US mayors take on the work of slowing climate change

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The Backbone Campaign/Flikr

By Renee Lewis / Al Jazeera America / Dec. 14, 2015

Now that the world has reached a historic agreement aimed at averting the worst effects of global warming, action on climate change will increasingly happen at the municipal level, environmental advocates say.

The climate treaty by nearly 200 nations is widely viewed as an ambitious first step, but environmental campaigners and policy experts say countries will have to do much more to realize the national pledges to lower global carbon footprints and transition to renewable energy.

That’s why at least 10 U.S. mayors and scores of city council members on the West Coast have pledged to stop investment in new fossil fuel infrastructure in their cities.

The mayor of Portland, Oregon, Charlie Hales, for example, recently changed his position on a proposed propane-export project at his city’s port and came out against it.

Hales traced his decision to his attendance, along with other mayors from around the world, at Pope Francis’ historic climate summit at the Vatican in July, said Daphne Wysham of the Sustainable Energy & Economy Network in Portland, which works to connect citizens around the globe on climate and development issues.

“The pope kept saying, ‘You world leaders need to take up the challenge of acting on climate change,'” Wysham said. “He [Hales] kept looking over his shoulder for these ‘world leaders’ the pope was talking about, and he finally realized it was them.”

Hales took up the challenge, heeded grassroots opposition to the project over purported health and safety concerns associated with exporting propane, and in November rejected what could have been one of Portland’s biggest business investments ever, Wysham said.

She said such local activism is essential for nations to meet the Paris accord’s goal of trying to cap the average global temperature rise at 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

“The Paris agreement is of course nonbinding and the target of 1.5 C is a target of aspiration in the document, so the question remains: What will social movements do to ensure that governments live up to the commitment?” Wysham said.

Bill McKibben, co-founder of environmental organization 350.org, praised Hale’s work at a press conference in Portland last week on the campaign for municipal action on climate change.

“Portland Mayor Charlie Hale’s groundbreaking resolution opposing new fossil fuel infrastructure is gaining momentum,” McKibben said.

McKibben and other advocates, including Winona LaDuke of Honor the Earth in Minnesota, announced at the Dec. 11 press conference that 10 mayors and scores of members of city councils on the West Coast had signed on to the campaign. Additional city officials from around the U.S. have signaled their interest in similar actions, Wysham said.

Wysham said environmental advocates have learned over several decades that national and international leadership on these issues tends to fall short, “either because they’re captured by the fossil fuel industry or simply because the process is so unwieldy.”

“The move we’re talking about here on the West Coast of the U.S. and Canada is that the call for no new fossil fuel infrastructure is consistent with scientists’ call to keep 80 percent of proven reserves in the ground,” she said. “If you’re going to do that, you can’t simultaneously continue with business as usual.”

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