This was an important week for mayors and climate. Three seemingly unrelated climate stories reveal a stark picture of the increasingly urgent call to action facing US mayors. As the leaders most responsible for preventing climate risk and dealing with the consequences of climate impacts, mayors are on the front lines of climate action.
The Challenges of Climate Action
US mayors continue to face an uphill battle in their effort to stem climate change, while at the same time preparing their cities for the inevitable, and predictable, impacts that are to come. Despite the promising results of the Paris Summit in December, many state Governors and the majority of Congress are disinclined to take bold action on climate. A lack of political will, tight fiscal resources, and a reluctant constituency create an environment absent the necessary tangible support that mayors need to implement effective polices and programs in their cities.
Local and state leaders find themselves increasingly at odds over solutions to climate change. This was made apparent most recently by the developing divide between mayors and governors over the Clean Power Plan (CPP), President Obama’s flagship climate policy designed to curb emissions from power generation. In the face of a lawsuit brought by 26 states attorneys general, the National League of Cities, US Conference of Mayors, and a coalition of 54 local governments plan to file arguments this week in support of the CPP.
Mayor Jim Brainard of Carmel, IN, captures the collective mayoral and bipartisan reality of addressing climate impacts on the local level, saying, “I haven’t any Republican yet who wants to breather dirty air. We have the right to produce our own plan and figure out how to get there, and the state has refused to do that.”
Climate leadership from mayors like Jim Brainard, and the organizations that represent them, notably NLC and USCM, got boosts this week on two fronts. The first heralds progress being made to raise awareness and concern over climate issues, and the other a harbinger of things to come if we don’t succeed in generating solutions, and support for them.
Growing Public Demand for Action
A poll released by the Saint Leo University Polling Institute pegs climate concern among Americans at 75%, nearly unchanged from the previous year’s poll. Notably, however, the poll revealed that high levels of concern are growing – from 28 to 46 percent in a year – while moderate levels of concern are falling. Similarly, the numbers of respondents not at all concerned about climate change, or who do not believe that it is happening, fell to 8 percent and 4 percent, respectively.
"I think what these numbers are telling us is that awareness of global climate change is growing," said Leo Ondrovic, PhD, a Saint Leo science faculty member.
As elected leaders, mayors must not only grasp the immediacy of the climate problem to their communities – they must also take heart in the awareness that their leadership enjoys broad support, support that appears to grow with each new set of polling numbers.
Why We Must Act
No doubt awareness of climate change is growing because of the continuing tide of reports bearing analyses and predictions telling us how dangerous the future could be if we do not act, now.
The Obama administration’s release this week of a report focusing on the potential and anticipated health impacts of climate change, proves a sobering reminder. The link between air pollution and heat waves to respiratory disease, asthma and worsening allergies is projected to be responsible for hundreds of thousands of additional deaths, and increased hospital visits. And the effects of climate on health will be disproportionate. The elderly, the poor, and minority communities who have less access to quality and affordable healthcare will suffer most.
The political and logistical impediments to climate action at the city and community level are real. However, the public is increasingly expressing concern about climate change as the health threats and consequences become more and more dire. Mayors must now transform the rising tides of concern among residents into action. By engaging citizens, businesses and stakeholders to take local positive action, mayors can empower communities and make their cities healthier, better places to live.
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