‘There is no cavalry left’: Cities prepare to lead the way on climate action

It’s not just about the big international agreements — some of the most important progress starts small.

St. Petersburg, Florida. CREDIT: iStock
St. Petersburg, Florida. CREDIT: iStock

St. Petersburg, Florida, is far from the largest city in the United States. It’s not even the largest city in the state of Florida. But it just pledged to do something that could make a big impact on climate action: transition its electricity to 100 percent renewable energy.

The pledge — which was voted on unanimously by the city council in November — makes St. Petersburg the 20th city in the United States to pledge to move its electricity generation to 100 percent carbon-free sources.

“It moves us beyond just rhetoric to real, concrete action,” St. Petersburg city council member Karl Nurse told ThinkProgress of the city’s commitment. “The danger in politics is rhetoric. This is the real work of how do you make your city more efficient, and how do you spur your community into a series of moves that move you towards renewable energy.”

“The danger in politics is rhetoric. This is the real work of how do you make your city more efficient.”

It’ll be long, hard work for St. Petersburg to make the full transition from an electricity sector run on fossil fuels to one run on clean energy. But the city has already begun taking steps, voting to use $800,000 of the $1 million it was awarded in a Deepwater Horizon oil spill settlement with BP to enact a Integrated Sustainability Action Plan (ISAP). The plan is designed to both move the city to 100 percent renewable energy and build up the its resilience to climate impacts.

The first step in implementing the ISAP, Nurse explained, would be to conduct a citywide audit of the energy efficiency of buildings throughout St. Petersburg, followed by a series of upgrades that will reduce the amount of energy used by the city — and save residents money in the process.

“I think cities are the perfect place because you can make very direct connections between investments that have pay back that people can see,” Nurse said. “There seem to be an endless number of things that cities can do that make economic sense, that are long-term money savers.”

The idea that cities are a crucial place for climate action is not a new one. Cities were often in the spotlight leading up to, and during, the U.N. Paris climate conference in December 2015, and were credited with helping nation-states enact the strong agreement that emerged at the end of the conference.

But following the 2016 election — and looking towards a Trump administration that promises to roll back federal and international pledges regarding climate action — cities have emerged as a renewed beacon for those hoping to see progress in the fight against climate change.

“Cities across the board want to pursue a vision of healthier, cleaner, more vibrant local economies,” Jodie Van Horn, national campaign director for the Sierra Club’s Ready for 100 campaign, told ThinkProgress. “We will continue to work with them to ensure that city leadership is a source of hope and bright spot despite what the new administration may choose to do.”

A new report released Thursday by the C40 network — a coalition of more than 80 of the world’s largest cities working together on climate change — underscores the critical role cities will play in confronting the climate crisis in the immediate future. According to the report, released during the C40 Mayors Summit in Mexico City, the world has about five years for greenhouse gas emissions to peak before it is locked into a path of warming above 2ºC (3.6ºF). That means actions taken before 2020 — the same time frame of climate-denier Donald Trump’s first term as president of the United States — are crucial to helping stave off the worst impacts of climate change.

The report, titled “Deadline 2020,” argues that cities must take 14,000 actions over the next four years to help drive the world towards peak emissions — an extremely aggressive goal. Over the last decade, cities have collectively taken 11,000 actions against climate change, which means that to hit the target set out in the report, cities need to make 125 percent more climate-related actions in less than half the time. Cities represent about 70 percent of global carbon emissions, so the actions that are taken at the local level can be crucial in setting the world on a path towards avoiding the worst impacts of climate change.

The C40 network estimates that in order to achieve these targets, $375 billion dollars in investments are needed over the next four years. Already, Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation and Realdania have pledged $40 million to the C40.

“This investment will create new jobs and support the growth of emerging industries and improve the quality of life and health outcomes, all while protecting the global climate,” Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, said on a press call discussing the report. “As big city mayors, we know that climate change is not a show, it is real, and climate action is mandatory.”

In St. Petersburg, where sea level rise and heavier storms are already overwhelming the city’s aging sewer system, Hidalgo’s words ring especially true. For politicians and residents, the impacts of climate change aren’t something to be dealt with in the distant future — they are a reality that needs to be tackled today.

“There is no cavalry left. We are the cavalry. It’s left up to cities to be the innovators, to be the agents of change, and to do it in a practical way.”

“We have data in our harbor of how much sea level has risen. It’s not a big, philosophical idea,” Councilor Nurse said. “People are beginning to see the connection between these issues, so it helps. It’s not a left or right issue.”

Faced with a federal government about to be headed by a man who has called climate change a “hoax,” and a state government headed by an infamous climate denier, Florida cities, as well as cities around with country, will have to look inward for action on climate — at least for the next four years.

“There is no cavalry left. We are the cavalry,” Darden Rice, St. Petersburg City Council member and chair of the city’s Energy, Natural Resources & Sustainability Committee, told ThinkProgress. “It’s left up to cities to be the innovators, to be the agents of change, and to do it in a practical way.”