This Republican mayor is bucking his party to stand up for climate action

Mayor Jim Brainard of Carmel, Indiana is not afraid to talk about why climate and environment should be Republican issues.

Carmel, Indiana’s City Hall. CREDIT: iStock
Carmel, Indiana’s City Hall. CREDIT: iStock

Carmel, Indiana — the largest suburb of Indianapolis and the state’s fifth-largest city — is far from the Democratic strongholds of California or Massachusetts. But spend some time in Carmel, and you’ll see a fleet of hybrid city vehicles, sustainable LED streetlights, hundreds of miles of bike path, and one of the largest locally-focused farmers markets in the greater-Indianapolis area.

That’s because to six-term mayor and lifelong Republican Jim Brainard, making his city more sustainable — and reducing Carmel’s contribution to climate change — isn’t a liberal issue. It’s an issue that speaks to his vision of conservatism, and he deeply believes more Republican leaders should start speaking up about climate change as well.

“I somewhat regret not speaking out sooner,” he told ThinkProgress. “There’s a lot of Republicans out there that think like I do. They have been intimidated, to some extent, by the Tea Party and the conservative talk show hosts. But at a certain age, you just don’t care. You think, ‘I’m going to say what I think and what I think is best for my constituents.’ If you do that, I think it comes through to the voters.”

“I somewhat regret not speaking out sooner.”

That is not the approach the Republican party has decided to take in recent years. In its 2016 party platform, the Republicans described the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as “a political mechanism,” urged a rejection of both the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Climate Agreement, and called for a ban on EPA regulation of carbon dioxide. President Donald Trump — the top Republican in the country — has called climate change a “hoax” created by the Chinese to make the United States less competitive in manufacturing. And Republican leadership in both chambers of Congress has long sought an end to Obama-era climate rules and regulations.

Trump and congressional Republicans have already begun making their anti-environment platform a reality. Last week, Trump signed an executive order to begin rolling back the Clean Water Rule, an Obama-era rule that expanded coverage of the Clean Water Act to protect drinking water for 117 million Americans. This week, he’s expected to sign a similar order dismantling Obama-era climate rules like the Clean Power Plan. And Congress is working to roll back many environmental regulations, from buffer zones for mining companies that operate near streams to limits on emissions from oil and gas production on public lands.

Mayor Jim Brainard in his office in Carmel, Indiana. CREDIT: Tom Britt
Mayor Jim Brainard in his office in Carmel, Indiana. CREDIT: Tom Britt

To Brainard, who has run on a platform of revitalizing Carmel through smart city planning and sustainable upgrades, Republicans aren’t just misguided in bending to industry over the environment — he says they are also missing a huge opportunity to create jobs, establish energy independence, and bolster national security.

“We have very creative people in this country and we could be manufacturing these [renewable energy] products here and selling them to the rest of the world,” Brainard said. “I think there are so many different paths to get to the same result, and Republicans… maybe it has been a lack of leadership, but it seems like even if you don’t believe in the science, what about job creation? What about energy independence? What about manufacturing and job growth?”

“Even if you don’t believe in the science, what about job creation?”

In Carmel, where the voting population is solidly Republican (56 percent of Hamilton County, where Carmel is located, voted for Trump in November), Brainard’s vision of a city guided by sustainability has been popular enough to win him an unprecedented six terms in office. Among his greatest accomplishments, Brainard has successfully overseen Carmel’s transition from a city whose traffic is primarily guided by traditional stoplights to a city whose traffic is guided by a system of roundabouts, similar to a European city.

If that seems like a minor change, Brainard’s enthusiasm about the transition might convince someone otherwise. Carmel began by putting in two roundabouts on the outskirts of town 20 years ago, and followed their unveiling with a thorough public education program. Any skepticism Carmel residents might have initially harbored is nonexistent now: The city has 102 roundabouts (more than any other city in the U.S., Brainard is quick to point out) with funding to cover another 28 over the next two years.

A roundabout under construction in Carmel. CREDIT: Hamilton County Highway Department
A roundabout under construction in Carmel. CREDIT: Hamilton County Highway Department

“There was a learning curve, but people have it figured out now. It’s very popular; I couldn’t take one out if I wanted to,” he said. “The fight is about who gets the next one.”

By pretty much any metric, Brainard’s experiment in traffic planning has been a success for both Carmel residents and the environment. He said that since switching over to roundabouts, the town has seen a 40 percent decrease in traffic accidents, with a 90 percent reduction in fatalities and 80 percent reduction in injury accidents. The roundabouts also help save fuel — some 25,000 gallons per roundabout per year, according to Brainard. That means each year, Carmel’s roundabouts prevent the town from emitting the carbon equivalent of burning more than 24,000,000 pounds of coal.

It can be easy to dismiss Carmel’s revitilization-through-roundabout strategy as the quaint musings of a Midwest suburb, but to Brainard, that would be missing the entire moral of the story: The idea that residents, even of a majority Republican town, are generally willing to accept change so long as that change is beneficial to their family, their community, and their city. It’s the same concept behind Carmel’s decision to replace as many city vehicles as possible with hybrid cars — not because hybrid cars in and of themselves will stop climate change, but because seeing more hybrid cars around the city might inspire residents to think about their own car or carbon footprint.

“It’s more than just your city fleet of several hundred vehicles — it’s the public seeing that George, who works for the city, has a new Prius. They see him out driving it and think maybe they should go look at one of those,” Brainard said. “After the city started buying all these hybrid vehicles, we saw a lot of people in the community buying them too. I think there is a leadership role to be played by city government — they see us doing solar to power our water plant and think maybe I should do some of those on my roof too.”

“After the city started buying all these hybrid vehicles, we saw a lot of people in the community buying them too.”

Metropolitan areas, Brainard is quick to point out, represent some 80 percent of the country’s population — so even in the face of a federal government that seems intent on rolling back environmental regulations and climate policies, there’s a lot that can be done at the local level to ensure that progress continues to move forward.

There will be some things, he admits, that will be more difficult without a strong partner at the federal level. Carmel took a $700,000 block grant from Obama’s stimulus package, for instance, and replaced all of their streetlights with LED lights, an investment that saves the city 22 percent on electricity each year. Making an investment of that level would be hard without federal funds, but Brainard thinks that if cities look to local innovators, they can still make progress on issues like electricity savings or emissions reductions from the power sector. In that vein, Carmel is working with a local entrepreneur to install hydrogen engines on some city trucks — a partnership that helps the entrepreneur continue his research, and allows the city to reduce its vehicle emissions.

Even as the federal government begins to roll back environmental regulations and climate policies, cities like Carmel continue to look forward. A few weeks ago, led by a push from Carmel high school students, the Carmel City Council passed a climate resilience and recovery resolution, which calls for the city to measure carbon emissions and create a plan for reducing them. And Carmel is far from the only city to take action like this; altogether, 23 cities in the United States have made pledges to transition to 100 percent renewable electricity in the coming years and decades.

It’s easier for cities to act on climate, according to Brainard, because local government is often more nimble than state or federal government, and can more easily respond to issues that impact constituents on a daily basis.

“Mayors are closer to people,” Brainard said. “There isn’t a Republican or a Democrat way to fill a chuckhole or build a park, and that applies to almost everything that mayors do. It’s about building cities and raising the quality of life, and politics just hasn’t been as invasive on the city level. And that’s a good thing. It’s the last bastion of nonpartisanship in the country.”