SEATTLE – When Greg Nickels became Seattle’s mayor in 2002, global warming was hardly at the top of the municipal agenda.
The World Trade Center had been attacked, and officials had to figure out how to protect the city from terrorism. Boeing was laying off 30,000 machinists, so there was the declining regional economy to deal with. Surely the federal government would worry about climate change.
Then came the winter of 2004, when the Cascade Mountains snowpack was so disastrously low that ski resorts – facing their worst year on record – laid off most of their employees. The same snow, when it melts, is what fuels much of the Northwest’s electricity generation.
“It was serious. It was truly serious,” Nickels said. “It became clear to me that global warming was not something off in the future, not far away, but something that was here and now.”
With the U.S. still not a signatory to the international Kyoto climate change accord, Nickels began talking to other mayors about halting carbon emissions in the cities – where the majority of Americans live, drive cars, operate factories, turn on lights and generate power.
On Friday, as outgoing president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, he announced that 1,000 mayors across the country had signed a pact to meet the Kyoto protocol targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. They also will urge the federal governments and the states to cut emissions by 7 percent from 1990 levels by 2012.
“I (had) assumed that our federal government was working hard to make sure we were protecting our future. I was wrong,” Nickels said in overseeing the signature of Republican Scott Smith, mayor of Tempe, Ariz. The two were joined by more than a dozen other U.S. mayors.
The group also successfully lobbied to get future grants placed in the federal climate change legislation recently introduced by Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and John F. Kerry, D-Mass.
“The 100 top metropolitan areas represent 75 percent of the (gross domestic product) of this country. This is where the economy is. This is where the energy is. And this is where the solutions need to come,” Nickels said.
Seattle was able to reduce its 1990 carbon footprint by 8 percent in 2005, largely through voluntary emissions reductions by households and businesses. Many of those switched from dirty fuel oil to cleaner-burning natural gas.
Seattle City Light, which produces much of its electricity through non-gas-emitting hydropower, sold its interest in a coal-fired power plant, stopped buying power from a natural gas-fired plant and purchased greenhouse gas “credits” to offset the remainder of its carbon production.
Los Angeles reached the 7 percent Kyoto target in 2008, four years ahead of schedule, in part through an aggressive program in energy efficiency that included light bulb and street light replacements, mandatory green building standards, and a transition to alternative fuel on buses, trash trucks and other city vehicles.
“We didn’t just sign on. I can tell you, we’ve been working hard to meet those goals,” Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said.
A city-by-city report released Friday showed that Boston has increased its solar capacity by 300 percent; Philadelphia has adopted a plan to retrofit 100,000 homes with energy-saving features over the next seven years; Cleveland has set a standard of converting to 25 percent renewable electricity; and Albuquerque, N.M., has revised its construction codes to make its buildings carbon neutral by 2030.
Smith, the Tempe mayor, earlier had balked at the mayoral compact’s call for lobbying Congress and the administration to support a cap-and-trade system for mandatory limits on carbon emissions. But then he decided the mayors’ initiative was “the right thing to do.”
“I am signing up because this is too important an issue for us to stand on the sideline,” he said. “This is not a group without diversity; it’s not a group that agrees on everything. But it is a group that is completely united and committed to this one issue.”