Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
Anne Hidalgo and Muriel Bowser discuss the challenge ahead as women leaders tackling global warming in a hostile political climate.
In many ways, there’s a lot stacked against Mayors Anne Hidalgo, of Paris, and Muriel Bowser, of Washington, D.C. Even as they made crepes at an event with public school students in a bistro on Capitol Hill, the challenge of being women leaders at the forefront of tackling climate change weighed heavily on their minds. Those challenges ring louder than ever following a raucous U.S. election that gave an authoritative voice to misogyny and climate skepticism.
Talking amongst themselves at the event on Friday, the two lamented just how few women mayors there are in the world. But they didn’t become mayors of two major cities just to revel in the glory, Hidalgo tells CityLab. “It's very hard for women to be where we are, because the world of the power is made for men, by men,” she says. “And when women [gain] access to power, it's not just for the power. It is to do something.”
And Hidalgo’s charge right now is clear. As the incoming head of C40, she’ll lead a global network of mayors as they urge national leaders to deliver on the historic Paris climate agreement to limit the steady advance of global warming.
“Climate change is not just another bad reality show,” she said Thursday while accepting Foreign Policy’s Green Diplomat of the Year Award in D.C. In a speech to a roomful of diplomats and activists, she emphasized the importance of financial investment in clean energy, particularly in rapidly urbanizing regions of Africa. “The world of finance has often been described as groundless, whereas cities are deeply rooted in geography and in reality. As mayors we can bring these two worlds together,” she said.
Hidalgo reiterates that point in our interview, saying that local leaders will use the upcoming C40 Mayors Summit in Mexico to hash out ways to work with nonprofits and the private sector to fund their ambitious goal.
The bombastic rhetoric from president-elect Donald Trump only emphasizes the need for cities to push forward. “It's important for us to stay the course,” even if that means challenging the federal government, Bowser says. “Regardless of who has been the leaders of our national government, we know that the bureaucracy has slowed many actions down already, and so as things change here in the U.S., it's important that cities stay focused on all the things that we can do.”
She points to D.C.’s capital improvements plan to upgrade the city’s infrastructure and public transportation network in sustainable ways. “Our job is, like it's always been, to get up and run the city,” she says. “In doing that, we can innovate in building and construction, in how transportation systems work, and we can innovate around food policies to better feed our population.”
And while Trump’s voice is loud, Hidalgo says, it is weak against those of the more than 80 cities that have agreed to make climate change a priority. “He’s alone now,” she says. “It's a global movement for the climate change.”
Moreso, his tirades may not carry much legal weight. “Maybe now in America the new president-elect is a skeptic about climate change, but we have laws—international laws,” she says. Indeed, just days before the U.S. election, the Paris agreement became a legally binding deal that requires all nations to commit to lowering greenhouse agreements for at least three years. Backing out of the agreement, as Trump has repeatedly pledged that the U.S. will do, will require another year-long notice. (As my colleague Laura Bliss has written, Trump’s promises may also not do as much damage as people might think in the face of domestic climate policies). Of course, with little information about the specifics of Trump’s plans, the future is still up in the air.
“I’m optimistic,” Hidalgo says.
For both women, it’s not just the environment that’s at stake. Both see their success as a message to future generations of female leaders—to young women who may be discouraged after nearly seeing the first female U.S. president, and who now see a hateful backlash against women in power.
“Having a woman be very competitive in the presidential race, you may think that encourages more people to run,” Bowser says. “But, in fact, my concern is that they'll see it and be like, 'Oh, no thank you!' and they'll go about doing other things.”
Bowser says not to overlook the historic election of five women of color to Congress. “That tells you that even when there is a sweep nationally, people will vote for strong women who share their values, and we have to keep that going.”
As for Hidalgo, who says she cried after Hillary Clinton’s defeat, she acknowledges that it will continue to be tough to do her job in a male-dominated field. “But we need to be strong, to work a lot for the young boys and girls, for the new generations.”