Republican Mayors Push Climate Action Without Saying ‘Climate Change’

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By Nicolas Gunkel, Follow him on Twitter: @GunkelNic. Originally published atThe Conversation; cross posted from Grist

Leadership in addressing climate change in the United States has shifted away from Washington, D.C. Cities across the country are organizing, networking, and sharing resources to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and tackle related challenges ranging from air pollution to heat island effects.

But group photos at climate change summits typically feature big-city Democratic mayors rubbing shoulders. Republicans are rarer, with a few notable exceptions, such as Kevin Faulconerof San Diego and James Brainardof Carmel, Indiana.

Faulconer co-chairs the Sierra Club’s Mayors for 100 Percent Clean Energy Initiative, which rallies mayors around a shared commitment to power their cities entirely with clean and renewable energy. Brainard is a longtime champion of the issue within the U.S. Conference of Mayorsand the Climate Mayorsnetwork.

In our research at the Boston University Initiative on Cities, we found that large-city Republican mayors shy away from climate network memberships and their associated framing of the problem. But in many cases they advocate locally for policies that help advance climate goals for other reasons, such as fiscal responsibility and public health. In short, the United States is making progress on this issue in some surprising places.

Climate Network Members Are Mainly Democrats

In our initiative’s recent report, “Cities Joining Ranks,” we systematically reviewed which U.S. cities belong to 10 prominent city climate networks. These networks, often founded by mayors themselves, provide platforms to exchange information, advocate for urban priorities and strengthen city goverments’ technical capacities.

The networks we assessed included Climate Mayors; We Are Still In, which represents organizations that continue to support action to meet the targets in the Paris climate agreement; and ICLEI USA.

We found a clear partisan divide between Republican and Democrat mayors. On average, Republican-led cities with more than 75,000 residents belong to less than one climate network. In contrast, cities with Democratic mayors belonged to an average of four networks. Among the 100 largest U.S. cities, of which 29 have Republican mayors and 63 have Democrats, Democrat-led cities are more than four times more likely to belong to at least one climate network.

This split has implications for city-level climate action. Joining these networks sends a very public signal to constituents about the importance of safeguarding the environment, transitioning to cleaner forms of energy, and addressing climate change. Some networks require cities to plan for or implement specific greenhouse gas reduction targetsand report on their progress, which means that mayors can be held accountable.

Constituents in Republican-Led Cities Support Climate Policies

Cities can also reduce their carbon footprints and stay under the radar — a strategy that is popular with Republican mayors. Taking the findings of the “Cities Joining Ranks” report as a starting point, I explored support for climate policies in Republican-led cities and the level of ambition and transparency in their climate plans.

To tackle these questions, I cross-referenced Republican-led cities with data from the Yale Climate Opinion maps, which provide insight into county-level support for four climate policies:

  • Regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant
  • Imposing strict carbon dioxide emission limits on existing coal-fired power plants
  • Funding research into renewable energy sources
  • Requiring utilities to produce 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources

In all of the 10 largest U.S. cities that have Republican mayors and also voted Republican in the 2008 presidential election, county-level polling data showed majority support for all four climate policies. Examples included Jacksonville, Florida, and Fort Worth, Texas. None of these cities participated in any of the 10 climate networks that we reviewed in our report.

Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, CC BY-ND

This finding suggests that popular support exists for action on climate change, and that residents of these cities who advocate acting could lobby their elected officials to join climate networks. Indeed, we have found that one of the top three reasons mayors join city policy networks is because it signals their priorities. A mayor of a medium-sized West Coast city told us: “Your constituents are expecting you to represent them, so we are trying politically to be their voice.”

Mayors join networks to amplify their message, signal priorities to constituents, and share information. BU Initiative on Cities, CC BY-ND.

Climate-Friendly Strategies, But Few Emissions Targets

Next, I reviewed planning documents from the 29 largest U.S. cities that are led by Republican mayors. Among this group, 15 have developed or are developing concrete goals that guide their efforts to improve local environmental quality. Many of these actions reduce cities’ carbon footprints, although they are not primarily framed that way.

Rather, these cities most frequently cast targets for achieving energy savings and curbing local air pollution as part of their master plans. Some package them as part of dedicated sustainability strategies.

