What effect could President Trump have on U.S. cities’ climate action?

Tuesday’s surprise electoral results in the United States could have far-reaching impact on a host of issues. What about local efforts at containing global warming?

new york ice
A wintry view of New York City. Donald Trump's election as US President has cast a shadow of uncertainty on global climate efforts. Image: Pixabay

Donald Trump’s surprise victory in the U. S. presidential election this week scrambled domestic and international calculations, with particularly notable questions looming about the potential impact on global action around climate change.

The news broke just as the international community is gathering to discuss global warming for the first time since last year’s landmark negotiations in Paris resulted in a new 15-year climate accord. To a great extent, that agreement was made possible through concerted action by the United States, the world’s largest carbon emitter — and was predicated on pledges by the Obama administration to act aggressively to bring those emissions down in coming years.

Trump, meanwhile, has repeatedly expressed skepticism that climate change is real and has pledged to rip up U. S.commitments to the Paris Agreement soon after taking power.

Yet Washington wasn’t the only major U. S. player at the Paris talks last year. Mayors from around the world also put in a high-visibility appearance at the negotiations to push for a successful conclusion, and U. S. mayors were at the event in force. There, they made the point that cities were already taking critical steps to tamp down their carbon emissions and to prepare for the effects of a changing climate.

Given this notable mobilization, and the related actions already underway in U. S. cities, what effect could a Trump presidency have at the local level?

On the day after the election, many were wrestling with these and related questions. Some environmentalists are increasingly pointing at a key part of Trump’s campaign platform to significantly increase infrastructure spending in the United States — a long-sought priority for policymakers across the political spectrum, but an issue on which the U. S. Congress has not been able to come to agreement.

It is also notable that Trump has regularly stated that he wants to disempower the national government while empowering state and local governments.

“There are things that you need to do as a city that have multiple benefits, and one is reducing carbon pollution,” Sam Adams, U. S. director at the World Resources Institute, said Wednesday.

“So cities will continue to lead on this issue in the U. S. and around the world and continue to support such things as Trump’s commitment to infrastructure,” said Adams, a former mayor, He pointed in particular to major opportunities around the national electric grid, public transportation infrastructure and climate-resilient infrastructure.

And how does the immediate post-election view look from the vantage point of a sitting mayor? Citiscope reached out to Charlie Hales, the mayor of Portland, Oregon, who attended last year’s Paris climate negotiations. This interview has been edited slightly for clarity and length.

Citiscope: What would a Trump administration mean for the efforts of mayors to respond to global warming?

Charlie Hales: We’ve appreciated things that the Obama administration has done, like the Clean Power Plan and support for climate action. But the truth is that most of the innovation and action on climate change is happening in cities — in the U. S. and elsewhere. If they carry out their plans, those cities will actually be able to reduce carbon emissions and have a significant impact on global temperatures. The city is where the action is.

Pope Francis recognized that when he published his encyclical [on environmentalism] last year. He invited 60 mayors to the Vatican to talk about how to make that real. It’s noteworthy that’s who he invited — not environment ministers from national governments, but rather 60 mayors. That group included mayors that are part of the C40 movement, as I am.

Portland is serious about climate action and we’re seriously committed to the network of C40 cities. We’ve reduced our carbon footprint by 21 percent, even in the face of very serious population growth.

None of that is to say that the national government is not relevant, but rather that cities are already moving forward. But as result of the Trump election, those of us who represent U. S.cities will be at some pains at upcoming C40 events to assure our colleagues that we as cities are still in and moving forward — that they can still rely on cities to be active participants.

To what extent does U. S. cities’ action on climate change — on both mitigation and adaptation — depend on the federal government and the broader regulatory climate?

There are some things that aren’t dependent. I’m proud that Portland is often the first at something. In the last couple of weeks, for instance, we became the first “salmon-safe” city in the U. S., meaning that the practices that we’re using in our public works — fertilizing our parks, and that kind of thing — are done in a way of that protects the salmon runs that go right through our city.

We’ve also passed a deconstruction ordinance, meaning that if you’re going to demolish a building that’s over 100 years old, you have to deconstruct it. We want the deconstruction industry to get bigger, in order be able to handle the volume.

And [Thursday], we’re having a hearing on our fossil-fuel-export codes. We passed a resolution on this last year but now we’re making that a law, making clear that you cannot build new fossil-fuel facilities in Portland with the primary aim of export. That’s a pathbreaking thing for us. Those are all policies, actions, strategies that we can do on our own at the city level, and we don’t need the federal government as a partner.

There are other things we need them as a partner for. One reason we’ve reduced our carbon footprint, for instance, is because we’ve built a great electrically powered light rail. But much of that was made possible through a 50 percent grant from the federal government. I ride to work each day on a $1 billion project for which the government paid half. We still need those investments.

The truth is that most of the innovation and action on climate change is happening in cities — in the U. S. and elsewhere

Charlie Hale, mayor of Portland, Oregon

How could a Trump administration impact on those investments?

The truth is that at this hour we don’t know. He has said some things about infrastructure investments, and that would be great.

What motivated your decision to travel to the Paris climate negotiations last year, and what type of projects and planning did that trip spur in Portland?

That trip, and going to the Vatican, spurred more work on this fossil-fuel-export ban. Also, more aggressive investments in solar power and electric-vehicle technology, because I see how aggressively some other cities are incorporating those vehicles into their fleets.

That’s what happens when you get mayors together, at Paris or elsewhere — we not only put pressure on our national governments to support urban policy, but we also compare notes and energetically steal good ideas from each other. That’s virtuous theft: flattery of your colleague’s good idea, and it happens every time.

So, mayors have committed to climate action. And now, the consciousness has dawned that if we do what we’ve committed to do, we as cities can actually make a difference — with or without our national governments.

This story was published with permission from Citiscope.org, a nonprofit news outlet that covers innovations in cities around the world. More at Citiscope.org.

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