NRDC VOICES: The New Climate Federalism

Without local leadership, the best ideas from the White House and the U.N. will remain just that: ideas.

October 20, 2014

I heard one message come through loud and clear at the United Nations Climate Summit in September: We can’t fight climate change without City Hall. That may be why the first dignitary to take the podium after U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the assembled world leaders was the mayor of New York City, who two days earlier had announced that his city would cut its carbon footprint 80 percent by 2050.

“We know humanity is facing an existential threat,” Bill de Blasio said in his September 23 remarks. “The cause is how we heat our homes, how we transport ourselves, the reckless way in which we live. This is an issue we all face. No one is spared.”

Our nation’s mayors aren’t waiting to follow the lead of others—not Washington, not the U.N. In 2005, the U.S. Conference of Mayors drafted a forward-leaning Climate Protection Agreement calling for sharp reductions in carbon dioxide emissions. The accord focuses on a sound and assertive mix of energy efficiency, renewable power, public transit options, and the use of methane released from landfills to generate electricity. The agreement has been signed by 1,060 mayors from every corner of the country, from Atlanta, Anchorage, Boston, and San Diego to Cleveland, Charlotte, and Des Moines. 

Prairie Village, Kansas, is in. So are Dallas, Salt Lake City, and Baton Rouge.

It’s troubling that the U.S. Congress has been unwilling to take similar action, but there’s never been any real doubt as to why. Between 2009 and 2013, the oil, gas, coal, and electric utility industries spent $1.6 billion lobbying in Washington. They’ve spent millions more in campaign contributions.

The leaders who run our cities, though, answer more directly to the public they serve than to industries that want to mire our future in the dirty fuels of the past. “At the local level, this is not seen as a partisan issue,” former Miami mayor Manny Diaz explained to a roomful of NRDC staffers in Washington last spring. “Mayors said, ‘We’re not going to sit back and wait for those idiots in Washington to figure this out’—you can quote me on that. ‘We’re going to do it ourselves.’ ”

This is a good thing. Because apart from the vision our city leaders have shown, national efforts to cut carbon pollution ultimately depend on local actions. Here’s why: In June, President Obama laid out the single most important step we’ve ever taken to shrink our carbon footprint. In the States, the power plants that generate our electricity kick out 38.1 percent of the dangerous carbon pollution that is driving climate change. Astonishingly, there are no limits as to how much of this pollution these plants may cough into our atmosphere. The Clean Air Act gives the president the authority, and the responsibility, to change this, and that’s what he’s doing. Under his proposal, the United States will cut power-plant carbon pollution 26 percent by 2020—compared with 2005 levels—and 30 percent by 2030. In fact, we can do better than that, and we should. Still, by placing the first-ever limits on power-plant carbon pollution, the president’s plan moves us in the right direction. And it does so in a way that puts states in the driver’s seat: The reduction targets of individual states will reflect their specific energy mix. States will then work with their local power companies to identify the most cost-effective way to hit the target.

The cheapest and quickest way to reduce carbon pollution, for example, is to increase energy efficiency so that we do more with less waste. That’s exactly what hundreds of mayors have been doing in their cities for years, and these local efforts add up. Nationally, we’ve cut energy consumption in half—as a portion of our economic output—over just the past 35 years. We can do even better in the years to come. That’s how technology works. Success builds on itself.

Mayors and governors in more than 30 states have backed policies to promote renewable energy. As a result, wind turbines and solar facilities accounted for 44 percent of all the new electricity-generating capacity installed in our country during 2012 and 2013. During the first seven months of this year, that figure rose to 51 percent. And, as of mid-2014, we’re getting 5.5 percent of our electricity from the wind and sun. That’s a pretty good start.

Cutting carbon pollution is a national goal, but achieving it requires local action. Our mayors and governors have shown they have the wisdom—and the will—to get the job done. All of us, including the president, are counting on them to keep leading us forward.


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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