Local leaders push for climate action as Congress 'drops the ball'

Climate action in Seattle aims to make the city carbon-neutral in less than 40 years. In Bridgeport, Conn., a former landfill is sheathed in solar panels to produce clean power. And a Republican mayor in Carmel, Ind., is seeing emissions ebb by turning sewage into fertilizer.

That's happening despite a gun-shy Congress that's avoided taking federal action on rising temperatures, leaving local officials to lead the way on thorny political efforts to cut carbon from cars, buildings and electricity sources, according to municipal leaders.

"Mayors are more united than ever on this issue," said Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard, who's working with the White House and the U.S. Conference of Mayors to address greenhouse gas emissions.

"As we all know there are some for political or other purposes that try to make this a divisive issue," he added. "In our cities, however, and among mayors it is unifying because we're saving our taxpayers money when we become more energy efficient."

He said that more than 1,060 U.S. cities have signed onto the Conference of Mayors' climate protection agreement, accounting for over 90 percent of cities with more than 30,000 people.


The group released a survey of 288 mayors yesterday finding that a slim majority of local leaders (53 percent) have committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions through a mayoral pledge or formal city council action. Of those 149 cities taking action, more than 70 percent say they've documented emissions reductions in government operations or in the community at large.

"The cities are engaging their citizens and their businesses and their homeowners like they never have before," said Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch, adding that local action can "put pressure on Congress" to act on climate change.

The survey found that local officials think the most promising way to cut carbon output is through the use of light-emitting diode streetlights and other energy-efficient lighting. More than 80 percent of mayors cited those technologies as promising.

Defending parking spots, not coal mines

Other possible technologies include solar power (identified by 54 percent of respondents), energy-efficient buildings (53 percent), compressed natural gas vehicles (40 percent), hybrid vehicles (36 percent), and energy-saving appliances and systems (32 percent). Wind turbines came in last at 7 percent.

Local officials were also asked to identify one federal policy that would help them retrofit their city's infrastructure to better withstand climatic impacts. They requested additional federal funding most often, followed by specific funding from the Department of Energy's Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant Program. Others pointed to incentives for research into the effects of sea-level rise and other impacts on their municipalities, while still others said that tax breaks would help their businesses prepare for future events.

Some local officials called for a federal climate policy, like energy efficiency legislation or a carbon tax.

In Seattle, the move toward a carbon-neutral city by 2050 got underway last summer when the City Council unanimously adopted its Climate Action Plan. Its favorable energy characteristics and liberal politics seem to make Seattle an easy fit for ambitious efforts on climate change. The city gets 92 percent of electricity from carbon-free hydropower sources, and it's brimming with eco-conscious Democratic voters.

Laced throughout the action plan are rebuttals to the notion that it would be economically disastrous to address climate change. Seattle officials say the city will be better off.

"Taking climate action is not about austerity, wool sweaters or sitting in the dark," City Councilor Mike O'Brien, who helped lead the effort, said in a letter at the beginning of the report. "It is about creating great places to live, work and play that preserve the environment."

Planning for 'road diets' in Seattle

But he said in an interview that adopting the goal of carbon neutrality is the easy part. Enacting it promises to be tough, even in a region without any coal mines or oil patches.

"For us, our biggest carbon footprint comes from our transportation sector," O'Brien said. "The work to shift ourselves away from the kind of auto-dependent lifestyle comes with big challenges."

For example, the plan calls for "road diets" -- the idea that narrower streets will provide more room for bicyclists and rain-absorbing vegetation, and less room for cars and parking. Those are painful proposals even in a liberal city, said Jill Simmons, who directs Seattle's Office of Sustainability and Environment.

"I don't want to pretend like it'll be easy," she said in an interview.

Paying for expensive infrastructure overhauls will also be difficult. The city hasn't pinned down how that will be done, but options include vehicle excise taxes and other fees.

Still, the debate within Seattle and other cities about how to tackle climate change shows that local officials are already ahead of Congress, municipal leaders say. In Washington, some federal lawmakers still question whether emissions derived from humans are trapping heat.

"I think several generations of Congress has dropped the ball," said Finch of Bridgeport.

Yet he's optimistic that rising climate activity in cities could eventually persuade Congress to act.

"I think we're just a little bit away from seeing that kind of pressure create climate legislation and an energy policy for our nation that are long overdue," Finch said.

Twitter: @evanlehmann | Email:

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