Mayors Address Energy, Environmental Issues with Greater Substance

This year’s State of the Cities analysis reflects a growing gap between leading cities and the rest of the country on issues related to energy, environment, and climate change.

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Mayor Dawn Zimmer celebrated the fact that Hoboken, New Jersey, was named a Role Model City by the United Nations for their efforts to “upgrade infrastructure and prepare the city for a more resilient future.” Thinking holistically, the city was working on park projects, street trees, and zoning changes to incentivize green roofs. (Getty Images)

The last year has been monumental for anyone following environment and energy policy. A global climate change agreement was reached with a one point five degree warming target, the second US-China Low Carbon Cities Summit was held between the world’s largest polluters, and there is growing urgency from bipartisan security experts as well as global business leaders that now is the time to act.

However, not all of the news has been positive. Every month in 2016 has set new global temperature records, making 2016 a near lock to be hottest year ever before the last four months are even included. New analysis of polar ice sheets indicate that they likely melt faster than current models predict. And for all of our actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the planet is still on track to exceed our “safe” emissions budget within just eight years.

This same tension – between good news and bad, progress and procrastination, leaders and laggards – is evident in the 2016 State of the Cities Report. Each year NLC has published this report, environmental issues have received slightly wider coverage and a bit more emphasis. This year, 28 percent of the mayoral speeches we examined mentioned environment and energy issues – and the substance is truly impressive.

One consistent theme is that cities have quickly realized that solar energy is cost-effective. Nearly every city that mentioned environmental issues had a reference to a solar project that had come to town or to panels that were being installed on municipal buildings. This is just one of the many reasons that the NLC has partnered on SolSmart, an effort to designate leading solar cities and improve local solar policies nationwide.

Two mayors – Mark Gamba of Milwaukie, Oregon, and Jackie Biskupski of Salt Lake City, Utah – touted their plans to receive 100 percent of their city utilities from carbon-free sources.

Additionally, the theme of becoming a more ‘resilient’ city has gained prominence as local leaders understand that some effects of climate change are unavoidable and already occurring. It’s widely-known that NLC and its members have called on the federal government to make a greater investment in infrastructure. A more nuanced part of that request is that cities would like to be able to spend that money more wisely to address multiple environmental, social, and economic challenges.

Speaking about their recovery from devastating floods, Mayor Steve Benjamin of Columbia, South Carolina, called on the city “not only to restore [roads, bridges, water and sewer infrastructure] to what they were, but make them stronger, smarter, and more resilient.”

Mayor Dawn Zimmer celebrated the fact that Hoboken, New Jersey, was named a Role Model City by the United Nations for their efforts to “upgrade infrastructure and prepare the city for a more resilient future.” Thinking holistically, the city was working on park projects, street trees, and zoning changes to incentivize green roofs. All projects that would help the municipal sewer system function better.

Still, it is hard to celebrate the efforts of these cities without acknowledging the fact that 72 percent of the cities analyzed in the report did not provide significant coverage to any issue related to environment or energy. This does not mean that these cities aren’t acting. It does not mean that the mayor doesn’t care. But it at least represents a missed opportunity to communicate the urgency of the issue.

On September 22, widely known activist Bill McKibben published “Recalculating the Climate Math,” an article devoted to the most basic, arithmetic facts about the 1.5 degree warming goal and the emissions we can afford. His conclusion is that a “managed decline” away from fossil fuels and toward renewables and efficiency cannot wait. The unavoidable implication then, is that we need many more elected leaders to respond to the challenge, to replicate the ambitious carbon neutral goals that some have already set, to compete against one another to see who can make it first, and to support the cities that need help with the transition.

One thing is certain, city leaders still have the power to act quickly and make this happen. A week before Mayor Greg Stanton delivered his address, Phoenix adopted a series of resolutions to create a zero-waste circular economy, to maintain a 100-year supply of clean water, and to reduce emissions from buildings, transportation, and waste 80-90 percent by 2050, and the work is already underway. It’s a bold vision for a desert city that relies on air conditioning and cars, but if it works in Phoenix it can work anywhere.

This post is part of a series expanding on NLC’s 2016 State of the Cities report. Check back next week as we delve deeper into what mayors had to say about city budgets.

About the Author: Cooper Martin is the Program Director for the Sustainable Cities Institute at NLC. Follow the program on twitter @sustcitiesinst.