Mayors, Sidestepping Trump, Vow to Fill Void on Climate Change

Source: By LIZETTE ALVAREZ, New York Times • Posted: Tuesday, June 27, 2017

A fisherman in Pointe-aux-Chenes, La. The low-lying area along the coast is likely to be inundated as the sea level rises. Amir Levy/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

MIAMI BEACH — Meeting in a city confronted daily with the issues of rising seas and climate change, the United States Conference of Mayors approved resolutions on Monday to urge the federal government to rejoin the Paris climate agreement and to redouble their own efforts to combat climate change and commit to renewable energy.

“If the federal government doesn’t act, it doesn’t mean we don’t have a national policy; the federal government doesn’t occupy the only place on this,” Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans and the new president of the conference, said before the vote on the nonbinding resolutions. “Mayors have to respond to circumstances. We have to keep moving no matter what.”

On the closing day of the conference’s annual meeting, Republican and Democratic mayors came together to push their agendas on improving infrastructure, responding to gun violence and curbing opioid abuse. But it was the climate change debate that provided the sharpest contrast between the priorities of the mayors here — many of whom have focused on renewable energy and ways to deal with global warming — and the skepticism of the Trump administration on the issue.

The mayors showcased the issue with panels on climate resiliency, and with committee and conference votes. In one resolution, they supported a commitment to run their cities 100 percent on renewable energy, like wind or solar, by 2035. Mayor Philip Levine of Miami Beach also led a tour of a neighborhood here and described how the city raised sidewalks and installed pumps to push rising oceans back out to sea. Miami Beach, one of the cities most vulnerable to climate change, has scrambled to fend off rising seas and severe flooding, throwing millions of tax dollars into the effort.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans at the annual meeting of the United States Conference of Mayors in Miami Beach on Monday. He said that “the federal government doesn’t occupy the only place” on climate change policy. Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

Rather than bemoan President Trump’s decision this month to pull out of the Paris Agreement, an accord signed by 195 nations to battle rising temperatures, many Republican and Democratic mayors here said the move had re-energized them. A separate effort by Eric Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles, and a group whose members call themselves the Climate Mayors also picked up support here; more than 300 mayors have signed a document to abide by the Paris accord and “intensify efforts to meet each of our cities’ climate goals.”

“There is no question that the federal withdrawal of national leadership is a step backward,” Mr. Garcetti said in an interview. “But before Paris and after the withdrawal from Paris, most of the local action has taken place at the mayoral level.”

But some mayors quietly opted not to embrace the initiative. Many conservative Republicans, represented in Washington by leading climate change deniers like Senator James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, agree with Mr. Trump on the Paris accord and say it will unfairly hurt American businesses. Mayor Mick Cornett of Oklahoma City, a Republican whose tenure as conference president just ended, said he had not signed on to the climate-protection documents. Mr. Cornett, from an oil-producing state, said he cared about the environment but worked on environmental issues on a local level, case by case.

Climate change “isn’t my issue,” he said. “I’m not a me-too kind of guy.”

Facing off against the federal government on climate change is not new to the mayors’ conference. After President George W. Bush rejected the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, more than 1,000 mayors made a nonbinding pledge to abide by the treaty. They vowed to cut carbon dioxide emissions in their cities 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012.

For some cities, like Chicago and Seattle, whose mayor at the time championed the pledge, this ultimately proved too high a bar to meet, perhaps one reason no emissions targets were included in Monday’s resolutions. A few cities lowered the targets. But some were successful.

Steve Benjamin, right, the mayor of Columbia, S.C., at a news conference with Mayor Philip Levine of Miami Beach during the annual United States Conference of Mayors meeting. Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

More than a decade later, the acceleration of problems driven by climate change has prodded mayors to increase once again their efforts on renewable energy, fleet maintenance, transportation (perhaps the hardest issue) and building design. Their goal is made easier by the proliferation of more technologically advanced ways to tackle the problems, they said.

Some cities now have their government buildings running on 100 percent renewable energy. Long Beach, Calif., has seen emissions at its port drop considerably after allowing ships to plug into the electric grid.

Elizabeth B. Kautz, a Republican and the longtime mayor of Burnsville, Minn., said her city had exceeded its goals. The city has also seen improvements in recharging its aquifer. Climate protection, she said, is not a partisan issue, something she hears from her constituents.

“Everybody cares about the environment, and everybody wants clean air and clean water,” Ms. Kautz said. “We don’t really need the federal government. We are going to do what’s right for our people.”

Mayor Steve Benjamin of Columbia, S.C., a Democrat who was a sponsor of the renewable energy resolution, said mayors could discuss the issue and offer more concrete solutions than national politicians. He said he did not talk to his constituents about climate change in lofty terms. He talks to them about flooding — his city was hit hard in 2015 — fresh drinking water, new jobs in clean energy and their children’s asthma.

“These conversations are not happening in the vaunted halls of Congress,” said Mr. Benjamin, the conference’s new vice president. “They are happening in grocery stores, churches, synagogues and streets.”