These agendas often evoke images of disrupted ecosystemsthat need to be conserved, or that endanger human health and quality of life. Some also spotlight cost savings from designing infrastructure to cope with more extreme weather events.

In contrast, only seven cities in this group had developed quantitative greenhouse gas reduction targets. Except for Miami, all of them are in California, which requires its cities to align their greenhouse gas reduction targets with stateplans. From planning documents, it appears that none of the six Californian cities goes far beyond minimum mandated emission reductions set by the state for 2020.

Greenhouse gas reductions goals, with baselines, for the seven largest Republican-led cities. Nicolas Gunkel, CC BY-ND.

Watch What They Do, Not What They Say

The real measure of Republican mayors taking action on climate change is not the number of networks they join but the policy steps they take, often quietly, at home. While few Republican mayors may attend the nextroundof subnational climate summits, many have set out policy agendas that mitigate climate change, without calling a lot of attention to it — much like a number of rural U.S. communities. Focusing narrowly on policy labels and public commitments by mayors fails to capture the various forms of local climate action, especially in GOP-led cities.

Carmel, Indiana Mayor James Brainard has suggested that some of his less-outspoken counterparts may fear a backlashfrom conservative opinion-makers. “There is a lot of Republicans out there that think like I do. They have been intimidated, to some extent, by the Tea Party and the conservative talk show hosts,” Brainard has said.

The ConversationIndeed, studies show that the news environment has become increasingly polarized around accepting or denying climate science. Avoiding explicit mention of climate change is enabling a sizable number of big-city GOP mayors to pursuepoliciesthat advance climate goals.

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  1. The Rev Kev

    However much a Republican will want to toe the line and say that there is no such thing as climate change, when the Commander of the local US Navy base comes to him and says that they will have to move out eventually as rising seas are flooding his facilities, that is a bit of a show-stopper that. Or maybe the local farmers in his region will say that tax revenues will be down in coming years as the changing climate plays old Harry with their crop planting so he might want to rethink his budgets. When ideology hits reality, it is usually reality that gets final say and however much you try to ignore reality, it just makes it worse. In any case, those are mayors who have close contact with their electorate and cannot seek cover in Washington DC’s bubble. I take hope in this article.

    1. fajensen

      Here in Skåne, Sweden, we have now had 3 weeks of unbroken sunshine, above 30 degrees day temperatures, and absolutely no rainfall. My lawn is going yellow (won’t waste water on the lawn). Out in the forest, the streams are below half the water-level seen in a “normal” year. Open fires are banned already – this is a Juli/August thing.

      Usually, this kind of weather happens in August/September. Something is surely going on! The people growing wine made the right bet, obviously. The other crops might not do so well if this carries on.

      1. Wukchumni

        If you have a baseline you’ve been observing for decades, the changes being wrought out are astounding…

        I’m curious how humanity reacts to heat waves so intense it fries the grid from so many people seeking air conditioned relief?

        There’s 2 ways to beat the heat naturally by either going underground or being @ altitude, and we’ve got in excess of 200 caves here and plenty of Sierra Nevada on high, but where does a San Franciscan go, or a San Diegan, or a Los Angeleno?

      2. Pym of Nantucket

        With respect, the weather could be hotter than usual in my back yard while the global temperatures are decreasing. The reason we should be convinced climate change is real and an existential threat to human survival is because we have faith in scientists telling us this, not because our potentially unrepresentative n=1 anecdodes happen to correlate with the trend.

        The problem we face in the denial of almost all human problems is the rise or return of irrational or faith based beliefs. This is how advertising or some orange faced guy yelling into a microphone can make people support policies which will lead to our annihilation.

        I am not denying what you said it true, or that your story telling approach is effective in elevating the concern for this crisis. I am just pointing out that the very reason there is scant action on this is because science has been undermined by this method of persuasion.

        1. cojo

          Good point. I would also add that for every anecdote of abnormally warm anomalous weather events, there are almost as many anecdotes of abnormally cold weather events for which climate deniers will hang their beliefs on. See, it’s snowing in May, so the world must be getting colder! The scientific consensus is more apt to focus on longer term temperature trends (both atmospheric and ocean) as well as trends in atmospheric CO2 levels. However, these types of data trends are much harder to digest for the average citizen with a poor understanding of science, math, statistics, etc. Just another symptom of the failure to educate a responsible citizenry with the basics in these fields.

