Could Our City Mayors Take Up The Climate Change Fight If Trump’s Administration Won’t?

Jack is a Sydney-based news watcher, music lover and politics hack who occasionally lists things in threes.

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Approx 6 minute reading time

It’s 2017, and the future of climate action in the United States is not looking bright. Despite the threat posed by climate change being greater than ever, it was once shunned as a conspiracy dreamed up by the Chinese by the USA’s new President Donald Trump in a 2012 tweet,

The White House has purged any reference to climate change on its website, the administration is attempting to fast-track America’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, despite warnings against it from China and the Department of Energy is withholding the names of scientists who’ve worked on environmental protection projects, for fear that they’ll be fired.

Despite being the biggest contributor of carbon emissions, the US has never led the world in addressing climate change. But at least under Obama, the country responsible for a quarter of the globe’s emissions was doing something. Now that that’s simply not the case, the next US Federal Administration has completely cast aside climate change action. It means Donald Trump’s presidency could spell disaster for our planet.

But not all hope is lost. The world’s cities are responsible for 70% of the world’s carbon emissions while occupying just 2% of the land. That means that any changes made by local and city governments to make their cities cleaner and greener can have a huge impact, no matter the ideological view of the federal government.

Dependent on state law, American City councils can be responsible for establishing tax rates, overseeing public employees, controlling the police force, the prison system, public transit, the public education system, dealing with terrorism and emergency responses and in dealing with other levels of government. City and County governments have an enormous amount of autonomy to set the policy agenda for their city, without fear of state or federal government charging in to undercut their carefully laid plans.

Cities around the US have already flexed their autonomy through protecting their status as sanctuary cities to protect undocumented immigrants, in direct opposition to one of Trump’s first executive orders, they should do the same to protect climate action. 

Sam Bee talks about how American mayors can be a real ‘nightmayor’ for Trump’s deportation plan

It’s in American city’s best interests to protect the US’s limited existing climate action from a Trump purge as well

Federal politicians can be isolated from the effects their policies have on the ground. They don’t see sea levels rising, or super storms ripping through Oklahoma from their offices in Washington, but local governments can’t afford to ignore climate change. Even if Trump removes all the progress we’ve made, its consequences are too real and hit too close to home for local governments to not take action.

Undeterred by the toxic political climate that’s engulfed America, New York City’s Mayor is sticking to his pledge to reduce New York’s emissions by 80% by 2050, using his $84.7b (A$112.15b) budget.

The City of San Francisco has made the same pledge and has used their planning powers to mandate a “Solar and/or Green Roof Requirement for all New Construction” as part of their green building codes.

Down the coast, America’s second-most populous city Los Angeles has coupled its environmental sustainability push with economic sustainability and affordable housing in its ‘pLAn’ to ensure that LA has a sustainable and resident-friendly future.

Across America, 1060 city governments, representing 28% Americans have signed up to The US Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, an agreement which requires city governments to meet or beat the Kyoto Protocol targets in their own communities.

Twelve of those American Cities are also part of C40, a climate action coalition of cities (including Sydney and Melbourne) from around the world that collaborate to implement sustainable climate-related actions at a local level to address climate change globally.

At the most recent C40 meeting in Mexico City, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, shared his hope that mayors would continue pushing for climate-friendly change, regardless of who runs their country’s capital. “Mayors, as we know, have never waited for Washington to act. They’ve never waited for an international treaty to take steps to protect their citizens and improve public health. And whatever happens (under a Trump Presidency), mayors will continue leading by example.”

It’s never been more necessary for the rest of America’s cities to embrace sustainable policies. So while the most powerful government in the world may have turned its back on climate action, it’s time for every one of the USA’s mayors to step forward, not just the 1060 who’ve already agreed to play their part to protect the environment.

Sydney is an example of a city taking action on climate, against the wishes of a federal government.

When the Abbott/Turnbull (same-thing) government swept to power, they repealed the carbon emissions tax (despite saying later on that ‘you should tax things you want people to do less of’ when discussing smokers’ taxes), they continually threatened to cut funding for Arena, they approved the Carmichael coal mine and a wharf that will cut through what’s left of the Great Barrier Reef, and the list goes on and on until you roll up into a ball and cry.

Despite our federal leaders absolute inadequacy when it came to being good shepherds of our environment, one level of government soldiered on.

Despite having far less legislative power than her American counterparts, and only 25km2 of land and a budget of $587m under her control, Sydney’s Lord Mayor, Clover Moore, took climate action when the Abbott Government wouldn’t. It’s one of many reasons why we supported her re-election in 2016.

The City of Sydney has been carbon neutral since 2007, it has retrofitted 8,500 light poles with LED lighting, and it’s worked across its various departments to slash 2 million tonnes of carbon emissions a year. By 2030, 100% of the City’s energy will be produced locally, through a trigeneration power plant and renewable energy. All the while, our federal government are literally playing with coal and treating climate change like it’ll all be such fun!

So if all American cities were to follow Sydney’s lead of being proactive in the face of destructive thuggery, to work to introduce their own green policies they could make a huge difference. Policies such as decentralising the electricity grid; utilising renewable energy; invest in public transit systems; upgrading lights and other electronics to make them more energy efficient; encouraging tree planting in city streets; and cutting down on waste, are all sustainable and beneficial policies in the long run.

Sure, mayors can’t stop the extraction of damaging fossil fuels, they can’t end super-trawler fishing or factory farming, and they can’t force change upon any neighbouring cities who aren’t taking the threat of climate change as seriously as they do, but at least they’ll be making a start. When climate change and it’s dangerous effects are approaching this quickly, any mitigation of our carbon emissions, no matter how tiny, is vital.

Sydney did it without the help of the Federal Government, the US can do it too. And sure, it will be clunky and not as effective as a nationwide push, because shock horror, pollution crosses city boundaries, but if every mayor steps forward and pulls their city into the 21st century, at least 2017-2021 won’t be a complete write off for climate action.