In front of a packed room in the basement of the Capital this July, the Senate Special Committee on the Climate Crisis held its first public hearing. Eight Democratic senators—the committee is, at least for now, comprised entirely of Democrats—heard testimony from five mayors on the progress that their respective cities have made to address climate change. As meaningful progress on pro-climate legislation continues to stall with Mitch McConnell in the Senate, states and local governments have shouldered the burden of reducing emissions and adapting to new threats posed by climate change.
Tackling the climate crisis at the local level isn’t just important, it’s necessary. While climate action in Congress has been sidelined for the last decade, state and local governments have taken matters into their own hands, passing clean energy standards and other policies across the country. In the U.S., more than 400 mayors, both Republicans and Democrats, have recognized their role in advancing mitigation and adaptation measures and signed on to keep their cities in the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015. This group of “Climate Mayors” includes all five panelists present at this week’s hearing: Mayors Keisha Lance Bottoms (Atlanta), Kirk Caldwell (Honolulu), Melvin Carter (St. Paul), William Peduto (Pittsburgh) and Ted Wheeler (Portland).
Each of these mayors has made significant progress in their respective cities on climate action. Mayor Caldwell spearheaded the campaign for a new permanent department in his government, the Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resiliency, which Honolulu voters elected to create in 2016. In Atlanta, Mayor Bottoms helped secure a clean energy plan that will transition the city to 100 percent clean energy by 2035. For a city that large, sprawling, and reliant on individual transportation, that’s remarkable progress that Congress should take note of.
In their testimony, the five mayors largely focused on remarkably similar themes given their vast geographic differences. They highlighted infrastructure and clean energy among their top priorities, and each stressed the importance of working with communities, particularly the most vulnerable populations in their cities. Mayor Bottoms called the climate crisis the “equity challenge of our time,” and Mayor Peduto of Pittsburgh echoed the same thought, naming the intersection of climate change and equity as his biggest concern.
Equity and fairness are especially urgent for areas that are already dealing with the impacts of climate change and need immediate infrastructure changes to increase resiliency. Mayors Carter and Caldwell come from very different geographic locations, but both reiterated their need of support from the federal government on the same issue: flood protection. Each city has dealt with increasing infrastructure costs, not only to adapt to new threats, but also to repair damages from extreme weather events, which are exacerbated by climate change. Without support from the federal government, this is a burden that is increasingly weighing on local communities—especially those communities least equipped to deal with those impacts.
In addition to improving infrastructure to ease adaptation to climate change, the mayors also spoke of their desires to facilitate more public transit and clean transportation. Mayor Peduto highlighted the lack of electric public buses across the nation, noting that falling short on clean vehicle manufacturing not only causes harmful emissions but surrenders leadership on production and innovation to other countries. He called for a “Marshall Plan for the Midwest” to bring new jobs producing clean technology to areas formerly sustained by the coal industry. As he put it, “you want to turn a coal miner into an environmentalist? Put a paycheck in his hand.”
LCV and Chispa are leading the charge for more electric buses across the country, and Chispa’s “Clean Buses for Healthy Niños” campaign has already won several big victories this year, including a pilot electric school bus program in Phoenix and new funding for school districts to move their fleets to electric vehicles in Maryland. Coincidentally, last Tuesday the Senate committee’s House counterpart, the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, held a hearing that underscored the damage to public health air pollution from vehicles can cause, as well as the numerous benefits of buses with zero tailpipe emissions.
Additionally, the mayors emphasized one of the most distinctive advantages of addressing climate change at the local level: engaging in meaningful partnerships with community members who are most affected by the problem. Whether that entails working with businesses threatened by flooding in St. Paul or calling for a “Marshall Plan for the Midwest,” mayors are uniquely situated to connect with constituents who know and understand their community’s needs and can help shape climate solutions to meet those needs.
The leadership these mayors and many others are demonstrating is not only inspiring, but it is making a real difference in the fight against climate change. A historic slate of clean energy legislation has passed in states across the country this year, demonstrating that local and state governments will remain our best hope for creating impactful policies to deal with this existential threat. And it’s up to Congress and the administration to follow their lead to make climate policy a priority at the federal level—before it’s too late.