          1. drumlin woodchuckles

            If these anomalous cold snaps are happening in the Northern Hemisphere right along with Hot Snaps happening in the Northern Hemisphere, and if they can rightly be attributed to wandering jet streams where the jet streams used to be more straight-line west-to-east, and if the wandering jet streams are wandering even more as the high latitudes warm up further and faster than the mid-to-low latitudes; then one can weaponise the Cold Snaps too . . . by predicting more of them to come whenever the conversation opens a window to such predictions.

            For example . . . one of my co-workers is from Egypt. His extended family still lives there and he goes back on yearly trips. I ask him “how the weather was” whenever he comes back. Several times he has reported that the temperatures were hotter-than-usual enough for the time of year being considered, that people were talking about it without being asked. But and also . . . Cairo has experienced a few deeper than normal Cold Snaps and Snowfalls in winter lately. I suggested that was because of man made Climate d’Chaos Decay resulting from the man made global warming. I explained the wandering jet streams and I offered the prediction that Cairo should experience MORE Cold Snaps and Snow Falls every random few winters . . . . and some of them should be EVen COLDer than EVer before. If my prediction based on global warming’s wandering jet streams comes true, then I have just weaponised the anomalous Cold Snaps in Cairo for the benefit of global warming awareness.

            Here’s another. First snowfall ever in Vietnam, brought to you by global warming’s wandering jet streams.

            And some pictures of that anomalous cold weather event.

        2. drumlin woodchuckles

          Sometimes the only difference between data or anecdata is the presence or absence of a clipboard and a white coat.

        1. Wukchumni

          Supposed to be 102 here on Sunday, too hot too soon, but you go with the climate you have-not the one you want.

  2. Irrational

    As do I.
    Sustainability – as far as I understand – would also seem to be part of the notion of human beings acting as the stewards of this planet, which I think is implicit in many religions, so should it not be easier to get people to accept?

  3. Grumpy Engineer

    Shooting for 100% renewable energy is a fool’s errand. Intermittency and the need for utterly MASSIVE amounts of energy storage capability will doom us to about 20% non-hydro renewables penetration on the grid. Hydro will add another 10%, and the remaining 70% will be predominantly supplied by fracked natural gas (or even worse, coal).

    The following article explains it more fully:

    Notably, this failure has already happened in real life:

    Germany has spent an estimated 189 billion euros, or about $222 billion, since 2000 on renewable energy subsidies. But emissions have been stuck at roughly 2009 levels, and rose last year, as coal-fired plants fill a void left by Germany’s decision to abandon nuclear power. That has raised questions – and anger – over a program meant to make the country’s power sector greener.

    1. Pym of Nantucket

      Sorry Grumpy, I disagree strongly, and like you I am an engineer with a great deal of experience in this field. What prevents progress is that we are starting with the initial condition that we must find a solution which does not come with behaviour changes or game changing breakthroughs. The inside-the-box solutions will be helpful in educating the world on what is possible, but the big changes won’t come until the boomers/deniers pass on and there is a more global admission of how urgent the situation is (I believe we will blow through the 2C limit and will start taking this seriously in a couple decades when some of the massive damage is irreversible). I’m hearing a lot of 50 or 60 somethings say we need more fracking, nuclear or carbon capture because those are the technologies they can foresee being implemented in their lifetimes. Society is capable of working collectively to save itself from disaster, once we admit this is actually a disaster – where I live that happened from 1939-45 and it showed that we are capable of working together on something if we are frightened enough. Right now we are just at the uncomfortable/anxious stage.

      1. Grumpy Engineer

        Let me make sure I understand you correctly… It appears that you’re stating that we shouldn’t rely on technologies that we know will work, but instead we should wait until “more global admission” creates an “out-of-the box” breakthrough that will rescue us. Have I read you right?

