Photo: Josh Rose / Unsplash
While dark clouds of climate denialism loom over the nation’s capital, mayors from America’s largest cities continue to champion climate policy and sustainability initiatives in their local jurisdictions.
Planet Experts spoke with the sustainability offices of New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago about their plans to reduce emissions and prepare for climate impacts. Collectively, these cities generate over $2.5 trillion annually (more than 13 percent of national GDP), house nearly 5 percent of the country’s population and are responsible for roughly 5 percent of America’s carbon footprint.
As local leaders buckle down to tackle climate change, the Trump Administration is expected to roll out an executive order that will likely undermine previous environmental regulations, including the Clean Power Plan and the consideration of a “social cost on carbon” in government decision-making processes. Additionally, in his recently proposed budget, the president asked for a 31 percent reduction in EPA funding as well as cutbacks in infrastructure spending.
National climate and environmental policies are at risk. The global need to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and simultaneously prepare for climatic stresses has never been more urgent. Now more than ever, America and the world look to local leaders to guide us towards sustainability.
Here’s how some of America’s most progressive cities affected by climate change are addressing it in lieu of Trump’s anti-environmental agenda.
New York, Los Angeles and Chicago are already experiencing the impacts of climate change. These climate effects range from hurricanes, to drought, to heavy rainfall and more, and they’re costing cities serious dollars and sometimes lives.
Hurricane Sandy cost New York $19 billion, killed 44 people and flooded 17 percent of the city. “The last three years have been the hottest on record, and we know that extreme heat kills more people on average across the country and in New York than any other type of natural hazard,” Daniel Zarrilli, Senior Director of Climate Policy & Programs and Chief Resilience Officer for New York City’s Mayor’s Office, wrote to Planet Experts.
The woes of extreme weather are also felt across the country in Los Angeles where the city experienced several years of intense heat and drought followed by heavy rain.
“We get more extreme events across the board,” Matt Peterson, Los Angeles’ Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO), told Planet Experts.
“This winter we’ve seen both a lot of rain and a lot of snow pack. There’s so much snow that we won’t be able to retain all of it when it comes down from the Eastern Sierras into Los Angeles.”
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti recently declared a state of emergency to prepare the Owens Valley for heavy water flows to effectively prevent infrastructure damages from flooding and reduce dust and air pollution.
The prolonged drought also extends the fire season and makes it difficult for the ground to absorb water when it does rain, noted Peterson.
In the Windy City, residents have endured increased heavy rainfall occurrences, which have doubled in frequency since the 1970s and often replace what used to be snowfall. Due to the heavy flows, the city was forced to open the locks of Lake Michigan and basements have flooded numerous times throughout the city, said Christopher Wheat, Chief Sustainability Officer for the City of Chicago.
Although each city combats climate impacts on its own soil, the Mayors of Chicago, New York and Los Angeles are actively involved in national and global coalitions — such as the Compact of Mayors, the Mayors National Climate Action Agenda and C40 Cities — working to fight and prepare for climate change.
In a concerted effort, all three cities — along with 27 others — submitted a request for information to car and truck manufacturers for nearly 115 thousand electric vehicles. So far, 38 automakers have responded, Peterson said.
By exploring joint procurement options, local leaders are showing automakers that cities will continue to demand electric vehicles despite the Trump Administration’s intent to put the brakes on Obama’s fuel efficiency standards.
“If manufacturers make them and provide them at a reasonable cost we’ll buy them,” said Los Angeles’ Chief Sustainability Officer. “And that’s because we know electric vehicles have lower overall operating costs, fuel savings, lower maintenance costs and of course reduced emissions.” Regardless of what happens in the White House, “cities will continue to lead the way.”
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced carbon emission reductions of 7 percent from 2010 to 2015 coupled with a 25,000-person boost in the City’s population and 12 percent increase in jobs.
“These reductions were driven by reduced and cleaner energy use – the mayor’s Retrofit Chicago initiative and energy benchmarking ordinance, in combination with the city’s commitment to reduce the impact of coal,” said Chicago’s CSO.
Chicago is also investing in protecting its natural environment. Mayor Emanuel pledged to preserve 2,020 acres of land by 2020 in addition to commiting $50 million to improve natural stormwater infrastructure, Wheat said.
The Big Apple is set to reduce emissions 80 percent by 2050 through energy efficiency upgrades in public and private buildings. To help meet this target, the Mayor’s Office recently launched the NYC Green Jobs Corps to train 3,000 workers over the next three years for climate-smart jobs. New York is also investing more than $20 billion to improve city-wide resiliency, Zarrilli explained.
On the west coast, Los Angeles is reducing emissions and conserving water by implementing cool streets and light colored roof tops along with increased tree canopy. LA’s Mayor Garcetti also committed to meeting the Paris climate agreement goals and the city is “on track to be off coal by 2025 and on its way to 50 percent renewables by 2030 and beyond,” Peterson said.
The city is also dedicated to increasing energy efficiency for new and existing buildings and encouraging people to switch out their lawns for drought tolerant landscapes through rebates from the LA’s municipal utility. The city has already exceeded its goal to reduce water consumption by 20 percent. Los Angeles is also funding public transit with a half-cent sales tax that will generate an estimated $120 billion over the next several decades.
“No one can stop us from buying electric vehicles or investing in energy efficiency,” Peterson said, paraphrasing Garcetti.
City officials noted that proposed EPA and transportation budget cuts could indeed impact city-level funding for programs, however, they were reluctant to make definitive statements about the implications until the budget moves through Congress and an official executive order is released.
Wheat did mention potential environmental and economic damages that would come from an overhaul of Obama’s energy efficiency and clean energy initiatives as well as his concern for the Great Lakes Initiative, which protects, as he put it “one of the great treasures of the world that also supplies fresh water for 13 percent of the United States.”
In a similar vein, Mayor Garcetti and several other west coast mayors and governors signed a joint letter to Trump stating their disapproval of any effort to dismantle the Clean Power Plan.
Chicago’s mayor recently published an op-ed in Politico highlighting the importance of federal infrastructure initiatives like the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) and Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing (RRIF). “Let me be clear to Washington: Any plan for investing in infrastructure that does not include funding is fairy dust,” Emanuel wrote.
While the Trump administration has not discussed resiliency specifically, Peterson believes that the nation’s capital will continue to invest in measures that improve cities’ ability to prepare for and adapt to climate change. “What they call them will be another question,” he said.
The Way Forward
Notwithstanding federal disregard for years of climate policy progress, America’s largest cities are set to continue cutting emissions and improving resiliency.
As Zarrilli assured, “Despite the potential reckless actions from Washington, D.C. to slow progress and abdicate American leadership on these efforts, New York City, in partnership with cities across the U.S. and around the world, will continue to take bold action to leave our children a healthy planet.”