Cities: Time to Think Bigger on Climate

Luke Sharret for NRDC

As former city staffers, the two of us share a common bond from an otherwise ordinary Thursday: on June 1, 2017 President Donald Trump announced the removal of the United States from the Paris Agreement. The anger and shame at this foolish action was palpable across the nation, but it also catapulted cities to even great action. One week later, Chris helped to draft then-mayor Rahm Emanuel’s executive order committing the city to the goals of the Paris climate accord.

Fast forward three-and-half years, and the Joe Biden/Kamala Harris administration’s approach to climate change has shown it understands the necessity of climate action that centers job creation and environmental justice. But rejoining the Paris climate accord is just the first step. After four years of defunding and deregulation from the Trump administration, the much-needed focus on climate change raises questions for other actors, such as cities, who have become climate leaders and have passed bold policies—even without support from Washington, D.C. 

The Status of Cities

Cities have not been on the sidelines for the past four years. Throughout the country, we have seen residents vote “yes” for climate at the ballot box, expand the purpose of streets beyond cars, learn about electric vehicles, and create green job opportunities with a focus on equity. The Bloomberg Philanthropies American Cities Climate Challenge is an example of how cities, advocates, and technical experts can work together to accelerate important climate work.

However, we can’t separate the role of cities and climate action from the situation on the ground today, which President Biden outlined during the summer: the never-ending tragedies of COVID-19, the disproportionate impacts of the economic downturn on Black and Latino communities, and the heightened fight for racial justice. Our cities feel the immediacy and impact of these crises acutely. Moreover, the data tells us that COVID-19 is exacerbating inequities in cities, from the vulnerability of essential workers to the reality that Black and Latino residents are dying at the highest rates. Making matters worse are the fiscal issues facing cities: nearly two in every five cities are already experiencing workforce reductions due to reduced revenues.

However, with cities consuming more than two-thirds of the world’s energy and accounting for more than 70 percent of global CO2 emissions, we cannot ignore the role of cities in climate solutions. That’s especially true when we consider the climate impacts already present in our cities: From heat waves and wildfires to hurricanes and flooding, these dangers are compounding the health and economic threats residents are already facing this year. BIPOC communities face a disproportionate share of pollution and climate impacts and will continue to do so unless we take action. 

So what is the role of mayors, cities, and other locally focused organizations in the climate fight under a Biden administration?

First, cities will continue to innovate, test what works, and maintain momentum on equitable climate action as federal policy and support evolve. Stories that demonstrate the benefits of new city policies and programs can inspire policymakers and the public, providing the evidence needed to craft state and federal policies. 

Cities will continue to learn from one another’s successes and challenges and aim to contextualize and then replicate what works, like what we saw with New York City adopting new standards to reduce energy use in existing buildings, followed by similar measures in Washington, D.C., and earlier this year, in St. Louis. Cities have been innovating, sharing ideas, and finding creative solutions throughout the past four years, and must continue to do so, given that federal legislation and federal assistance may take time to reach cities and bring necessary programs or policies to scale.

Second, cities will become essential advocates to help move the new administration forward. Even in a Biden/Harris administration, past experience shows us that it will be important for cities to maintain public advocacy and support for new federal policies and new locally focused climate investments. For example, during the Obama administration, 54 mayors and the National League of Cities filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court to defend the administration’s Clean Power Plan. Four hundred and fifty mayors from around the globe joined international leaders for the development of the Paris Agreement. And many of today’s high-profile mayoral coalitions advocating on climate, such as Climate Mayors and the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy, were actually established during the Obama administration.

A clear example of the types of investments cities should pursue right now center around supporting transit, a key element of a low-carbon transportation future. Our colleague Ann Shikany recently wrote about the necessity of fighting for federal funding to ensure long-term sustainability of bus and rail systems. With historic declines in ridership due to the pandemic, these systems are facing a financial crisis while concurrently providing essential transportation services for a ridership that is increasingly comprised of women, people of color, and essential workers. While mayors can put pressure on Congress to provide emergency operating funds, they can also make low-cost, high-impact investments using city budgets to install bus-only lanes and other transit-priority infrastructure to ensure that, when we’re ready to get back to business, transit will be there to drive the economic recovery.

Mayors will be key advocates for the new administration to stay resolute on ambitious climate goals and pass ambitious policies. 

Lastly, cities will have to continue to be scrappy in finding federal funding opportunities. Besides helping cities purchase electric buses and identify pathways for expansion of solar energy, there are a host of other potential avenues for federal support:

  • The Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan included the Clean Energy Incentive Program, designed to accelerate solar and wind projects in low-income communities. 
  • The Department of Transportation supports rail and bus infrastructure around the United States through Federal Transit Administration’s Capital Investment Grant program and BUILD (formerly TIGER), which can include public transit, electric vehicles, bike and pedestrian infrastructure, and projects to reduce the number of car trips needed to get to work, school, health care, and other services. 
  • The Department of Energy deploys billions in funding for energy modernization through Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grants
  • The Environmental Protection Agency unlocks the potential of data to drive emissions reductions via its Energystar Portfolio Manager databases. 
  • Fannie Mae facilitates green buildings through its multifamily lending programs

These are only some of the ways that the federal government can have more climate success at the local level.

Yes, cities are already stressed with local budgets and unequal access to opportunity. But the concept of a green and equitable recovery is not just a catchphrase: Cities are ready to act on their commitments, such as the 50-plus cities worldwide moving to bring their fair share of carbon reductions in line with the 1.5 degree target outlined in the Paris Agreement. While there are many structural challenges for cities, there is also potential for city governments to transform the way they work by focusing on partnerships, workforce, creating high-road jobs through climate action, and instituting systemic changes to support small and minority-owned businesses.

When done right, climate action in city halls, statehouses, and the corridors of the federal government can work together for more dramatic impact while creating a more equitable, sustainable future for all of us. The new ideas and ways of thinking developed by mayors and cities can ultimately scale up for an even larger impact at the state and federal level. At the same time, federal and state governments can provide the investment and regulatory frameworks needed for cities to turn good ideas into sustainable solutions. But in order for this to happen, cities have to be met with an open hand from Washington, D.C., instead of the clenched fist they’ve experienced over the past four years.

About the Authors

Hilary Firestone

Senior Policy Advisor, City Energy Project, Resilient Communities, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.