US cities combating climate change on the local level

More than a thousand mayors have signed on to a climate protection agreement

When it comes to climate change, a major part of President Barack Obama's plan is to promote ideas and solutions at state and local levels.

Last month, surrounded by his task force of state, local and tribal leaders, Obama unveiled a national climate preparedness plan, pressing forward in his commitment to combat the effects of climate change in the United States.

The plan activates a variety of federal agencies to implement recommendations from the task force. The Department of Agriculture will award more than $236 million in grants to improve rural electricity infrastructure in eight states. The U.S. Geological Survey will spend $13 million to develop advanced 3-D mapping that will allow cities and states to respond to weather-related disasters.

"We’re going to help communities improve their electric grids, build stronger seawalls and natural barriers and protect their water supplies," said Obama. "We’re also going to invest in stronger and more resilient infrastructure."

The new federal initiatives are an example of what the president has called his "year of action." And with a pen and a phone, he's sidestepping Congress through executive orders.

What do mayors think of the recommendations made by the president's task force?

What are mayors already doing to combat climate change?

How are politics affecting their progress?

We consulted a panel of experts for the Inside Story. 

What were the main takeaways from your recommendations for the president on the White House task force?

There's a lot of work yet to be done. It's important to look back to the purpose of task force. It's a way for the administration to help local governments do what they're already doing in terms of mitigating and adapting to climate change.

It's also important to remember that almost all mayors of cities with over 30,000 residents voluntarily signed what is, in essence, an agreement like the Kyoto protocol, pledging to work toward voluntarily goals of reducing emissions of carbon in their own cities.

Mayors have been doing things in their own cites, and the White House recognizes that. The White House is asking us, "How can we support you, since we won't get large environment legislation through Congress?"


What are some specific reforms you’ve made in Carmel?

I issued an executive order to require all [city] fleets to be electric. We are hydrogen testing. We are a huge user of electricity, and we get  it from coal plants. Now we’re taking the flame and using it to turn product into fertilizer. We used to spend half of a million dollars a year on this, and now we’re using it and selling it to landscapers and giving it away to our constituents.

We’re developing our city center core as a pedestrian-friendly, walkable environment.

We have built more roundabouts than any other city in country. We do it because it's cheap to build, reduces accidents, and we save millions of gallons of fuel per year.


How is politics affecting the process of change? 

That's important if you look at the history of leadership on fighting climate change in the U.S., it's traditionally come from Republican Party

It started with [Teddy] Roosevelt setting aside millions of acres of land for a federal park system. It was [Richard] Nixon who signed the bill that set up the Environmental Protection Agency and started Earth Day. He signed the Endangered Species Act.

I remember [Ronald] Reagan and [U.K. Prime Minister Margaret] Thatcher talking about climate change in the 1980s. She understood that the climate was changing and caused by man-made activities.

People from both sides of aisle should want those things, and it doesn’t make sense to make this a partisan issue.

Does Obama’s climate preparedness initiative address the issue?

A solid climate initiative has to have both adaptation and prevention. There is no way you can adapt to the amount of climate change that we’re going to get on the path that we’re on now - on burning fossil fuels all around the world.

We’re on a path to get global warming and global disruption that will be probably beyond the ability to really adapt to. There are limits to adaptations. It’s expensive. It can only take you so far.

I think it’s good that Obama’s climate plan has both mitigration and preparedness. That much is right. There is no reason why we can’t be doing both fronts at once.

But the thing is, in order to get someone like the mayor of Mobile, Alabama — where they don’t even admit that climate change is real — they won’t likely do anything for preparedness. How do you get to parts of country that aren’t being progressive and proactive and are not taking this seriously?


In the absence of strong action from Washington, what can be done? Can state and local governments really carry it on their own?

You want to see innovative things on the local level, and then that becomes contagious and adopted elsewhere. But the problem is larger than can be dealt with strictly on the local level. It has to be also international.

I think what Obama is doing with this initiative, with very limited resources, is trying to use existing authorities and resources of the executive branch. The federal Emergency Management Agency is going to push the states on cimlate disaster planning, and the Agricultural Department is going to do smart gird projects. We’re going to have a contest for which local communities can have the best resilience plans and help fund those plans.

What are the costs associated with adaptation?

I think that climate change adaptation is likely to be an expensive proposition. If you look at the full range — drought, wildfire, coastal zones with sea level rise and severe storms, the public health system, disease vectors, disrupted water supply — and try to analyze it at all levels of government, such as how you’re likely to be adversely affected by climate change and what you could actually do to reduce the damage, it’s a tremendously complicated problem. You can’t do it for free. You have to devote resources to infrastructure. But everything costs money to be more resilient to climate change. Maybe it can be done in a way to create jobs, but I think it’s just the very beginning — the very beginning — of something that’s going to have to be throughout fabric of this whole society.

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