After Trump’s climate withdrawal, how to add up the flurry of city responses?

Mayors at a Florida summit sign on to a landmark resolution last weekend in support of the U.S. Conference of Mayors' 1,400 members moving toward 100 percent renewable energy. (U.S. Conference of Mayors)

WASHINGTON — It’s been nearly a month since President Donald Trump announced he would pull the United States out of the Paris climate agreement, prompting a flurry of hand-wringing, anger — and sudden action on the part of cities across the country.

At the individual city level, the outpouring of official responses has been striking. But collectively, how significant is it?

Immediately after Trump’s announcement, U. S. mayors signed an open letter of support for the Paris accord organized by a group called the Climate Mayors — an effort that quickly climbed to 338 signatures. They pledged to bolster investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency, to “buy and create more demand” for electric vehicles and broadly, “to increase our efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions, create a clean energy economy, and stand for environmental justice.”

In May, a law school in New York even published a “checklist of options” for U. S. cities seeking “to engage internationally on climate action”; last week, ICLEI USA, a cities network, published a similar list. And after information and research on climate change was deleted from the website of the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency, more than a dozen cities posted the deleted information on their own websites.

Major cities such as Chicago, New York City, Seattle and Washington have passed resolutions formally committing their jurisdictions to the Paris Agreement. Pittsburgh, which Trump singled out in the speech announcing his intention, reacted by raising its clean-energy ambitions, setting a goal of obtaining 100 percent of its energy from renewable source by 2035. The Sierra Club, which is spearheading efforts to convince U. S. cities to go 100 percent renewable, called Pittsburgh the “first post-industrial city” to make such a pledge.

This past weekend, the U. S. Conference of Mayors, the nation’s largest such body, built on that effort, passing a landmark resolution expressing support for city efforts to transition to complete reliance on renewable energy. The conference, representing 1,400 cities and some 45 percent of U. S. residents, framed the resolution in the context of “recent actions by the Trump administration”.

[See: 4 ways U. S. local leaders are starting to respond to Trump’s climate withdrawal]

Another major U. S. mayoral umbrella, the National League of Cities, likewise has a campaign that in March called on Trump to expand opportunities for city-led climate action. And local authorities from around the world meeting in Montréal last week adopted a declaration reaffirming their support for the Paris accord.

“Since the election we’ve seen local leaders, particularly mayors, responding to this moment by raising this level of ambition around clean energy,” said Shane Levy, an organizer with the Sierra Club’s Mayors for 100% Clean Energy initiative. “We’ve seen tremendous growth because of what has happened at the federal level, but also because the benefits of moving toward renewable and clean energy are immediately obvious to mayors and city leaders.”

Since the Mayors for 100% Clean Energy project began in March, 36 U. S. cities formally acted to start making this transition, Levy said. Further, more than 120 mayors have pledged to support moving toward complete reliance on renewable energy — within the past few weeks alone.

And these pledges are not simple political posturing, according to Levy.

“We’ve seen mayors come out and issue proclamations or announce their support for 100% clean energy, and those goals were subsequently adopted or incorporated into climate action plans or other clean-energy plans,” he said. “Now a lot of cities are moving forward with specific plans on how they’ll implement and achieve these goals,” he noted, pointing to Salt Lake City, Utah, and St. Petersburg, Florida, among others.

[See: Cities can go completely renewable — and here’s how]

Those actions could quickly add up. A Sierra Club analysis suggests that if the cities that make up the U. S. Conference of Mayors were to achieve all of the targets of the 100% Clean Energy initiative by 2025, “the total electric sector carbon pollution reductions would fill anywhere from 87 percent to 110 percent of the remaining reductions the United States would need to achieve in order to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.”

‘Societal NDC

A new initiative now seeks to aggregate those actions — and potentially even get them formally recognized at the international level.

“Since the election we’ve seen local leaders, particularly mayors, responding to this moment by raising this level of ambition around clean energy.”

Shane Levy
Sierra Club

Perhaps the most far-reaching response to the Trump announcement has been organized by Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City and currently the U. N. special envoy for cities and climate change. This month, he announced a coalition of more than 1,200 cities, states, business and universities under the banner “We Are Still In,” pledging to maintain the United States’ position as a “global leader on reducing carbon emissions”.

An open letter delivered 5 June to the U. N.’s climate office argues: “In the U. S., it is local and state governments, along with businesses, that are primarily responsible for the dramatic decrease in greenhouse gas emissions in recent years. Actions by each group will multiply and accelerate in the years ahead, no matter what policies Washington may adopt.” More than 125 cities signed on to that letter.

[See: At ‘renewable cities’ forum, envisioning a city that produces more energy than it uses]

Legally speaking, the Paris Agreement’s sole signatories are national governments. But the Paris process encouraged so-called non-state actors to make public pledges that would buttress their national counterparts. That initiative generated a groundspring of municipal, state and provincial interest in climate-action plans in the run-up to the 2015 adoption of the Paris accord.

The We Are Still In coalition now intends to aggregate efforts by local governments, as well as actions taken by the private and academic sectors, into what it is calling “America’s Pledge”. In place of then-President Barack Obama’s promise to cut carbon emissions by 26 percent by 2025 — known in U. N. parlance as the United States’ “nationally determined contribution”, or NDC — Bloomberg’s group will offer the official U. N. climate process a so-called “societal NDC”.

Bloomberg Philanthropies, the charitable arm of Bloomberg’s fortune, will oversee the massive data-collection effort.

“We will base much of this work on the platform for tracking climate action already developed for cities by the Global Covenant of Mayors,” Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Daniel Firger told Citiscope. The Global Covenant of Mayors is yet another pact, among more than 7,400 cities around the world, to advance and measure local climate action.

“We will explore the right methodology to account for potential rollbacks by the federal government,” Firger said, “and are committed, through our Beyond Coal and Clean Energy Initiative grants, to preventing some of these proposed threats to climate action.”

[See: Despite Trump withdrawal, cities and states will ensure climate action moves forward]

Aggregating that action, including the money and political capital that it requires, could do still more to raise the global profile — and political heft — of city action on climate change. Ahead of next week’s meeting of the Group of 20 advanced industrialized economies, mayors of 46 of the world’s largest cities, including seven in the United States, offered a stark warning:

“Given the U. S. intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, the resolve of the other 19 leaders at the upcoming G20 Summit to safeguard the future of our planet is more important than ever,” they wrote in an open letter this week. “Local leaders around the world stand together with you, redoubling our commitment to bold action on climate change, working with business leaders and citizens worldwide.”

Back to top

More from Citiscope

Latest Commentary

Carey is news editor for Citiscope.  Full bio
Gregory Scruggs is a senior correspondent for Citiscope. Full bio

Get Citiscope’s email newsletter on local solutions to global goals.