Last June, during a press conference in the Rose Garden, President Trump announced the United States would be leaving the Paris climate accord, seeking a better deal for the country and more control over its own destiny.
It was a low point for environmentalists in the United States. As soon as Trump stepped to the podium, the country symbolically stepped away from its leadership role.
But almost instantaneously, other politicians filled the vacuum. Hundreds of city leaders pledged to live up to the Paris agreement and signed on as members of the Climate Mayors, a bipartisan, peer-to-peer network of mayors working to demonstrate leadership on climate change.
The coalition, which now boasts 405 members representing 70 million Americans, was one of the most visible in a growing list of coalitions and organizations seeking to demonstrate U.S. commitment to fighting climate change and lowering emissions. Along with We Are Still In (a group of corporations and civic leaders), C40 (an international group of mayors united to enact progressive climate policy), Ready for 100 (a Sierra Club campaign pushing renewable power), and others, the Climate Mayors pushed back against the narrative that the U.S. is abandoning its commitments, and embodied the grassroots energy for change.
But a year later, how should the organization’s accomplishments by evaluated? The “come as you are” ethos to membership eschews additional strict commitments in favor of building a community.
At a time when climate change, and the costs of increased temperatures and more extreme weather, are clear, does a group claiming to represent bipartisan action need to set the bar higher? Have they, for example, done enough to tackle carbon emissions from cars and transportation?
#ClimateMayors just hit 400 Mayors strong! We represent nearly 70 million Americans across 47 states. We are mayors committed to #ActOnClimate and uphold the #ParisAgreement by building healthier, sustainable communities and creating green jobs.— The Climate Mayors (@ClimateMayors) March 9, 2018
How city-led political coalitions can make an impact
According to a new study that examines the growth of city-led, issue-based coalitions, groups like Climate Mayors serve a very important purpose. At Boston University’s Cities Initiative, executive director Katharine Lusk and research fellow Nicolas Gunkel recently co-authored a report, “Cities Joining Ranks,” studying these groups. The report looked at 15 different organizations, 10 focused on environmental issues and one each pertaining to immigrant inclusion, gun violence, violence involving men and boys of color, volunteering, and broadband access.
In addition to filing a leadership vacuum at the federal level—one of the most frequent arguments for starting such groups—these coalitions also provide “strength in numbers,” according to a survey of mayors conducted by Lusk and Gunkel.
“They view critical mass as being key to amplifying their voices to influence other levels of government,” says Lusk. “In other words, they stand together to influence others and signal their priorities rather than gain support for a specific policy.”
Lauren Faber, the chief sustainability officer for Los Angeles, said putting together a group like the Climate Mayors was a goal for Los Angeles’ own city leadership.
“Leading and growing a coalition has been a big part of LA’s plan, and municipal support for strong climate action has been a goal for Mayor Eric Garcetti,” she says. “I think he understands that, in forming such a group, it creates the right momentum around an issue, and an enhanced ability to act.”
Meeting cities where they’re at, and encouraging them to create, enact, and realize their own climate goals, offers a better chance for overall success, according to Faber, for both the coalition and the country at large.
“There are no emissions targets or climate action plans because that’s a barrier to entry for this collective,” she says. “This way, we’re able to engage so many more cities that may lack some of the resources to do these things.”
Meeting the climate challenges in the Trump era
Climate Mayors, also known as the Mayors National Climate Action Agenda, existed before President Trump pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord. It was formed in 2014 when Mayor Garcetti, then-Houston Mayor Annise Parker and then-Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter announced its creation during a United Nations climate summit in New York City. Much of the group’s activities are coordinated out of Los Angeles, where the city’s sustainability office organizes and directs meetings and information sharing between members.
While the group, and others such as C40, has existed for years, they “took on a new flavor,” in the Trump era, says Faber. The expansion of these city climate coalitions coincides with a renewed focused by advocates and activists on local action.
After the 2016 election, the coalition reached out to then President-elect, writing a letter outlining the ways the group had worked with the previous administration, and asking to be a partner with the White House on fighting climate change.
But after withdrawal, it was important to take a stand.
“The Climate Mayors were one of the largest groups of political leaders who immediately came out swinging,” says Faber. “From there, you saw governors, business leaders, university leaders, the investment community; they all wanted to be a part of it, to demonstrate that we’re strong supporters of action.”
As soon as the Trump administration decided to begin the withdrawal process, the number of cities in Climate Mayors more than tripled in just a month, including many smaller and mid-size municipalities.
How smaller cities benefit from membership
What do these smaller cities and their leaders get from joining mayoral coalitions like Climate Mayors? According to Lusk and Gunkel, the biggest boost was from learning best practices and avoiding the pitfalls that held up previous attempts by peer cities to enact more sustainable policies.
Portland adopted a green bond resolution after learning from peer cities in the C40 network, while Chicago instituted new bus rapid transit programs due to insight from international cities who already established such routes.
Climate Mayor members said they benefit from the same type of information sharing. According to Erin Gill, director of Knoxville, Tennessee’s Office of Sustainability, the city’s membership in Climate Mayors wasn’t an impulse for action. Policy is based on local needs and priorities. But membership has helped provide guidance. The city’s LED streelight retrofit, which will help cut city utility costs when its completed in 2019, was informed by advice from other Climate Mayor members.
“First and foremost, the Climate Mayors group has helped me and the staff keep track of what’s happening on the local government level across the country,” says Gill.
Peter Nierengarten, sustainability director for Fayetteville, Arkansas, agrees. His city’s Energy Action Plan—they deliberately eschew climate as a descriptor—already featured a number of aggressive goals, including 100 percent clean energy by 2050. Membership in Climate Mayors helped provide structure to what the city was trying to accomplish, and connect them with other like-minded communities.
“We probably would have done an action plan, Climate Mayors or not, but it would have looked different,” Nierengarten says. “We’re not going to be going way ahead of the pack. But this helps us see what’s happening with other cities across the country”
Local action and collective power
While sharing ideas and strategies has proven effective, and the organization has issued a number of policy statements, Climate Mayors may soon be evolving its approach. According to Faber, one of the big next steps for the group is to focus on bulk procurement of electric vehicles for city fleets, a idea that started as a coalition of west coast cities but soon expanded nationally.
By pooling the collective buying power of 400-plus cities, the thinking goes—and putting out a request for 115,000 vehicles of all classes with an estimated value of $10 billion—the group can save money. It’s the kind of action that benefits cities big and small; Los Angeles, for example, can add to its growing fleet at a lower cost and faster pace, while other cities can use savings on vehicles to invest in charging infrastructure. Faber expects to be able to announce that a procurement platform has been finalized by the end of the year.
The electric vehicle program will ideally become a showcase for what these kinds of collaborations can achieve. While they’re relatively small-scale moves, creating a means to share and collaborate on progressive policy invites experimentation, and helps refine ideas for a future moment when the federal government takes the lead on environmental policy.
“If we’re going to move the needle, we need to allow everyone to take action that’s significant in their own context,” says Knoxville’s Gill. “We all need to remember that small steps are where we all started in the sustainability world.”