Mayor Charlie Hales talks to CityLab about regulating fossil fuels at the local level and organizing cities to take meaningful climate action on their own.
As cities around the U.S. consider how they’ll battle climate change in the Trump years, Portland, Oregon, Mayor Charlie Hales sees plenty of room for local governments to lead the way. Facing a federal government in climate denial, he says, cities can still flex their zoning codes.
“Cities can declare things, and that’s nice and helpful, but when you put it into your zoning code, that’s the ultimate authority of local government,” Hales tells CityLab. “Frankly it’s an authority that is very difficult for the federal government, or anyone else, to trample on. ...[It’s] the law of the land, and that’s local control as it should be.”
On the environmental front, Portland is taking two notable moves this year. In November it implemented a law boosting a greener alternative to demolition. And this week, the city council is expected to approve a ban on any new bulk fossil fuel storage facilities within city limits—the first of its kind in the U.S. Proponents hope the ban will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and address safety risks that the facilities pose in case of an earthquake.
There’s heft to these measures, and they add to the building momentum of local-level leadership fighting climate change. Hales says he hopes the policy, in tandem with other climate initiatives in Seattle, San Francisco, and Vancouver, will begin building a “green wall” of West Coast cities that want to be “part of responsible climate action, and not part of climate denial.”
CityLab talked to Hales about Portland’s moves to ban fossil fuel storage facilities, and about how cities can continue to take climate action under a federal government that denies the existence of climate change. This interview has been edited and condensed.
What is it about Portland, or these other West Coast cities that you mention that makes them fertile for taking meaningful climate action?
I think we have very high-functioning local democracies. The ideas that we’re talking about here, whether it’s human rights or environmental policy or economic growth that helps everyone, those are actually American values that are broadly shared. They’re not unique to Portland. It would be wrong to conclude, “Oh, those West Coast cities, they’re just so different from everywhere else.” No, we’re not. I would believe it’s wrong to say “Well, those West Coast cities just have a different political philosophy.”
What is true is that we have a very strong civic tradition, in the American West, of people who want to shape their own future, and have local governments that are responsive to that. The people that live in these cities are used to activist city government that actually listens to them.
And how do you see that moving forward during a Trump administration?
I think it’s going to be more important than ever. Because if the national government is in climate denial, that’s not going to be helpful, but it should not dissuade us—I don’t believe it will dissuade us—from continuing to take local action that matters. That’s the whole premise of the C40 organization. Here are dozens of cities around the world that are changing their local economies, changing their energy use, changing their transportation systems to have meaningful impacts on global emissions. Most of the carbon dioxide generation is in cities, and the decreases are happening because of local action more than because of national policy.
Was there pushback on the new fossil fuel zoning rules? Who was fighting against the proposed changes?
Oh yeah. Our local traditional business organization, the Portland Business Alliance, opposed it. Some of the waterfront industrial groups opposed it. But I think they knew they were swimming upstream on this issue.
Separating corporate interests and people’s interests has been a hot topic for some time now. How do you think that challenge will continue?
I think that’s another difference between city governments and state and certainly congressional politics. City governments again are more connected and responsive to what voters actually want. There’s less influence by paid lobbyists and PACs; they have a much smaller effect on the political equation than they do in D.C., where they are utterly dominant, or in state legislatures. That’s one of the benefits of being a mayor. You’re not surrounded by lobbyists and you’re not hammered by special interest expenditures at every turn. That’s a blessing of being in local government.
What role do non-governmental organizations play in climate leadership? How do you think that people who live in cities can most effectively advocate for change?
This is something I’ve been urging Portlanders to think about. Hey, maybe you haven’t been politically active in the past. Maybe you are very concerned about where we’re going as a country. Demonstrate, by all means, if that’s what you want to do, but then turn to action. If you care about the environment, get involved in the Sierra Club or Defenders of Wildlife, or in our case, Willamette River Keepers or Friends of Trees. There’s a lot that people can do as active citizens and community members, as well as encourage their local government to do good stuff. There’s a voter responsibility piece here, which is don’t just vote in the next election; get involved.
