of mayors to carry on their work on climate,” Watts said. “We also will get much support from other governments around the world.”
Hundreds of cities worldwide, in fact, have signed onto the Compact of Mayors, pledging to take local action to curb carbon emissions. The compact, which is overseen by the C40, was launched by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It represents the world’s largest coalition of city leaders committed to supporting climate change action in their cities.
Along with cities, states and provinces also have become involved in the effort to curb emissions. The Under 2 MOU initiative, for example, has brought together 165 local and regional governments from around the world. They signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) agreeing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 95 percent by 2050. Together, these regions represent roughly a third of the global economy.
Watt’s believes Trump’s election will do little to erode progress at the local level.
“The mayors will continue to lead on climate change,” he said. “This is not a hammer blow that will make tackling climate change impossible. The momentum toward a low-carbon world is just too great.”
Marlene Cimons writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.