When Greg Nickels became mayor of Seattle in 2002, global warming wasn’t on his agenda.

He believed that “climate change was something that was off in the future and would happen to other places first.”

“I was wrong,” Nickels said later.

In 2005, he learned that climate change is disrupting the role of glaciers as natural reservoirs, storing water in the winter and releasing it as the ice melts in the summer, according to Seattle-based journalist Jonathan Hiskes. But with rising temperatures causing glaciers to shrink, water shortages could occur much sooner than anticipated, Nickels was told. Since the city draws much of its electricity from hydropower, this also threatened to cause an energy crisis.

For Nickels it was a wake-up call. He enlisted mayors of 141 other cities and later that year launched the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement. The agreement called on signatories to meet or exceed in their own communities the greenhouse gas (GHG) emission targets set for the U.S. in the Kyoto Protocol, an international climate treaty. Nickels traveled around the world to spread the message that many U.S. cities were prepared to move against climate change.

In Seattle, students combat climate change with their solar panels. (Courtesy of 350.org)

City as policy lab

In the United States, change and innovation often occur at the local level. U.S. cities frequently serve as policy labs and develop innovative programs through trial and error.

Local governments are well-suited to fix environmental problems for several reasons, say Tommy Linstroth and Ryan Bell in their book Local Action: The New Paradigm in Climate Change Policy. Cities make their own policies and control budgets, which makes them more agile and efficient than national or international institutions.

In the past decade, leading U.S. communities started experimenting with urban and environmental policies. They sought to attack climate change, but also to improve air quality, lessen traffic congestion, and secure energy supply and reliability. Communities employed regulations, incentives, investments and public outreach to implement their environmental plans.

Some local efforts have failed. But those that succeeded have been adopted by other localities, and improve the environment in an entire state or region. For example, some cities have adopted at least parts of Portland, Oregon’s “smart-growth” strategy to arrest suburban sprawl and its consequences — air pollution from cars and the loss of farmland and open spaces.

Local approaches to climate change differ, but the successful ones commonly feature strong leadership by governors and mayors, well-defined goals, dedicated resources, and engaged businesses and residents, according to Linstroth.

Local efforts have identified a number of best practices:

  • Building codes that favor energy efficiency.
  • Investment in public transportation to curb emissions from commuter cars.
  • Promotion of renewable energy resources.
  • Designs to cut waste and reduce water consumption.
  • Increased density of urban development to preserve farmland and green spaces.
  • Trash recycling.


Costs and benefits

The local approach boasts many successes:

  • A majority of U.S. states have climate action plans and mandates for electric utilities to generate a specified amount of electricity from renewable sources.
  • Over 1,000 U.S. cities with nearly 90 million residents have signed the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement.  
  • Seattle achieved the Kyoto Protocol goals in 2008. Portland, Oregon; New York; San Francisco; Boston; Chicago and other urban centers are listed among the greenest cities in America and the world.

Earlier in 2015, the Obama administration designated 16 U.S. communities as “climate action champions” and offered support for their efforts. These and other communities took action because they face rising seas or other global warming-produced natural disasters. Hurricane Sandy in 2012 was a powerful warning for New Yorkers doubting climate change.

“If we don’t get it right now,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio told Scientific American magazine, referring to his city’s climate effort, ”at some point it will be too late.”

Man walks among ruined houses
New York after Hurricane Sandy: a proving ground for climate-change forensics (© AP Images)

But even small towns and villages with limited resources strive to make a difference. Using private grants or government loans, they undertake sustainability efforts significant enough to rival those of big cities, writes F. Kaid Benfield in the Huffington Post.

Columbus, Wisconsin, with 5,015 residents, can boast high-efficiency LED street lighting, hybrid electric municipal vehicles, plug-in stations at municipal parking lots, energy-efficiency audits and financial incentives for homeowners to plant trees. South Daytona, Florida, population 12,279, has focused on energy conservation in municipal facilities, installing a solar water heater in the fire department and educating staff about energy usage.

Seven years after being devastated by a tornado, Greensburg, Kansas, was rebuilt as a 100-percent green town under the leadership of Mayor Bob Dixson. (© AP Images)

Many mayors and city councils have discovered that going green can spur economic development.

“But you’ve got to be in the game, you have to embrace the fact that this change is going to occur, and then put entrepreneurs to work figuring out how to create green jobs,” Nickels said in an interview with Grist, an online magazine.

After Columbus started marketing its green credentials, millions of dollars in capital investment poured into the city. The windfall funded a new housing development, an assisted living center, and the expansion of packaging and pump-manufacturing operations. An arts incubator chose Columbus over other Wisconsin cities.

Local action matters

While some critics say nationwide policies could have a bigger impact, city level policies and programs are often adopted by entire states and regions. Seattle inspired a statewide climate effort throughout Washington state, and San Francisco paved California’s way to climate-change leadership in the U.S.

Some states have more economic power than others. When California, the most populous state, and one who’s economy is exceeded only by 7 nations, adopts stricter standards, other states and entire industries pay attention. For example, in 2012, California passed standards that require one in seven of the new cars sold in the state in 2025 be an electric or other zero-emission vehicle and mandate a 50-percent reduction in GHG emissions. Since then, seven other states have adopted those standards. Earlier, California’s regulations for cleaner cars helped spur the auto industry’s innovations in emission-control technology.

Another day in the lives of Los Angeles commuters (Courtesy of Jeff Turner/Flickr)

In the U.S. multistage initiatives like Western Climate Initiative, Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and Transportation and Climate Initiative increase the impact of enviornment-friendly policies. Cities do the same through the mayors’ agreement. Today around 450 U.S. cities and counties also participate in worldwide local-government climate networks.

As cities are responsible for at least half of all GHG pollution, their actions may determine the ultimate outcome of the fight against global warming, says Jeffrey Sachs, an economist and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University.

At a 2014 U.N. summit, 2,000 world cities pledged new commitments on climate action under a global Compact of Mayors.

U.N. Special Envoy and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg observed that cities are determined to lead the response to climate change.

“They can help nations set new, necessary and aggressive GHG targets,” he said.

Because, ultimately, climate change is a global problem that will demand global action.