        If that’s your plan, I’m deeply skeptical. I too believe we will blow past the 2C limit, but not because of the state of people’s emotions. The problem is that people will continue to use energy to live their lives, and the bulk of that energy will come from fossil fuels (especially since we’ve gambled on the limited-capability renewables strategy). Many people want to live in a greener way, but when push comes to shove, they still buy fuel for their cars (so that they can get where they need to go) and buy oil or gas for their furnaces (so that they don’t freeze to death on cold winter nights). Unless people have real alternatives that are practical and cost-effective, nothing will change regardless of the state of people’s emotions.

        1. Pym of Nantucket

          I will be brief: Nowhere above did I say anything like “shouldn’t rely”. I believe I was saying we probably will rely on what we know. This may bring us close to extinction, and when that happens, subjective terms like “real alternatives”, “practical” or “cost effective” will seem like sad reminders of how we were too selfish to change our lifestyles because our collectively stunted imagination.

          About a century ago politicians around the world were slamming their hands on podiums telling us if we let women vote, society would collapse. Before that it was guys saying that abolishing slavery would kill the economy. If the future looks more like “The Road” than “The Jetsons”, it’s not for lack of technology.

        2. jsn

          I could be wrong, but I think PoN is saying that social change is not an engineering problem but is the best possibility to find and integrate engineering solutions. I’m all for finding faster ways to address the social problem: Algonquins lived quite well, healthy and long without any non-biological energy. Social values matter possibly more than engineering.

    2. drumlin woodchuckles

      The way to meet a hundred per cent of society’s desire for energy with renewable energy . . . . is to shrink society’s desire for energy down to the size that renewable energy can supply.

      There will never be any vast renewable solutions to our vast energy desires. But if we can shrink our energy desires from vast to half-vast, we may be able to come up with some half-vast solutions to satisfy our half-vast desires.

  4. rd

    Unfortunately, the debate over climate change has diverted many people from understanding that there are numerous non-climate benefits to reducing oil consumption and improving the environment in general:

    1. Russia and the Middle East are largely funded by oil and gas. Sidelining oil and gas in the future would reduce that funding source which will reduce their abilities to be bad actors and the importance of the Middle East in general.

    2. Oil and gas resources in the South China Sea area are a major reason for China becoming belligerent there. Reducing the importance of oil & gas going forward could reduce tensions there. Keep in mind, this is the same region that was Japan’s target to dominate that brought about their Pearly Harbor attack.

    3. Fuel consumption for transportation is a major source of air pollution in our cities and cities around the world. A switchover to clean transportation fuels could be as important as fighting tobacco use in public health moving forward.

    4. Increased impermeable surfaces replacing green space (including wetlands) is reducing our flooding and water quality resilience. Better land use can reduce toxic algae blooms, flooding, and shoreline erosion.

    5. Fuel use and reduction in greenspace are both reasons for urban heat island effects. Temperatures in cities can be reduced in the summer time through better land and energy use. This is a major health issue.

    6. Loss of greenspace and native plant bio-diversity and bio-mass is impacting our pollinators and natural food web. This is likely to have a a significant impact on agriculture in the coming years.

    So there are numerous benefits, unrelated to climate change, that demand more sustainable approaches to energy and land use. We ignore this at our peril, especially since each of these challenges on its own weaken our ability to withstand the impacts of historic events, never mind future events enhanced by climate change.

  5. a different chris

    You always show up with the same “point”. You don’t know the future. You don’t know what we can change. And “ooohhh it failed”… once. Actually it didn’t fail, it “stalled” since yes, I did click on your link. Automobile production “stalled” a few times at the turn of the 20th century. Seems like it, for better or worse, got going again.

    Stop telling us what we can’t do. The human race is the better part of 200,000 years old. The Industrial age is like 200 years old. As an engineer, I’m sure you can calculate the percentage. Our current lifestyle is far from set in stone.

    1. Grumpy Engineer

      I can calculate other percentages as well. Mark Jacobson of Stanford University says that we need 500 TWh of energy storage to make things work with a 100% renewables-based energy system. We have less than 0.1% of that capacity in all of our pumped storage systems combined. We have less than 0.0002% of that capacity in all of our battery energy storage systems combined. And when I realistically estimate the amount of mining and earth-moving that it would take to increase these solutions by a thousand-fold (for pumped storage) or nearly a million-fold (for batteries), I indeed can predict the future: It won’t happen.

