Since 2006, four out of five Americans have felt the sting of federally declared weather-related disasters—so you may forgive the nation’s mayors if they register an apocalyptic tone about the state of affairs in their cities. At a national leadership speaker series event on “resiliency”—a relatively dark frame for discussions of security, sustainability, and preparedness—three mayors from disparate states and regions bemoaned their woes, but bragged on the accomplishments that they say can only happen at the local level.
The USGBC and ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability invited three local government leaders to talk resiliency at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.: Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker; Grand Rapids, Mich., Mayor George Heartwell; and Broward County, Fla., Vice Mayor Kristin Jacobs. Each of them brought a measure of fire and brimstone to the proceedings. Mayor Becker led with the fact that weather-related disasters cost the country $55 billion in 2011 and told attendees that the tally for extreme-weather damage for 2012 will likely break that record. Mayor Heartwell said that 90 percent of Michigan’s peach, apple, and pear blossoms were lost to severe weather, in the form of unexpected frost—damage that cost the state’s farmers $500 million. And in Florida, Vice Mayor Jacobs explained that in Monroe County, Fla., flooding was so regular that the Ford Motor Company no longer honors undercarriage warranties for the police fleet due to saltwater damage.
The mayors sounded various climate-focused alarms for much of their respective talks. But they also made the case for mayors as the figures who can address them best. All three were bullish on the ability of local government to effect sustainable policies in the face of climate change, especially in the face of gridlocked government at the state and federal level. “We will save the world one plant at a time, one initiative at a time, one city at a time,” Grand Rapids’s mayor sermonized. “Historians will say the turning point came like a bolt out of the blue … They will say it began in cities, with courageous leaders and far-sighted planners.” Vice Mayor Jacobs—whose house is just 18 feet above sea level, a relatively high-water mark in Broward Community—explained that the effects of severe weather are not so easily ignored or denied at the smallest level of government. “Climate change is not a four-letter word in the city, county, and region level,” she said.
In Salt Lake City, Mayor Becker, who has a Master’s degree in planning, said that the city government had not polled residents on their beliefs in climate change—so it may or may not be a four-letter word. But he said that residents prefer the solutions associated with sustainability and preservation because they reflect the walkable, locally oriented communities they want for any number of reasons. Self-sufficiency, key to Salt Lake City’s character for much of its history, is a quality residents want to return: Voters have twice supported tax increases, by margins of at least 60 percent, to speed the development of Salt Lake City’s growing lite rail program.
Both Mayor Becker and Mayor Heartwell boasted on their cities’ LEED-certified accomplishments, though all the speakers were generally light on details of how these changes promised change in their communities. Vice Mayor Jacobs spoke about the county government, which is infrequently credited as an engine for sustainability. But the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact may be one of the most significant government structures in the nation designed specifically to address sustainability. Comprising 4 counties and 107 cities, crossing political parties and demographics as disparate as those of Miami and Palm Beach, Fla., the Compact represents a larger population than that of 30 U.S. states. “That’s a partner that can work with the federal [government],” she said.
Some of the problems that Mayor Becker outlined are clearly beyond any mayor’s power to change. Shorter winters, for example, mean that the southwest’s notorious mountain pine beetles live two life cycles each summer now, not just one—a drastic consequence of climate change that has devastated architecture in the Southwest. That’s not a problem that lite rail and LEED certification can address, but it does affect how residents vote and how leaders govern. No mayor is shy about making that point.
“Local government is in fact the grownups,” says Vice Mayor Jacobs—who made an unsuccessful primary bid for Florida’s 22nd Congressional District this year. “That needs to change.”