Webinar Recap: Cities Confronting the Climate Crisis

Across the U.S., states are passing smart climate policy. In the first few months of 2020 alone, Virginia passed legislation committing the state to clean energy by 2050, Rhode Island set the most ambitious energy targets of any state in the country to achieve 100% renewable energy by 2030, and Oregon came up with a plan to cap carbon pollution and reach ambitious climate targets, among many others. 

But passing legislation is not always easy, and often takes a lot of time and political capital. Our country does not have the luxury of time — the consequences of climate change are already being felt in communities across the U.S. This has given municipalities and cities all across the country the opportunity to pass forward-looking climate policies that can have big impacts locally, and often lead to action at the state level. 

In this Deep Dive Webinar, Climate XChange spoke with five municipal officials who are leading climate policy at the local level, delving into some of the challenges they have faced and the tactics they use to ensure climate is a focus in their communities. 

1. Mayor Arlene Burns from Mosier, Oregon

Mosier, Oregon is a small city with a population of just 459. However, Mayor Arelene Burns and her city have made an impact on climate policy in their region, and have made big commitments to reduce their carbon footprint. 

In 2016, the city faced catastrophe when a train carrying Bakken Crude Oil derailed within the Mosier city limits. Four train cars caught on fire, and burned for 16 hours.

“This put us on the front lines of the whole conversation of fossil fuel infrastructure and development,” Mayor Burns commented. With that disaster, the city was exposed to one of the many massive risks that comes with using unsafe fossil fuels. 

“It was really a nightmare for our town and our community,” Mayor Burns said. 

Fortunately, although many residents went days without power and municipal infrastructure was damaged, no one was permanently injured. But the city was furious. Not only did these fuels damage Mosier and the day to day lives of its residents, but the oil spill harmed the local ecosystem and environment. 

Mayor Burns decided to utilize her anger, and use Mosier’s story as a call to action for others. She brought together groups of native tribes to support Mosier and prevent the Bakken Crude Oil transporters from expanding their track. She assisted in an effort to stop the Phillips 66 oil train terminal, which would have brought millions of barrels of explosive oil from Canada to California. She fought to stop the Tesoro-Savage international oil terminal from being built in Vancouver, Washington, which would have transported 360,000 gallons of crude oil a day on trains traveling along the Columbia River. 

“This would’ve been the largest terminal in the United States,” she told us. 

Mayor Burns then decided that she wanted to be more involved in the climate conversation, and began to join a variety of national and international coalitions to do so. She first joined the U.S. Climate Mayors, and committed her city to the Paris Agreement goals. 

“The amazing thing is that little Mosier, which has a very small population, is right there at the table, and is making our commitments and signing pledges, making sure that we are part of this,” said the Mayor. 

To reach these goals, Mosier has committed to a number of policies that will help to reduce their carbon footprint, such as eliminating plastic straws and bags, increasing pedestrian and bike access across the city, as well as creating new government buildings to use only renewable energy. 

Mayor Burns emphasized that no place is too tiny to make an impact on climate, sharing, “our motto is small enough to make a difference, and I think we are really on track to be an example for others.”

2. Mayor Steve Patterson from Athens, Ohio

In Athens, Ohio, Mayor Patterson has led the charge in confronting the climate crisis amidst a more conservative constituency that has been dependent on the coal industry for decades. 

Only 2.5% of Ohio’s energy is renewable. In fact, Ohio is the third largest consumer of coal in the entire country, after only Texas and Indiana. Mayor Patterson has not let that deter him, and has focused on harnessing the power of solar energy in his community. 

In 2012, a severe thunderstorm with tornado-strength winds brought on by climate change ravaged the city, and brought with it intense impacts. “We almost lost all of the power to feed our water treatment plant, which devastated our town,” Mayor Patterson said, adding, “this was really a wake up call and a reminder about our own community’s resilience, and the things we need to do to better protect ourselves.” 

At that point, Mayor Patterson had served multiple terms on Athens’s City Council, and eventually was elected as Mayor. “It was during that period where we really started exploring ways that we could do a lot better job of armoring ourselves, and being more resilient, to protect ourselves from environmental impacts, and prohibit them from occurring in the first place,” he said.

This manifested with a huge push for solar energy led by the Mayor, culminating when he offered a proposal in 2018 that would place a small fee on the use of carbon that the citizens of Athens pay, in order to fund solar projects across the county and continue to build solar resources. The carbon fee was introduced in the form of a ballot initiative, meaning that citizens themselves were able to vote on the measure. It passed with about 70% of the population voting in favor. 

“(This fee) is generating about $130,000 to $140,000 a year, which has allowed many different projects to take place,” said Mayor Patterson. The most recent project was a 178 KWh solar array meant to power the city’s water treatment plant. 

Athens also has many other initiatives to reduce their carbon footprint. In February 2020, the city unveiled the first public electric vehicle charging station in the county, and plans to soon introduce the city’s first electric public transportation bus. The City Council also recently submitted a Climate Emergency Resolution, and is extremely focused on passing ambitious climate policy. 