      People today freak out where there’s a new pipeline and power line being installed anywhere within a few hundred miles of them. And these are utterly TINY compared to the MASSIVE environmental disruptions that Jacobson’s energy storage plan would require. Such efforts would become hopelessly bogged down in protests and local politics to happen in less than a thousand years, and they also presume that we won’t run into any hard physical constraints (such as a shortage of cobalt for batteries) along the way.

      So yes, I keep making the same point. We cannot get there with 100% renewables, which really leaves us with only one remaining solution: Nuclear. It’s definitely got some aspects we don’t like, but it’s the only option that we know can provide 80+% of our electricity in a carbon-free manner.

      And yes, I supposed it’s possible that some new technology will come along that provides a better solution that everybody wholeheartedly embraces (like fusion, for example), but we would be great fools to plan our future energy infrastructure assuming that the “technology fairy” will drop something radically new like that into our laps. What if she never shows? Are you willing to bet the future of the planet on her arrival?

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        Perhaps we can reduce our energy use enough down to where renewable energy sources could supply the need.

        Granted half-vast renewable energy solutions are the best we can ever do. But if we reduce our energy demand from today’s vast level to a half-vast level in the future, then half-vast solutions may be good enough.

        1. Grumpy Engineer

          “Half-vast” isn’t good enough. Even if we cut our energy use by 50% across the board, it would still imply the need for 250 TWh of energy storage, which is still a stupendous number that is hopelessly out of reach.

          Installing 1 TWh of energy storage is probably a realistic goal. Heck, we might even be able to do 3 or 4 TWh, but we’d have to run roughshod over local governments and environmental activists to make it happen in a timely manner. To use this storage in conjunction with a 100% renewables-based energy system implies that we’d have to reduce our energy consumption by 97% to 99%. I don’t see that happening.

      2. p fitzsimon

        I’m not sure where the need for 500 TWh of storage comes from. The current world consumption is 50,000 TWh per year or about 138 TWh per day. Are you saying that we need to store the equivalent of 3.5 times the amount of global energy used per day? I do agree, however, that the only way to fix this, realistically, will be sustainables with storage and a level of nuclear for base .

        1. Grumpy Engineer

          The 500 TWh comes from Mark Jacobson’s paper entitled “100% clean and renewable wind, water, and sunlight (WWS) all-sector energy roadmaps for the 50 United States“, which was published back in 2015. The exact number in the paper is actually 541.6 TWh.

          When you see a politician waving a report around claiming that “we have a roadmap to 100% renewables“, this is almost certainly the report they have in their hand. It’s a wildly popular report, though I’m certain that most people who “like” it have never actually read it.

          I agree that 541.6 TWh seems high, but I suspect he’s including additional energy to cover heating that is today provided by the direct combustion of fuel inside furnaces and boilers. He’s also presuming some lengthy duration for a spell of unfavorable weather (i.e., cold & cloudy with little wind), but I’ll be darned if I can tell you what that duration is. [Jacobson’s ability to provide a decent technical summary are pitiful. I had to hunt hard to find even the total energy storage number, which is the first thing I do when somebody says “100% renewable”.]

          The grid-savvy guys at Energy Matters estimate that something closer to 100 TWh of storage would be needed to accompany a 100% renewable grid for the US, which I suspect is closer to correct. Even this more “modest” amount, though, is still too hopelessly large to achieve.

          1. drumlin woodchuckles

            How many currently electrified functions can we de-electrify? The less electricity we can bring ourselves to “need”, the less renewable electricity we will “need” to meet our shrunken “need”; hence the less elecctro-energy-storage we will need to meet the 100 per cent requirement.

            Some of our electricity use is surely needless. Electric pencil sharpeners and electric wine bottle openers come to mind. What other currently-electrified uses and functions could be de-electrified?

            1. Grumpy Engineer

              I suspect there are a number of “electrified functions” that we could revert to manual, but doing so would provide little benefit. After all, electric pencil sharpeners, wine bottle openers, and similar electrical knickknacks are low-power devices that are operated infrequently. I’d be surprised if they added up to even 0.1% of total electricity consumption.

