Cities are centers for environmental leadership. Mayors throughout the country, regardless of party, champion climate mitigation solutions. We all need clean air and clean water, and it is not just a local problem, but one that is reliant on leadership at all levels.
As the nation recently tuned in for the President’s address to a joint session of Congress, city leaders looked for leadership on critical issues facing their communities.
Instead of providing specific solutions, President Trump singled out great American cities — including Detroit, Baltimore and Chicago — to illustrate his views on public safety and economic opportunity. What we didn’t hear, however, was how those issues coincide directly with the continued need for resilient, energy efficient, and innovative communities.
As drastic shifts in climate continue to arise at an alarming rate around the globe, we can't pretend that this is a time where binary choices are still on the table. Ice sheets are shrinking, oceans are warming, and we have seen 15 of the 16 warmest years on record happening since 2001. It is imperative to do all we can to support — not degrade – the necessary global effort to alleviate challenges brought on by these changes.
However, there have been multiple reports that appear to point us in the wrong direction, including reports that speculate on cuts to the Department of Energy (DOE), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and even pulling the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement . While the new administration has not firmly stated its views on the future of these critical departments and whether it will ultimately invalidate the climate agreement, these moves would lead to a perilous future.
A budget proposal shared with Reuters points to potentially debilitating cuts to the EPA, including cutting the agency's budget by 25% and reducing staff by 20%. These reductions take aim at climate programs, cut energy efficiency funding, reduce programming that alleviates greenhouse gas emissions, and drastically reduce environmental cleanup at brownfield sites.
During his address to Congress, President Trump did say that he plans to “stop the regulations that threaten the future and livelihoods of our great coal miners.” But, as Christine Todd Whitman, who led the Environmental Protection Agency under George W. Bush, recently pointed out, it's innovation that has led to a reduction in coal jobs, not regulation.
In fact, it's with support and partnerships with departments like the EPA and DOE that cities across the country are able to drive the US toward a more sustainable future. Last year, for example, the Department of Energy supported the creation of SolSmart (a program to cut down solar energy barriers for local governments) to help cities develop their local solar markets and promote economic growth. So far, 29 cities have received the SolSmart designation and over 100 more are on their way to.
The solar industry isn’t just powering communities across the country – it’s creating stable manufacturing and installation jobs. These are exactly the kinds of jobs that political leaders continuously say they want to create. The solar industry now employs more Americans than coal, oil, and gas combined, according to a 2017 report from the Department of Energy .
It's also important to remember that the EPA has helped make communities more livable for over 40 years. Think back to the visions people had of cities in the 1970s – air that was barely breathable, rivers literally on fire, and environmental hazards at every corner. Cities needed – and found – a partner in the federal government when President Richard Nixon established the EPA in response to extreme environmental concerns. Cities continue to seek a partner now.
But no matter what unfolds in the coming weeks and months, cities are committed to creating a sustainable future. If the federal government chooses not to lead on environmental and energy issues, American cities will forge a path forward. Solidifying this commitment, over 1000 local officials have signed on to the Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement since 2005, acknowledging the threat of climate change. In an even bolder statement, 130 American cities have joined the Compact of Mayors to support the Paris agreement and commit their cities to take action to reduce carbon emissions.
US cities are leaders in sustainability, and we know that a clean climate drives economic prosperity. Local officials will work with all the partners they can find from the private to nonprofit sectors, the faith community, and others to make sure we don't take our eye off the ball. We need to build on the work already started by cities to make sure we secure the future of our nation.
Brooks Rainwater is the senior executive and director for the Center for City Solutions at the National League of Cities.
This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.