John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Local leaders learned how to take action when Washington couldn’t. Now they’re betting those efforts can survive an age of science-denying federal overlords.
What impact will Donald Trump’s league of global-warming deniers and fossil-fuel boosters have on U.S. climate action? The short-term prognosis might not be as damaging as some fear, but the broader implications aren’t good. The president-elect has proposed slashing federal funding for clean energy development, resurrecting the coal industry, backing out of the Paris agreement, and essentially ditching the EPA. Trump won’t be able to do it all, but it seems safe to assume that for the next four years, domestic climate policy will be in the deep freezer—while the rest of us heat up.
Yet local leaders across the U.S. don’t need to be persuaded of the devastating impacts of climate change—environmentally, socially, and financially speaking—even if Trump and his top advisers do. Global warming’s effects are perhaps easiest to see on the local scale, with rising tides, melting snowcaps, and drier summers. A significant part what’s causing these changes lies in urban centers, which generate an estimated 70 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and house more than 50 percent of the population.
And U.S. cities have the power to shrink that footprint and prepare for the worst, even in the absence of financial or regulatory support from the federal government. Congress has long stalled on advancing climate policies, anyways—while cities have taken control of crucial variables that determine emissions and sustainability: renewable-energy programs, bus-rapid transit and rail, shared mobility, protections against flooding and the ever-rising seas.
Many local leaders say that this work has become more important than ever. Here are five American cities that have made real climate progress in ways that they plan to continue in the years of a Trump administration and Republican-controlled Congress.
The specter of a Trump climate crackdown doesn’t worry Susanne Torriente, Miami Beach’s chief resilience officer and assistant city manager. “Local governments have been bearing the brunt of this for years now, especially here in Miami Beach,” she says. “All our investments in infrastructure to reduce risk are funded by local dollars. We're going to keep doing what we're doing.”
What they’re doing, specifically, is using a 2013 increase in the local storm-water fee to fund defenses against flooding and the encroaching ocean—hazards residents were already battling at the time. That means deploying pumps, physically raising roads, and increasing the height of sea walls. “We have about 20 pumps installed, many roads elevated, and we’re working our way through the rest of the islands,” says Torriente. “Every roadway you can actually drive through safely, where other cities in South Florida are seeing more of an impact [from flooding].”
This year Miami Beach created its inaugural greenhouse-gas baseline, so it knows where emissions are coming from, and is pursuing resilience programs for construction and zoning. “We’re also looking into how to do historic preservation in the face of climate change, like with the Art Deco area in South Beach,” Torriente says. “We’ve engaged with the University of Miami to come up with design guidelines so these buildings we want to preserve and the character of Miami Beach can be addressed.”
“The fact is we've been on our own,” she says. “We have a network of cities and counties in [South Florida], we do a lot of regional collaboration of staff, and that’s going to continue because we’re in this together.”
You might not think San Antonio, being in a red state, would be wringing its hands over the state of the planet. Yet 69 percent of adults in Bexar County believe global warming is real. That widespread concern helped the city this August adopt its very first sustainability plan.
Yes, that’s “sustainability” and not “climate”—officials are taking careful, incremental steps to not freak everybody out. But the intent is clear. “San Antonio is in a position where we've sort of been doing work under the radar,” says Doug Melnick, the city’s chief sustainability officer. “It hasn't necessarily been framed in climate terms…. But there's been a tremendous amount of work done in the areas of energy, water conservation, and general resilience.”
San Antonio has been fairly insulated from climate woes, but Melnick doesn’t expect it to stay that way. “What we are going to see are more extreme temperatures, longer periods of temperatures in excess of 100 degrees,” he says. “We’re going to see more extreme weather events, more extreme flooding—we can get some really bad flooding here that causes loss of life. We’re seeing already an increase of vector-borne diseases; we have Zika here.”
“I think the other big thing we'd be looking at are climate refugees,” he adds. “When Hurricane Katrina hit, San Antonio saw [as many as 35,000] folks from New Orleans and Houston come. So how are we going to deal with that?”*
The new sustainability plan, which includes a greenhouse-gas inventory and climate-vulnerability assessment, addresses everything from air quality to energy to solid waste to food security. The hope is it will prime the pump for next spring, when the city council will consider implementing a plan devoted strictly to climate. “It's positioned us well for that next step,” says Melnick.
Despite having a Republican mayor, San Diego has taken great strides toward climate preparation: In December it adopted a climate-action plan, and wants to cut carbon in half and run entirely on renewables by 2035.
How is it going to meet those ambitious goals? Well, the city is now doing a feasibility study on community-choice aggregation, or legislation that gives municipalities more power to go after renewable energy. “A lot of cities you just get your energy from utilities and have no choice,” says Cody Hooven, San Diego’s chief sustainability officer. “But community-choice aggregation lets local governments purchase whatever kind of energy they want from the open market—injects some competition into the utility scene.”