Are there any specific initiatives that you think might be threatened or made more difficult after the end of the Obama administration?
I think a lot of things are going to be more difficult. One, a lot of cities—this is certainly true in Portland—have seen large demographic changes, through more and more immigrants and refugees coming to our cities, and now many of these people are very fearful about the future. And yet these cities have also been very thoughtful about how to integrate these new residents into community life. We’ll need to keep doing that on our own. We’ll need to redouble what we’re doing locally, through everything from city government to Catholic charities to neighborhood organizations, because we may have a national government that’s openly hostile to immigrants. That’s going to be challenging.
We need the federal government to invest in infrastructure, and not just highways. In fact, most of us don’t have any room for any more highways. It’s not a matter of political philosophy, you just can’t do it. Because the land is too valuable and too occupied by dense development to even contemplating driving new freeways or new freeway lanes through existing urban areas. So the solution for those urban areas—it’s not a matter of ideology, it’s just practical engineering—is transit, walking, and bicycling. And yet if the national government thinks of transportation as highways only, that will be a problem for cities.
Now, we’re capable of financing some things on our own. L.A. is building a very large transit network, mostly with local funds. I built the first couple of phases of the Portland streetcar, the prototype for streetcar projects all over the country, with only local funds. So we can get some things done on our own. But it has been extremely helpful to have the federal government, and it’s not just the Obama administration. Transit has been a bipartisan federal commitment for decades. I accompanied Republican house transportation chairs on tours of light rail construction projects in Portland. Our Republican U.S. senator brought home a large appropriation for one of those light rail lines. Those have been bipartisan commitments for a long time. I hope that will still be true, but again, there’s a lot of things that have question marks attached to them right now.
You say city governments are more connected to the voters and what people actually want. How do you make that be the case?
I literally see my constituents in the grocery store, at the transit stop on my way to city hall. You get a lot of direct conversation with the people you work for when you’re a mayor. Secondly, you’re always focused on practical realities. To fantasize that climate change isn’t happening when you’re having sea level rise in your city, or you’re in the middle of a drought, that’s pretty unlikely, because you’re going to have to deal with the reality that there’s not enough water for the people in Santa Barbara to drink, or that the ocean is lapping over street surfaces in Miami.
It’s pretty hard for mayors to be ideological in the face of that kind of reality. We manage public works departments, police departments, and planning departments. The reality that we have fossil fuel tanks in an earthquake hazard area on fill is something that obviously is in my mind. I know we’re on borrowed time, waiting for those tanks to be replaced—hopefully the number of them reduced—and the ones we do have made resistant to an earthquake before it comes. You can’t live in an ideological dream world if you’re worried about the next emergency in your city, and you have those practical responsibilities of having the city actually function.
So you think by calling attention to these practical concerns, you can work to build unity?
Absolutely. And the facts are close at hand. Somebody could claim that we’ve got to set the oil industry free to have more jobs in this country. That’s the kind of national rhetoric we’ve heard. Well we’ve got 47,000 jobs in our city that have to do with clean tech and green technology and green design. 47,000 jobs in the climate-friendly sector, and 280 jobs in fossil fuel terminals. We’re a prosperous city, and we’re not prosperous because of the old economy. We’re prosperous because of the new economy.
The CEO of Standard Insurance, across the street from my office? I don’t know if he’s a Republican or a Democrat, but he’s a CEO, and I bet he’s pretty happy that we’ve got 47,000 people working in all those companies that his company can insure.
We can look out the window at Portland and say, “The air is so clear! How did that happen? Oh, that’s right, we built that transit system that means we burn a billion fewer gallons of gasoline a year than we would have. Oh, that’s right, we’ve had strong environmental regulations that require that auto emissions be curbed. It’s sure nice to look out my office window and see Mt. Hood.” Again, the grounding in real life that comes with city government is at least an opportunity to bring people together and find common ground.