“A lot of interesting climate initiatives are going on in the city of Athens, but the one that we’re the most proud of is that carbon fee. That was huge and important, and I would encourage any municipality to get a ballot initiative out there to put a small amount, a cup of coffee on your monthly electric bill, that can go towards renewable energy,” Mayor Patterson told us. 

3. City Councilor Quinton Zondervan from Cambridge, Massachusetts

In Cambridge, Massachusetts, City Councilor Quinton Zondervan is leading his city to adopt  more ambitious climate plans, with a focus on conservation, adaptation, and restoration. 

With a background in activism and community organizing, Councilor Zondervan understands that politics can be very slow moving, and often reactive instead of proactive. But this is exactly what motivated him to get more involved in policy making, and to run for City Council — “it would be even slower if I wasn’t on it,” he said. 

In Cambridge, 80% of emissions come from buildings, a problem that Councilor Zondervan identified early on. He has worked hard to reduce emissions from buildings, and is focusing much of his climate work on this. 

One of these initiatives is “The Gas Ban,” or the plan to have 100% fossil fuel free buildings in Cambridge, which would be effective beginning in January of 2021. Councilor Zondervan is also in the process of getting Cambridge to source 100% of their energy through renewables, and he hopes to begin finding contractors to do so soon. 

“I have also proposed a Green New Deal task force to discuss a just transition, which has faced some opposition from labor partners who are concerned about job loss. And so the idea behind the task force is to have this conversation, and make sure that those labor and climate justice communities who are at the front lines are included in our transition away from fossil fuels,” said the Councilor. 

Above all, Councilor Zondervan emphasizes prioritizing justice in climate initiatives, and giving a seat at the table to everyone who may be concerned about new initiatives. “Without justice there is no change, because the problem of climate change fundamentally is a problem of injustice,” he said. 

4. Commissioner Mark Marcoplos from Orange County, North Carolina

Commissioner Mark Marcopolos from Orange County, North Carolina, has also focused his efforts on climate legislation, as he understands the massive threat that his citizens face in regards to the climate crisis. 

Two years ago, he pushed forward legislation that established a ¼ cent property tax increase, that would generate revenue specifically for climate-related projects. 

“I was spurred to do that because living in North Carolina during hurricane season, and during this era of climate change, hurricane season is not as predictable as it used to be, the coastal plains will just flood and stay flooded… Being very aware of climate change, we came to the realization that we have got to act quickly and efficiently,” Commissioner Marcopolos said. 

Although the fee seems tiny, it generated $469,000 in 2019, which is used for low-income household weatherization, distribution of LED lights to low-income households, and a solar project at a school in each district in Orange County. 

“The main reason why we wanted to include funding to low-income households is because climate change affects the least resourced among us more than anyone else,” he said. 

On top of this, Commissioner Marcopolos helped to create the Orange County Climate Council, a group with representatives from the county government, school districts, justice and environmental groups, and the youth community. This Council shares best practices, identifies successful strategies, and begins initiatives to protect Orange County from the worst effects of climate change.

Like many other municipalities, making public transportation greener is another initiative that Commissioner Marcopolos has focused on. Currently, Orange County is in the process of launching an on-demand transportation system to better serve its lower populated areas that is powered by a portable solar charger. 

“We expect that almost all the time, we’re going to have solar power transportation with this on demand system,” mentioned Comissionser Marcopolos. He also spoke about the solarization of government buildings, which he has been pushing at the county level. 

5. Energy Corps Sustainability Coordinator Robin Adams from Red Lodge, Montana

In the heart of Montana, another state that uses coal as its primary electricity source, the City of Red Lodge has recently begun to focus their efforts on increasing sustainability, despite their smaller size. 

The city recently hired Robin Adams as the Energy Corps Sustainability Coordinator to determine where the city currently stands on climate, and the best efforts it can take to reduce Red Lodge’s emissions. 

“One of the first things we did was just take a baseline assessment. We wanted to find out how much everything was costing, how much energy it was using, and how many greenhouse gas emissions we were putting out,” said Adams. 

Similarly to Cambridge, Adams found that buildings produce more emissions than any other sector, and has worked to find policies and strategies to reduce them through the creation of an Energy Conservation Plan. This has meant an expansion in renewable energy, particularly solar, as well as other small changes, including an increased use of LED light bulbs and replacements of outdated windows to reduce heat waste in City Hall. 

The city also set goals to reduce emissions by 50% by 2040, “which might seem a little bit ambitious,” said Adams, who mentioned that they created the Sustainability Board, a board of citizens and officials, in order to hold the government accountable for reaching these goals and implementing the strategies within the Energy Conservation Plan. 

The board serves as an advisory board to the Mayor and City Council, and “they are working right now on a couple of different projects that are focused on maximizing the economic feasibility as well as reducing the most amount of emissions,” said Adams.

Since 2016, the city has saved $26,147 and 114 metric tons of carbon dioxide, which is equal to 1,900 tree seedlings grown for 10 years. 

“I wanted to include the cost savings here because I think there can be a sense that you’re sacrificing economic feasibility when you’re implementing sustainability but that is very much not the case, and I think that the City of Red Lodge understands that those two can go hand in hand,” said Adams.  

Event Graphic by Amanda Griffiths, Climate XChange. Photo by Joshua J. Cotten on Unsplash