Mayors from around the United States gathered in Seattle late last week to cheer local efforts to fight global warming. More than 700 of them have pledged to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in their cities in a sort of local Kyoto treaty.
At the meeting, former President Clinton announced that his climate initiative would offer help by partnering with Wal-Mart to create a bulk-buying club to lower prices on green building materials and energy-efficient technologies for cities.
Working to fight climate change, Clinton said, "is a godsend ... not castor oil that we have to drink." He continued, as the Seattle Post Intelligencer reported:
"It is in my view, for the United States, the greatest economic opportunity that we've had since we mobilized for World War II. And if we do it right, it will produce job gains and income gains substantially greater than those produced in the 1990s when I had the privilege to be president."
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a national carbon tax, which would have to be approved by Congress and the president – an unlikely prospect. That didn't keep him from issuing his appeal. "When there's a major challenge, we don't wait for others to act. We lead! And we lead by example. That's what all of us here are doing," the mayor said in his speech, which was published on a New York Times blog. He added:
"This conference has highlighted just how much local leadership there is on the issue of climate change and how many innovative new projects are going on in cities around the country: Seattle's incentives for greening existing buildings, Los Angeles's million tree initiative, Miami's bus rapid transit program – and the list goes on."
Mayor Dan Coody of Fayetteville, Ark., enthused about the efforts his city is making to go green, including downtown redevelopment, in a New York Times story:
" 'I'm so excited to be here and talk about this I can't stand it,' Mr. Coody said at the end of his presentation on Thursday. 'Let's all go save the world!' "
But so far only Portland, Ore., has come close to meeting the goals of the Kyoto Protocol – reducing greenhouse-gas emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012, which is only five years away. And analysts say it'll take a lot more than the current effort for cities to make a real difference.
Earlier this year, a nonprofit community activist group, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis reported that cities committed to reducing their greenhouse-gas emissions "will miss their goals unless they redouble their efforts." The study concluded:
"[D]espite their commitment and their elaboration of significant programs, reducing [greenhouse-gas] emissions below 1990 levels will be a major challenge. Many cities will likely fail in their attempts unless complementary state and federal policies are put in place."
Even then, a big question remains: How much of their emissions can cities, in fact, control? The Los Angeles Times reported from the mayors' meeting:
"Vehicle tailpipes, a huge source of carbon dioxide and other planet-warming gases, are regulated by Congress, which is reluctant to mandate strict fuel efficiency in the face of a strong auto manufacturers lobby. And except when they own utilities, cities have little control over power plants.... Bloomberg, whose signature accomplishment in this field has been to mandate the conversion of New York's 13,000 taxis to hybrid vehicles, has yet to get his congestion-pricing plan – charging vehicle fees to commuters – through the Legislature."
Some cities, particularly those in the West that continue to grow steadily, are beginning to see the great size of their commitment to reduce greenhouse gases. As The Seattle Times reported:
"Many of the cities are still only in the earliest stages, with a deadline less than five years away. Several have effectively reneged on their pledges and have set more modest goals instead. Even cities that have worked on the issue for years are finding it challenging to retool communities built for cars and powered by fossil fuels."
Washington State – one of the "greenest" states in the US – now has 28 cities signed on to the "US Mayors Climate Protection Agreement" being promoted by Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels. But even there, it's seen as a daunting undertaking. The Seattle Times quotes Mike Piper, recently hired as sustainability coordinator for the city of Vancouver, Wash., as saying:
"I don't think people really grasp what it's going to take.... It's huge. Particularly with the growth. If we were static, it would be one thing. But this region has been growing a lot."
According to a BBC poll released this week, most people around the world say they are willing to make sacrifices in order to address climate change.
"This poll clearly shows that people are much more ready to endure their share of the burden than most politicians grant," said Doug Miller, director of Globescan, the polling company that conducted the survey in a BBC story.
But the message from Seattle is that, for all the local efforts, it will still be up to Uncle Sam to take the lead.