Cities and States Lead on Climate Change

To the Teacher

For years, cities and states have set aggressive goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, providing leadership that has often been missing from Washington.

Following President Trump’s announcement this past spring that the United States would be pulling out of the Paris climate agreement, hundreds of cities and states pledged their commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in line with or exceeding the benchmarks set by the Paris climate accord. This flurry of statements by governors and mayors in support of climate action is only the most recent chapter in a longer history of cities and states leading by example to reduce the effects of climate change.

This lesson is divided into two readings designed to have students explore how local governments are responding to climate change. The first reading covers the response of governors and mayors to the news that President Trump would be taking steps to remove the United States from the Paris climate agreement. The second reading examines more general actions that local governments have taken. Questions for discussion follow each reading.

 


 

Reading 1:
Cities and States Respond to President Trump’s Climate Announcement


Following President Trump’s announcement this past spring that the United States would be pulling out of the Paris climate agreement, hundreds of cities and states pledged their commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to meet or exceed the benchmarks set by the Paris climate accord. This flurry of statements by governors and mayors in support of climate action is the most recent chapter in a longer history of cities and states leading by example to reduce the effects of climate change.

When President Trump announced he was pulling the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement,  more than 1,219 governors, mayors, businesses, investors, and universities from across the United States responded by signing on to an open letter entitled “We Are Still In.” With this letter, signatories pledged that they would still take action in support of the Paris climate accord, regardless of the stance of politicians in Washington, D.C. The letter reads:

We, the undersigned mayors, governors, college and university leaders, businesses, and investors are joining forces for the first time to declare that we will continue to support climate action to meet the Paris Agreement.

In December 2015 in Paris, world leaders signed the first global commitment to fight climate change. The landmark agreement succeeded where past attempts failed because it allowed each country to set its own emission reduction targets and adopt its own strategies for reaching them. In addition, nations – inspired by the actions of local and regional governments, along with businesses – came to recognize that fighting climate change brings significant economic and public health benefits.

The Trump administration's announcement undermines a key pillar in the fight against climate change and damages the world's ability to avoid the most dangerous and costly effects of climate change. Importantly, it is also out of step with what is happening in the United States.

In the U.S., it is local and state governments, along with businesses, that are primarily responsible for the dramatic decrease in greenhouse gas emissions in recent years. Actions by each group will multiply and accelerate in the years ahead, no matter what policies Washington may adopt.
 

In addition, several state governors have made policy pledges to uphold the United States’ commitment to the Paris climate agreement. As Robinson Meyer, an associate editor for The Atlantic, reported in a June 2, 2017, article, some cities and states have started to announce concrete plans to implement the agreement:

Immediately after Trump’s announcement, the governors of New York, California, and Washington announced that they would work to uphold the U.S. commitment under the Paris Agreement. Taken together, those states encompass about 10 percent of the United States’ greenhouse-gas emissions, 20 percent of its total population, and 25 percent of its gross domestic product.

Other state and local officials also soon announced they would step up. Mark Dayton, the Democratic governor of Minnesota, said his state would pursue the Paris goals. And dozens of mayors across the country said they would continue to work to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from their cities. Their number included Mitch Landrieu, a Democrat of New Orleans, and Jim Brainard, the longtime Republican mayor of Carmel, Indiana.

“We can accelerate our progress further, even without any support from Washington.”

They may soon have a venue to do so. More than 30 mayors, 80 university presidents, and 100 businesses will soon submit their own emissions-reductions plan under the Paris Agreement, announced Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, on Friday. They will call it “America’s Pledge.”....

[Bloomberg] said that the group will “aim to meet the U.S. commitment to reduce our emissions 26 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.”

“We are already halfway there—and we can accelerate our progress further, even without any support from Washington,” he added.
 

Despite President Trump’s pledge to remove the United States from the Paris agreement, the commitment to continued action on climate change expressed by cities and states across the U.S. suggests that the nation as a whole has not given up on addressing this urgent issue.

 

For Discussion:
 

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
     
  2. What message do cities and states hope to send in response to President Trump’s decision to remove the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement?
     
  3. Some critics argue that local efforts cannot substitute for national and international coordination on climate change policy. What do you think of this idea? What might be some of the benefits of cities setting goals and policies around climate change, even if national action is still needed?
     
  4. How might individuals get involved in local climate change reduction plans? How does personal action relate to efforts to promote policy change?

 


 

Reading 2:
Can Cities Go 100% Renewable?
 

Even before President Trump announced that he would be pulling the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement, cities and states had set the pace for taking action on reducing the effects of climate change.

