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Mayors Stand Up

Cities lead where feds fear to tread

Cityscape of Portland, Photo Wikimedia Commons
Portland proposed a carbon tax for all new buildings that are not very energy efficient. The city already has the most green buildings per capita, as rated by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), cutting edge green architects and builders, the toughest anti-sprawl ordinances, and the highest percentage of bike commuters in the nation. Photo Wikimedia Commons

In the vacuum left by federal inaction on climate change, social movements have launched in unexpected places—including city hall.

In 2005, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels rallied mayors across the country to commit to Kyoto standards in their cities. “We hoped against hope that we would sign up 141 cities, one for every country that had signed onto Kyoto,” Nickels says. But he unleashed a groundswell. Three years later, nearly 800 mayors, representing 1 in 4 Americans, have signed the Mayors Climate Protection Agreement.

Some of the cities most actively pursuing climate protection lie in red states. For instance, in Texas in 2006, a bipartisan coalition of roughly 30 cities and towns fought off eight proposed coal-fired power plants—a win driven by the fiery energy of Laura Miller, then mayor of Dallas, who spent three months haranguing on coal in larger cities and in towns so tiny they held public hearings in barns. Two hundred miles away in Austin, Mayor Will Wynn has put in place some of the country’s most ambitious climate goals: all city operations and new single-family home construction must be carbon-neutral in less than 15 years, not through offsets but by relying on solar, wind, and biomass.

Chicago's city hall rooftop garden. Photo courtesy of Conservation Design Forum, Elmhurst, IL- Landscape Architects for the Chicago City Hall Green Roof.
Chicago's city hall rooftop garden. Over 2 million square feet of rooftop gardens have been planted or are currently under construction in Chicago—more than in all other U.S. cities combined. Photo courtesy of Conservation Design Forum, Elmhurst, IL- Landscape Architects for the Chicago City Hall Green Roof.

Other cities on the Nickels climate team have longstanding green reputations. Mayor Richard Daley declared his goal to make Chicago “The Greenest City in America” in 2002, after years of promoting city gardens, green buildings, and urban renewal. Chicago’s climate program now targets city infrastructure, with plans to meet 20 percent of municipal electricity demand through renewables within the next five years. Chicago also claims the highest installed photovoltaic energy production of any city outside California.

Likewise, Portland, long known for promoting transit, bicycles, and livability, is one of the first cities to propose a carbon tax, targeting builders that fail to meet stringent energy efficiency targets on new construction.

Other cities have taken more modest steps toward Kyoto goals: public education, tree planting, handing out compact fluorescents. But their collective action makes the case that more is possible.

At a November congressional field hearing, the mayors of Miami, Seattle, New York, and Trenton excoriated the federal government for failing to regulate greenhouse gases. The hearing concluded a two-day U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting on climate in Seattle, during which New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg called on Congress to fund more clean energy research, raise gas mileage standards, and institute a carbon tax. “I believe it’s time for both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue to come together around a national strategy on climate change and to lead the way on an international strategy,” he said. “And I believe that until they do, it’s our job as mayors to point the way forward.”


Madeline Ostrander wrote this article as part of Stop Global Warming Cold, the Spring 2008 issue of YES! Magazine. Madeline served as a program manager and then consultant for the U.S. Conference of Mayors Environment Program prior to joining the YES! Magazine staff as associate editor. Photo of AUTHOR
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