              To save big, you have to go after high-power and/or continuously-running devices. Like your AC, heat pump, refrigerator, water heater, washer/dryer, and lights. See for a typical breakdown.

              Are you prepared to dump the AC, wash your clothes by hand and dry them on the clothes line, and heat your home with a wood stove (using dead trees only)? Most people are not, but that’s what it would take to significantly reduce electricity consumption.

              And unfortunately, the things that need to be electrified will outweigh the things we can “de-electrify”. Specifically, we need to replace all the oil- and gas-fired furnaces out there with electrically-driven heat pumps so that we eliminate all of their CO2 emissions. [And no, we can’t replace all of those furnaces with wood stoves. There’s not enough dead wood out there to feed them without deforestation, and the air pollution from that many wood stoves would be horrifying.]

              If we truly want to reduce CO2 emissions as much as we can, we need to replace as many direct combustion processes with electricity as we can. This implies that electricity demand should go UP, not down.

              1. Yves Smith Post author

                We have hugely wasteful uses. Having devices like your TV plugged in all the time amounts to ~15% of its total power consumption. If we had outlets that switched off and on the way they do in the UK and Oz and trained people to turn them off, that would help.

                And you are kidding yourself big time re electricity. 63% of electrical power in the US is produced from fossil fuels:


                1. Grumpy Engineer

                  Yes, we produce 63% of our electricity TODAY with fossil fuels. But are we not trying to move to a grid that is mostly “fueled” by non-carbon sources? If we succeed in that effort and get the fossil-fuel fraction down to 10% or so, then it would make sense to replace “direct combustion” appliances with electrical equivalents.

                  If we fail in that effort, though, then replacing those various oil- and gas-fired appliances with electrical equivalents would provide little or no benefit, as we’d simply be shifting our CO2 emissions from the point-of-use locations to the power station.

                  And if we fail to decarbonize our grid and fail to eliminate direct combustion of fuels in people’s homes (at least mostly), then we FAIL. CO2 levels would continue to rise unabated, and the only thing left would be mitigation.

                  1. Yves Smith Post author

                    I don’t know who “we” is. Did you miss that Trump is rolling back environmental regs and trying to save the coal industry, which is a major supplier to electrical plants?

  6. AstoriaBlowin

    Biggest single source of emissions in the US is now transportation, specifically cars. Mayors who aren’t doing anything to reduce car use aren’t serious about climate change no matter how many networks they are a a part of. They control or at least heavily influence land use and surface transportation policy in their municipalities. There are a huge range of policy actions, large and small to make cities denser and reduce vehicle miles traveled, eliminating single family only zoning, reducing parking minimums, bike lanes, favorable tax treatment for in-fill development. The benefits include savings on infrastructure costs, congestion reduction, less air pollution, promotes healthier lifestyles, and on and on.

    Some cities are doing this piecemeal and incrementally but there’s no where in America that is serious about reducing car usage.

    1. sharonsj

      Those ideas work for cities but not elsewhere. I live in a rural area of Pennsylvania with almost no public transportation. In the dim past there used to be passenger trains that stopped at many of the small towns (including mine). The lines are still in use for freight but the train stations have been turned into homes and businesses. No one has tried to revive commuter trains out here. There was talk of building a line from Scranton to New York City, but it’s been nothing but talk for over 20 years. And bicycles won’t work when the nearest grocery is seven miles away.

    2. Grumpy Engineer

      Aye, the biggest source of CO2 emissions in cities is typically cars, but it’s worth noting that it’s not true in all cities. Another severely neglected component are the CO2 emissions that come from the oil- and gas-fired furnaces and boilers that can be found in homes, apartment buildings, office buildings, and factories. In cities where the winter weather gets really cold, their contribution can exceed the automotive component.

      Alas, I’m not seeing much action here either. [Like weatherproofing programs or initiatives to replace old furnaces with modern heat pumps.] Everybody’s hyper-focused on the electrical grid right now.

    3. Expat

      Cars have to go. And electric cars are not the answer either. WE need to change how life is organized. I have no faith.

  7. drumlin woodchuckles

    Are cities in Climate Networks reducing their carbon output anymore than cities not in Climate Networks but are under “stealth climate friendly” leadership by Republican governors? Has anyone studied the question?

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