Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
On the first day of Climate Week, mayors from around the world are reasserting pledges to deliver on the Paris agreement.
The Trump administration is causing yet more political whiplash on the issue of climate change. On Sunday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. may remain in the Paris climate accord—the hard-fought UN agreement to wind down emissions to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, ratified by 194 countries—after President Trump’s extremely public announcement that the U.S. would withdraw.
But on Monday morning, the president’s communications staff stressed that the article misinterpreted statements by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and confirmed that the U.S. will remain out of the landmark compact—unless it is renegotiated, which no international party is eager to do.
Yet for all of the back-and-forth in White House, one group of politicians say they remained unswayed in their determination to fulfill the agreement’s goals: local and state leaders. In some ways, the extremism of President Trump’s ideology on climate has enabled faster, sharper climate action on the local level, according to a number of speakers at a Monday morning panel hosted by C40 Cities, a global coalition of cities aimed at addressing climate change through exchange and collaboration.
“Not only has the president has denied the science, he has created the narrative that the climate change story originated in China as a hoax,” California Governor Jerry Brown told the NBC News correspondent Anne Thompson. “I don’t think anyone believes that. And he’s making his case so preposterous that he’s helping the other side. He’s helping the climate action people to really do things.”
The panel, one of several “C40 Talks” that have been held around the world since the U.S. withdrawal from Paris in June, was part of a larger convening known as Climate Week, a series of events and discussions coinciding with the UN General Assembly. Brown’s sentiments were echoed by several U.S. mayors who spoke, including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who said that pulling out of the Paris accord was one of President Trump’s most shocking actions so far, because the pact was so hard-won.
“But as mayors, our responsibilities also became even clearer,” de Blasio said. “It’s not enough to reach our ‘80 by 50’ goal”—a reference to New York City’s earlier commitment to cut greenhouse gases by 80 percent by midcentury—“or to go along with the the fantastic goal of keeping warming to two degrees Celsius. If the U.S. government is backing away, we had to step forward.”
De Blasio detailed New York’s ramped-up plans to retrofit inefficient energy systems inside aging building stock, which contribute an outsize share of the city’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Mayors Rahm Emanuel of Chicago, Steve Adler of Austin, as well as Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson and deputy mayor of Oslo Tor Henrik Andersen also shared examples of accelerated climate action. Of special note: Chicago’s energy retrofit program, Vancounver’s green-er building codes, Oslo’s car-free city center, and Austin’s massive expansion of solar panels.
“We’re kind of used to the guerrilla warfare,” said Adler, when a moderator compared Trump’s stance on climate to the Texas state legislature’s hostility towards local policies in its capitol. “We’ve always been the blueberry in the middle of the tomato soup.”
In addition to being part of the C40 network, these U.S. mayors are part of a coalition of some 227 cities and counties, nine states, and 1,650 businesses and investors who have committed to delivering the United States’ end of the Paris deal, which is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent by 2025. Along with former New York City Mayor and head of Bloomberg Philanthropies Michael Bloomberg, Governor Brown leads this group, and is serving as the country’s de-facto climate-leader-in-chief. “I’m optimistic in the face of the absence of White House leadership,” said Brown.
Should he be? As CityLab has previously reported, delivering 100 percent of the U.S. emission commitments will be virtually impossible without the support of the federal government. Trump has already begun to dismantle policies aimed at decarbonizing the electricity grid, and drastically cutting back vehicle emissions. And even on the local scale, the best-laid carbon-cutting plans will go to waste if money is not available to implement them.
But C40 researchers have estimated that coordinated planning and action between cities in the coalition—with efforts like banning diesel vehicles together, and issuing shared RFPs for electric bus fleets—could theoretically route the U.S. 38 percent of the way to its Paris goals.
On that front, the group announced on Monday a pilot program aimed at helping cities refine climate action plans so that they are more aggressively in line with their country’s Paris goals. New York, Paris, Boston, London, Los Angeles, Melbourne, Mexico City, and Durban will work with analysts to develop long-term climate action plans that pinpoint the year by which their local emissions must peak. Eventually, the participating cities will develop a framework that others can use to align own emissions reductions with the Paris trajectory.
For cities of all shapes and sizes, enormous challenges lie ahead—as do more domino-ing climate disasters such as those the world has experienced this summer. If there is hope for the planet right now, it may be in the political reaction that President Trump has created with his stance on climate—not only in the U.S., but globally, too.
“Cities all over the world have almost been galvanized by their support for the Paris agreement and their belief about the need to take action [by Trump],” said Simon Hansen, who directs regional climate planning at C40. “We see the desire from cities to start this work, and that’s only grown.”