How Pope Francis Increased the Spotlight on Local Climate Leadership

A delegation of US mayors and other elected leaders visited the Vatican on July 22 for an audience with Pope Francis.  A part of a contingent of 60 worldwide leaders, the mayors of New Orleans, New York, Minneapolis, Boston, Portland, San Francisco, Boston, and others attended a conference hosted by the Pope, where they were implored to redouble efforts to combat climate change within their cities, and to showcase their leadership in the upcoming Paris Conference of the Parties in December 2015.

As dense population centers, the world’s cities are a major source of greenhouse gas pollution. Some estimates cite cities as being responsible for as much as three quarters of all anthropogenic (man-made) emissions.

But cities are also increasingly becoming centers of climate solutions. Local leaders in the US and elsewhere have recognized the influence local policies and programs can have in reducing energy consumption, improving land use practices, supporting sustainable transportation, and reducing waste. As climate-related impacts like heat waves, flooding, and storm damage become more common and more severe, local leaders are finding themselves on the front lines as climate first responders.

In his call to action before mayors from around the world, Pope Francis emphasized the moral obligation of local leaders to protect their communities. But the Pope was very careful to underline that the problem is not simply one of protecting people – but that people and the natural world are intertwined, and that care for either should not be pursued independent of the other.

“We can’t say that the person is here, and the care for the environment is there,” Francis said as he took the stage to address the mayors. “This is what I was trying to express in the encyclical “Laudato Si’.” We can’t separate man from all else. There is a mutual impact.”

Among the US mayors in attendance were some who have made noteworthy commitments to advancing local sustainability in the face of the global climate crisis.  San Francisco’s Mayor Lee announced his program to convert the city’s municipal fleet of emergency vehicles, buses, and trucks from burning petroleum diesel fuel to renewable energy sources by the end of this year. New York’s Mayor de Blasio announced new, more stringent climate pollution reduction targets for America’s biggest city, pledging to cut greenhouse gas emissions 40% by 2050.

Local commitments to climate action are not limited to the big cities.  A decade ago, more than 1,000 US Mayors signed the Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement, a pledge that was recently renewed by the US Conference of Mayors. More than 130 US cities belong to the Urban Sustainability Directors Network, a professional network that did not exist 10 years ago because there was no such thing as a “sustainability director” or program at the time. New pledges for action, like the Mayors National Climate Action Agenda and the Carbon Neutral Cities pledge, are also bringing mayors together with each other, but more importantly, bringing with them the support of influential NGOs like C40 Cities, ICLEI, USDN, the National League of Cities, and others.

Pope Francis has elevated the discussion on climate, and in assembling a small but important cross section of leading mayors, has provided a critical spiritual component to the call to action that US mayors have been answering for many years now.  Local leaders have long understood the imperative for action, and in fact have come to terms with the fact that they cannot avoid action if they are to fulfill the call of their office.

In the wake of the Pope’s encyclical, and in the increased spotlight that local leadership has gained through the recent Papal audience, how will national and international leaders respond to this clarion call for action?

As Mayor Landrieu of New Orleans commented, “There is a vivid recognition that mayors are key players in changing how policies that have before now been spoken about across nations are actually applied on the streets of the cities. Mayors are actually responsible for getting things done.”

Yes, Mayor Landrieu – but mayors should not be alone in executing that responsibility.

For more details on how mayors and city officials can leverage their political power, collaborate with neighboring communities, and implement climate solutions, visit Path to Positive Communities and join with other climate leaders to act on climate.

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