As one example, Burlington, Vermont, became the first U.S. city to be powered by 100% renewable energy in 2014. In a February 6, 2015, article, Fast Company magazine staff writer Adele Peters described how Burlington transitioned from fossil fuels to renewable energy:

When it flipped the switch on a new hydropower plant last fall, Burlington, Vermont, became the first city in the U.S. to run on 100% renewable electricity.

“It’s been a long time coming,” says Ken Nolan, manager of power resources for Burlington Electric Department. “Actually, the first inclination goes back to the early 1980s.” At that time, the city retired a coal-burning plant, and decided to replace it with a biomass plant that runs on scrap wood from across the state.

A decade ago, the city was at a crossroads, trying to decide whether to invest long term in natural gas and other traditional power sources–or try to go fully renewable. “That was the first time we had an inkling that this might be the right thing to do,” Nolan says. “By 2008, we actually saw a path where we could make this work.”

Now the city runs on a mix of biomass, wind, solar, hydro, a little bit of landfill gas, and a few other renewable sources. At a given time, if the renewable plants aren’t producing enough power, the utility might buy traditional power. But they also produce and sell enough extra green power that, over the course of a year, the total is 100% renewable….

One of the reasons the city can run on renewable energy is that it has also worked hard to help residents use less power overall. With an aggressive energy efficiency program, the city actually uses less energy now than it did in 1989.

But even though Burlington has some unique circumstances–and a very liberal population that strongly supported the push to 100% renewables–Nolan believes that it’s a goal that other cities can easily reach. Some smaller communities (like Greensburg, Kansas, which rebuilt with green energy after the town was destroyed in a tornado) have already achieved the goal, though Burlington is the first larger city….

“It’s a challenge for folks,” [Nolan] adds. “Renewables are still more expensive than traditional coal plants or natural gas plants. But if cities really take the time to assess what they have for resources in their area, and take advantage of any financial markets that may be available, I think it’s doable.”

 

In his book, Against Doom: A Climate Insurgency Manual, historian and author Jeremy Brecher notes that “Portland, Oregon, has become the first city in the U.S. to pass a resolution opposing the development of all new infrastructure for fossil fuel transport and storage.” And he goes on to relate an even more unusual step taken by Grant Township, Pennsylvania. In 2013, the township passed extraordinary legislation limiting the actions of a fossil fuel company. It legalized the use of nonviolent direct action by citizens seeking to block harmful infrastructure projects by the company that could increase greenhouse gas emissions. As Brecher writes:

In 2013, the Pennsylvania General Electric company (PGE) applied for permits for wells to inject contaminated fracking wastewater in Grant Township, Pennsylvania. Despite hearings, public comments, and permit appeals, the federal Environmental Protection Agency issued a permit to PGE. With support from the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, the Grant Township Supervisors thereupon passed a Community Bill of Rights ordinance which established rights to clean air and water, community self-government, and the rights of nature; it prohibited the proposed injection well as a violation of those rights.

PGE sued Grant Township, claiming it had a right to inject wastewater within the Township. When a judge stated that the Township did not have the authority to prohibit injection wells, the residents voted two to one for a new home rule charter. Then the Grant Township Supervisors passed a law under the new charter that legalizes direct action to stop wastewater injection wells. It states that if a court does not uphold the people’s right to stop corporate activities threatening the wellbeing of the community, “any natural person may then enforce the rights and prohibitions of the charter through direct action.” Further, the ordinance prohibits “any private or public actor from bringing criminal charges or filing any civil or other criminal action against those participating in nonviolent direct action.”....

Grant Township Supervisor and Chairman Jon Perry added, “I was elected to serve this community, and to protect the rights in our Charter voted in by the people I represent. If we have to physically and nonviolently stop the trucks from coming in because the courts fail us, we will do so.”

 

In creating templates for action and legislation, municipalities such as Burlington, Vermont, and Grant Township, Pennsylvania have set an example. In the coming months and years, other local and state governments will be deciding on whether they will take action as well.
 

For Discussion:
 

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
     
  2. According to the reading, what are some specific actions that cities have taken to protect the environment or reduce the impact of climate change?
     
  3. Grant Township, Pennsylvania took an unusual stance in protecting its residents against the actions of a corporation. What type of actions might residents take now that nonviolent direct action has been endorsed by the Grant County Supervisors? Do you think that these actions might be effective in stopping fossil fuel development, in Pennsylvania or elsewhere?
     
  4. Some people who are concerned about climate change nevertheless feel unmotivated to take action because the issue can seem far removed from their daily lives. Do you think that efforts on the level of individual cities might be a good way of engaging such people? Why or why not?

 

 

-- Research assistance provided by Ryan Leitner