In Mexico City for climate talks, U.S. mayors get advice on how to deal with Donald Trump

Sydney mayor assures: 'There is so much you can achieve even if you do have a government that is not supportive.'

At the C40 Mayors Summit in Mexico City last week, discussions focused on city action on climate change and upcoming Trump presidency in the United States. (C40 photo)

MEXICO CITY — Embattled mayors from the United States, still reeling from the surprise election of Donald Trump, received advice last week from counterparts around the world who have weathered comparable political storms.

Gathered in the Mexican capital for an international mayors summit on climate change, leaders from Sydney, Vancouver and elsewhere offered lessons from their own experiences with national governments skeptical of coordinated action on climate change.

“We had a Trump-style leader,” said Sydney Mayor Clover Moore, referring to Tony Abbott, a vocal climate-change sceptic who was Australia’s prime minister from 2013 to 2015. “There is so much you can achieve even if you do have a government that is not supportive.”

As a candidate, Trump called climate change a “Chinese hoax” designed to weaken the U. S. economy. He also threatened to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, last year’s global accord to limit greenhouse-gas emissions. Although he has started to walk back some of those stances since the election, Trump’s pronouncements have raised deep concerns in U. S. cities, which had taken a lead on mitigating the causes of climate change even before President Barack Obama signed on to the Paris Agreement in September.

[See: What effect could President Trump have on U. S. cities’ climate action?]

Counsel from Moore and others came during the C40 Mayors Summit, a biennial gathering. C40 is a global network of 90 major world cities who share ideas and pledge joint commitments on climate change. There are 12 U. S. members, over half of which sent representatives to Mexico City.

Mayors sent an open letter to Trump on 22 November, urging him not to withdraw from the Paris Agreement and warning the president-elect that they will forge ahead regardless of federal action. As of 1 December, 42 had signed the letter.

At the summit, U. S. mayors spoke defiantly about staying the course on climate change. “We’re here to tell you that America’s leadership in the world on climate change is not going to change,” said Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton. “It may take a different face, but we are going to maintain our global leadership on this critically important issue.”

[See: Eleven cities that are showing the way on fighting climate change]

That sentiment was backed up by Michael Bloomberg, president of the C40 board and the United Nations’ envoy on cities and climate change. “Mayors, as you know, have never waited for Washington to act here in the United States,” he said in a call with journalists ahead of the summit. “They have never waited for an international treaty to take steps to protect their citizens and improve public health. And no matter what happens, mayors will continue leading by example.”

Other financing

So what experiences do mayors around the world have to offer their U. S. counterparts contemplating the Trump administration, which takes power next month? One key issue is around financing.

“We had a Trump-style leader. There is so much you can achieve even if you do have a government that is not supportive.”

Clover Moore
Mayor of Sydney

“Most of my years as mayor were dealing with a conservative government in Canada that was focused on fossil-fuel development,” Vancouver’s mayor, Gregor Robertson, said in reference to the administration of Stephen Harper, who governed Canada for nearly a decade until last year. “It was certainly not focused on supporting cities in Canada to go green.”

[See: Cities unveil time frame for ‘localizing’ climate finance]

That lack of focus tends to mean significantly curtailed funding from national coffers. “The punishment from federal governments is a lack of investment,” Robertson said. “Ignoring cities for many years — that makes it more challenging to achieve our goals.”

Robertson aims to make his city the world’s greenest by 2020, and that has included attempts to block fossil-fuel infrastructure from being built in his city. In his case, there was no direct penalty for these attempts; rather, Vancouver saw a dwindling share of the taxes that its residents send to the national coffers.

So, city authorities in such situations have turned to bolstering other sources of financing. In the absence of national support, for instance, Sydney’s Moore found that her best ally wasn’t in government at all. “The business community in Sydney gets it,” she said.

Moore said that corporate landlords representing over half of the floor space in Sydney’s central business district are members of a municipal-sponsored Better Buildings Partnership, a joint effort to reduce commercial building emissions. The city lifted the idea from similar efforts in London and Toronto. “Cities working effectively together around the world are what are going to make the difference,” she said, even in the face of adversarial national governments.

[See: Explainer: What are ‘green bonds’ and why are cities so excited about them?]

Across the Pacific in Seattle, the city’s new corporate powerhouse is also a vital partner. Online retailer Amazon is steadily building out a massive corporate campus within the downtown footprint, and some of its newest buildings are heated by excess energy generated from Amazon data centres in the neighbourhood, in a set-up known as district heating. “We can reduce our footprint as we continue to grow,” Mayor Ed Murray said, noting that his booming city has more cranes on the skyline that any other place in the United States.