San Diego is performing a vulnerability assessment to see where flooding could create terrible situations, such as with airports and fire stations. And because 85 percent of the city’s water comes from elsewhere (mainly the Colorado River and Northern California), it’s pushing forward a “pure water” program to have one-third of drinking water produced locally by 2035. The cornerstone of that $3.5 billion plan: Creating fresh agua by recycling sewage.
There are a couple ways a Trump administration could meddle in local affairs, however. San Diego gets some grant funding and support for “smart-city initiatives”—projects that connect technology with climate action, such as adding LEDs and parking sensors to street lights. “If I had to guess, the funding for smart city-initiatives might get cut,” Hooven says.
And then there are tax credits for renewable energies like solar, which play an ever-increasing role in San Diego’s economies. “They're still really small compared to the subsidies that go to oil and gas, but they help quite a bit,” Hooven says. “So if those get cut or go away, that’s really going to slow down that sector.”
Of all the ways local governments can double down on climate action, slashing methane may be one of the most important. While the Obama administration has made some strides on limiting methane emissions nationwide—the gas is known for its fearsome heat-trapping abilities—those regulations were somewhat recently passed, which could make them more vulnerable to congressional roll-backs. “Cities are where bottom-up solutions are going to take place,” says Carl Pope, the former executive director of the Sierra Club and the current climate advisor of the Compact of Mayors.
Los Angeles knows first-hand how methane screws communities over. It experienced the country’s largest-known release of the greenhouse gas in October 2015, with a gas well blow-out in the neighborhood of Porter Ranch that spewed 107,000 tons of methane over 16 weeks—to the cost of $717 million by August 2016. “It was disastrous,” says Matt Peterson, the chief sustainability officer for the city of L.A. “And it exposed the need to reduce our dependency on gas.”
That’s when Mayor Eric Garcetti asked the L.A. Department of Water and Power’s general manager to start studying different ways the city could dramatically cut its use of natural gas. Last month, L.A. City Council passed a motion directing the utility to develop a plan to transition the city from fossil fuels to 100 percent renewable energy sources. If it follows through, L.A. would be the largest city in the country to make such a commitment (which 20 others have already made)—and it could push others to follow.
”We will keep working peer-to-peer to get the progress we need to keep going,” says Peterson. On that note, he also points to Los Angeles’ continuing leadership with the U.S.–China Climate Leaders Summit, which promotes exchange between mayors in both countries on how to reduce local emissions, as well its partnership with C40, another global consortium of cities advancing the climate fight.
L.A.’s recently adopted Sustainable City pLAn is also particularly focused on ensuring that strategies to mitigate the impacts of climate change pay special attention to disadvantaged neighborhoods, which are often the most affected. Peterson points to new programs like electric-vehicle car sharing in low-income communities of color, as well as the recently passed sales tax measure that’s supposed to improve public transit access across L.A. County.
“It will be harder to build up political will in the incoming administration, based on what they’ve said to date,” says Peterson. “But we’re not going to slow down. If anything we’ll pick up the pace.”
New York City
The Big Apple has been planning for climate change for years, but Hurricane Sandy was a particularly loud wake-up call to how vulnerable the city is— especially when it comes to flooding. Roughly 400,000 New Yorkers and 71,500 buildings lie within the so-called “100-year flood zone”—the area with a 1 percent chance of flooding in any given year. Subways, electrical facilities, and wastewater treatment plants also lie in harm’s way—as millions of New Yorkers found out with power and transit outages after the storm. In addition to spending billions in federal funds to harden those critical pieces of infrastructure and build up flood walls, New York City has also tightened up its building codes to improve flood resistance.
The second-most populous city in North America is also taking a leading role in cutting emissions, particularly when it comes to buildings, which account for nearly three-quarters of all emissions in New York City. Earlier this year, Mayor Bill de Blasio launched a host of initiatives to push the entire city’s building stock toward efficiency. Old buildings are going to be required to undertake low-cost energy conservation measures, and larger ones in particular will have to retrofit heating systems. New construction will be held to a set of super-green energy standards. All told, greenhouse gas emissions from buildings should be cut by 2.7 million metric tons—the rough equivalent of removing more than 560,000 cars from the road. And it should help put the city on a path to reduce all emissions by 80 percent in 2050.
Given all that the president-elect might mean for domestic climate policy and federal support for local-level sustainability, Daniel Zarrilli, the city’s chief resilience officer and senior director of climate policy & programs, says he prefers not to speculate. “We are doing some game-planning scenarios, but I don’t know if I find it helpful to talk about that,” he says. “We'll roll with the punches. And we will continue to draw hard lines around protecting residents here and taking action wherever we can.”
* Correction: This story originally included a higher estimate of Katrina refugees in San Antonio.