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How progressive cities can lead the climate change battle

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Cities are the answer, say those strategizing for sustainable development

A solar installation on top of a roof in Covina, California
A solar installation on top of a roof in Covina, California, in Los Angeles county
Walmart: Flickr/Creative Commons

What happens when an emerging Trump cabinet with a pro-fossil fuel, anti-regulatory agenda meets environmental advocacy groups on a campaign to fight climate change? For many local politicians and activists, the answer lies in proactive cities.

In that spirit, the Sierra Club and a group of partners involved in the Ready for 100 campaign, a growing coalition of municipal and environmental leaders, held a press conference Tuesday to discuss the hyperlocal realities of fighting climate change under the incoming administration.

“The political reality is, it’s really up to the cities to look beyond partisanship and look at real solutions,” says St. Petersburg City Councilmember Darden Rice, a local sustainability advocate. “It starts with us. There’s no cavalry that will swoop in and rescue us. We are our own cavalry.”

Positioned on the front lines of issues such as air quality and rising water levels—two of many policy debates ostensibly pitting the city versus the country—cities can be more responsive than state and federal governments. During Tuesday’s call, representatives from Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, and St. Petersburg all stressed that action on the local level is now more important than ever.

Salt Lake City
Salt Lake City recently enacted an aggressive plan to cut carbon emissions and switch to cleaner power
Garrett: Flickr/Creative Commons

The C40 Network, an international coalition of megacities addressing climate change, just held a Mayor’s Summit in Mexico City. Despite the expected lack of cooperation between municipal governments and counterparts on the federal level, cities around the world have proven that focused action can make a difference—from a light rail transit project in Addis Ababa to a modernized system for solid waste disposal in Kolkata. Earlier today, the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance sent a letter to U.S. mayors, expressing solidarity in their fight against climate change, and promising to “stand by you to help in whatever ways we can.”

“Twenty cities across the [United States] have now committed to 100 percent clean, healthy, affordable, renewable energy like wind and solar,” said Kassie Rohrbach, the associate director of Ready for 100. “This movement has never been based on which party is in control of the White House or Congress, but in communities coming together to advance choices and solutions that reflect community values. A new administration cannot change that.”

A major piece of the solution—as well as a potentially large hurdle—relies on accelerating the switch to clean energy. A recent Brookings Institution study showed that, despite long-standing assumptions to the contrary, cutting carbon does not mean slowing down the economy. More than 30 states have delinked their growth and carbon emissions, showing that cleaner and more sustainable energy can power economic growth. To continue this trend, the report notes, “heroic” action will be required on the state and local level.

Chart showing GDP growth versus US emission
A move in the right direction
Brookings Institution

Los Angeles has an ambitious plan to get to 50 percent renewable power by 2030, driven in large part by a new initiative to empower city employees in the Department of Water and Power. The department has created a roadmap to 100 percent clean power, studied barriers to action, and begun suggesting policy proposals to the city council.

“Rather than be guided by politics, we wanted to be guided by facts, research, and science,” says Los Angeles city councilman Mike Bonin.

LA’s plan, however, is relatively easy to enact because the local utility service is municipally owned: The city has agency to close coal plants and investing in utility infrastructure to support solar power. Utilities tend to favor what’s cost effective, and as a report by the nonprofit Environment America notes, sometimes they even work against the adoption and spread of solar power.

Los Angeles skyline
Los Angeles skyline

Aggressive sustainable energy plans are moving forward in other cities, even those as big as San Diego, but have slightly higher hurdles without direct control of power production. In July, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski and the city council passed Climate Positive SLC, a joint resolution committing the city to achieve an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2040 and to achieve 100 percent clean energy by 2032.

In the state of Utah, which is warming at twice the global level, snowpack and local water supplies are threatened. In order for the largely Democratic Salt Lake City to act against the interests of a very Republican state, it needed regional and local partners. The city started partnerships to push solar power, collaborating with the Utah Climate Action Network; signed a clean-energy cooperative agreement with the local utility, Rocky Mountain Power; and set internal mandates to eliminate waste within city government.

But since privately owned Rocky Mountain Power is a monopoly, the city still has to negotiate with the utility, and despite its environmental commitments, Salt Lake City doesn’t have control over how it chooses to generate power. Future changes in regulations and energy subsidies could significantly alter the calculus around fossil fuels.

“On the federal level, the biggest thing we think may make an impact here is subsidies to the coal industry,” says Debbie Lyons, Program Director at the Salt Lake City Office of Sustainability. “But we think renewable energy costs will be in our favor.”

While cutting carbon emissions is key, sustainability, resiliency, and the threat of sea level rise pose more immediate challenges and difficult policy decisions. With more at stake, coastal cities have been forced to get proactive, sooner. Several have already created plans to address the massive impact flooding and storm events can have on coastal property. Boston, in collaboration with the planning and design firm Sasaki, just issued a comprehensive climate resilience plan, Climate Ready Boston, earlier this month, with Mayor Martin J. Walsh stating that climate change “affects the social and economic vitality of our city.”

In St. Petersburg, Florida, a “peninsula on a peninsula,” according to Councilmember Rice, the impact is being felt now. Infrastructure is brittle, sewer systems falter during big storms, and half the homes in the area sit on a flood plain. “We’re at the top of the list for cities under threat from climate change,” she says. “That’s not a list you want to be on top of.”

Rogers Partners Architects+Urban Designers, Ken Smith Landscape Architect and ASD
A proposed pier for St. Petersburg that floats and adapts to rising sea level, desgined by Rogers Partners Architects+Urban Designers, Ken Smith Landscape Architect and ASD
Rogers Partners Architects+Urban Designers, Ken Smith Landscape Architect and ASD

St. Petersburg has taken direct actions to combat climate change and cut emissions, such as Mayor Crisman’s executive order to promote clean energy and sustainability. The city also started resiliency planning that “bakes in” climate awareness to future city development. The $6 million settlement the Gulf city received from BP after the tragic oil spill helped fund many of these environmental actions.

Rice believes that local action is key, and “holding elected officials’ feet to the fire” is especially important going forward. “We need people who can work on the inside and fight in city hall, but also need outside allies to win public support,” she says.

With the incoming White House likely abdicating President Obama’s pledge to fight climate change, cities can provide a powerful example for other industries to follow. “L.A. will be the counter-narrative to what we’ll be hearing from the new EPA and Department of Energy—that it isn’t possible to do these things,” Bonin says. “We’ll show everyone that it is.”