As a result, the private sector may prove the best hedge against Trump’s possible moves. “If the market continues to move alongside the cities, then the U. S. can move significantly toward its Paris targets,” noted engineering firm Arup’s Laura Frost. “Over the past seven years, the growth in the renewables industry has been remarkable. There are far more jobs right now in renewable energy than there are in coal in the U. S.

Federal strength

Still, there’s no getting away from the fact that national governments ultimately set policies that affect overarching issues related to climate change. Fossil-fuel production could ramp up under Trump if the new administration uses economic measures to stimulate the coal industry or permits new leases for oil and natural gas at offshore sites or on federal land. If that were to happen, there would be a need to export, possibly through West Coast ports serving eager Asian markets.

Yet the specifics of the U. S. federal system could offer hope here, some noted at the summit. The U. S. system gives states and local governments considerable power vis-à-vis the national government, and it is seen as quickly becoming an asset for progressive leaders. “Just look at what California has achieved through many different presidents that had agendas that were not aligned with California’s environmental goals,” Robertson said.

[See: California to help 100 Chinese cities boost low-carbon development]

Last year, Portland’s city council passed a resolution prohibiting new fossil-fuel infrastructure in the city’s limits, which include a Pacific port on the Columbia River. Today, Mayor Hales remains unfazed at the prospect of the national government or private industry attempting to force fossil fuel down the Columbia River and past downtown Portland.

“We believe that local zoning is a bedrock right of communities,” he told Citiscope. “It would be very difficult from a legal standpoint for the federal government to overwhelm or end around that local authority.”

Hales argued that just as early zoning legislation was designed to keep dirty industrial uses such as slaughterhouses and tanneries away from residential neighborhoods, the legal tool is applicable nowadays for, in his words, “keeping fossil-fuel facilities out of cities that don’t want them.”

[See: Pristina Mayor Shpend Ahmeti: ‘We’re not too small’ to influence climate change response]

According to a new report by C40 and Arup, U. S. cities can account for a third of the emissions reductions necessary to hit the country’s climate goal under the Paris Agreement by 2025. C40’s U. S. members have already taken 2,400 individual climate-related actions in the last decade, the report states.

In Mexico City, mayors representing all regions of the U. S. offered up examples of their climate actions. In a nod to the circular economy, for instance, Phoenix has been diverting its palm-frond waste — which can total 34,000 tons annually — from landfills by selling the scraps for USD 10 million to a California company that converts them into animal feed. And Seattle has been converting its municipal fleet to electric vehicles; these have already racked up a million miles, charged by the country’s only carbon-neutral utility.

There is no reason to expect that these programmes would not be able to continue — even expend — under a Trump administration.

Banding together

While climate action inevitably dominated talk at the C40 summit, other looming fights between local and federal authorities were on the minds of many.

“All the mayors up here are bracing for the fact that the federal government will probably use the purse strings to push federal priorities,” Stanton said. “This will play out not just on the issue of climate change. They might try to use the federal purse strings to conscript our local police departments to engage in some mass deportations policies.”

[See: How Nashville is training a new generation of local leaders from its immigrant communities]

The election results sparked particular worry that cities who harbour undocumented residents by ordering their police forces not to inquire about immigration status will be punished by the incoming administration after Trump vilified so-called “sanctuary cities” on the campaign trail. As with the open letter on climate change, a number of big-city U. S. mayors have also pledged solidarity on this issue.

As a result, the C40 summit’s location was poignant. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, for example, met with Mexican government officials to announce a partnership toward naturalizing the city’s 60,000 Mexican citizens who are permanent U. S. residents. With 3.7 million Mexican-descended residents, Los Angeles has the second-largest Mexican population in the world after Mexico City. “We will not build walls, we will build bridges,” he said.

[See: What did the COP 22 climate talks mean for cities?]

If C40 presents a model for how cities globally can connect the dots on climate-change policy, then something similar might be needed domestically, according to Seattle’s Murray. “We really don’t have a good national platform to coordinate our efforts on policy,” he told Citiscope. “We have to have a conversation amongst ourselves as mayors about how we as cities are going to address the new administration and the Congress as they put their proposals forward.”

When it comes to possible showdowns with the Trump administration, Phoenix’s Stanton was equally firm. “Major American city mayors are ready for that fight,” he said.

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