Mayors to Trump: ‘Don’t get in our way’

As Trump takes office, leaders of the country’s biggest cities are preparing to continue the climate fight.

The Los Angeles city skyline. CREDIT: AP Photo/Nick Ut
The Los Angeles city skyline. CREDIT: AP Photo/Nick Ut

On the eve of President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration, Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti had a message for an incoming administration with notoriously backwards views on climate policy.

“Don’t get in our way,” he told a small group of reporters at the United States Conference of Mayors’ winter meeting.

There are projects, Garcetti continued, where federal support would certainly be looked upon favorably — helping Los Angeles reduce its dependence on imported water, for instance, or transition its public transportation fleet from natural gas to electricity. But in the absence of a strong federal ally, the best case scenario for cities under Trump would be the autonomy to carry out their climate policies unencumbered.

“We’d love a federal partner that can help accelerate this, but at the very least, just don’t get in our way,” Garcetti reiterated.

The age of Trump ushers in an unsettling future for American climate policy: as a candidate, Trump promised to unleash fossil fuel extraction on federal lands and along the nation’s coasts, roll back environmental regulations, and withdraw from the international leadership role the previous administration worked so hard to build.

As president-elect, his decisions have been equally antagonistic towards climate action — he and his transition team have named climate deniers to every major environmental cabinet position, sought information on career employees that worked on Obama-era climate policies, and pledged to cut entire programs from the Department of Energy.

Meanwhile, the consequences of human-caused climate change are becoming increasingly clear and increasingly dire. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) just officially named 2016 the hottest on record, breaking previous records set in 2015 and 2014. Extreme weather events are becoming more common — and climate change definitively played a role in dozens of floods, heat waves, and droughts throughout 2016.

As city leaders, mayors are familiar with both the consequences and the causes of climate change. Population density and geographic location — the fact that many cities are located along the coast, for instance — make them especially vulnerable to the kinds of extreme weather events and sea level rise fueled by climate change. But cities are also responsible for 75 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, meaning action taken at the local level can go a long way towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.

That’s a fact mayors like Garcetti are taking to heart. The city has plans to enact sweeping climate policies — from pledging to go completely carbon neutral in its electricity sector to planning a vast expansion of the city’s public transportation system. Those are initiatives, Garcetti said, that can be accomplished at a local level but can have national and international implications. Mayors, it is said, are a notoriously competitive bunch — if one city enacts a policy that both benefits the environment and saves money, other cities are likely to follow. Last year, for instance, Los Angeles made the decision to purchase electric vehicles for all new non-patrol police vehicles — a move that saved the city 60 percent on fleet maintenance.

“You can’t be a good mayor without talking about how you’re going to convert your street lights to LED. You can’t be a good mayor without saying where your EV plug-ins are going to be for people. It’s become normalized,” Garcetti said. “It’s not just our city. It’s Michigan, it’s Colorado, it’s Texas, it’s Indiana, it’s South Carolina, it’s North Carolina, it’s Ohio, it’s Nevada. We’ve got cities everywhere. It’s small, it’s big, it’s in between. And it’s growing.”

The economic case for climate action — the fact that Los Angeles’ $57 million worth of LED lights paid for themselves with returns on energy efficiency in just six years, for instance — is one mayors are hoping will get through to the jobs-focused administration. In Boston, a study is underway to test autonomous vehicles on the city streets, a move that could both lower emissions and fundamentally transform the city’s economy.

“As that program gets vetted and moves forward, the Trump administration might not look at the savings on the environment side of that, but they’re certainly going to look at the business side of that,” Boston mayor Marty Walsh said.

Electric vehicles in Los Angeles. CREDIT: AP Photo/Nick Ut, File
Electric vehicles in Los Angeles. CREDIT: AP Photo/Nick Ut, File

Both Garcetti and Walsh noted that for many mayors, climate action is not the partisan issue it has become at the federal level. Walsh said that when Boston started talking about making a pledge to become carbon-neutral by 2050, a Republican mayor from a small town nearby signed onto the pledge and even dedicated staff and resources to the issues. Garcetti brought up Jim Brainard, the Republican mayor of Carmel, Indiana, who has worked to make his city more climate-friendly during his 21-year tenure in office.

“We really have a ton of allies who understand,” Garcetti said. “Republicans represent a lot of outdoors people who are seeing the change on the frontline when they are out there, people who spend a lot of time seeing those impacts and even having to fight them.”

But while cities can take significant steps to reduce their carbon footprints and improve environmental policies — “the federal government can’t force me to make my buildings more polluting, or to emit more energy or use more water,” Garcetti said — there are things the federal government can do to slow that progress. Trump has promised to essentially zero out federal funding for the research and development of renewable energy, which would significantly undermine the United States’ green energy sector.

“I think we would take some steps backwards with some very important things that are clearly about the Trump agenda: for national security and for manufacturing jobs, for batteries, for electric vehicles, for solar power,” Garcetti said of cuts to federal funding. “We can see those only being done in other places, or we can retain those jobs here. I think if this administration looks at what are the high-paying jobs of the future, which I know they are laser-focused on, you can’t take out green jobs because the ideology that somebody in the administration has says that this is combating a problem that doesn’t exist.”

Another concern is that a Trump administration — bolstered by a Republican majority in Congress — will prove so opposed to climate action that they take steps to preempt any progressive climate action at the state or local level. Trump’s nominee for EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, stoked these fears during his confirmation hearing when he refused to promise Democratic lawmakers from California and Massachusetts that he would uphold a waiver that allows California to set stricter vehicle emissions standards than the national average.

“I think it would be not only bad for California but bad for the nation,” Garcetti said of preemption strategies like denying California’s waiver. “If we’re settling for being average, I don’t see that this country will have much progress.”

“If we’re settling for being average, I don’t see that this country will have much progress.”

“We will very strongly fight against attempts to roll back California’s independence to chart its own path,” he added. “It has been good for jobs and great for the country.”

But even if the federal government tries to slow — or halt — climate action at a local level, mayors like Garcetti are prepared to fight back, arguing that a Trump administration can only slow, not stop, progress.

“In a worst case scenario, the federal government can take away maybe 20 or 30 percent of our progress, and I’d rather have 100 percent than 70 or 80 percent, but I feel like that 70 or 80 percent of further progress is inevitable based on the leadership that we’ve already had,” he said.

Boston’s Walsh agreed.

“You’re talking about on the ground where you can actually make a difference, not a policy coming down from Congress,” Walsh added. “It’s actually something being carried out on the streets of our cities in America.”