America's Mayors Are the Renewable Energy Champions We Need Right Now

This story is part of Treehugger's news archive. Learn more about our news archiving process or read our latest news.
Mitch Landrieu, mayor of New Orleans and president of the United States Conference of Mayors, speaks at the conference's annual meeting in Miami Beach, Florida. . (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Earlier this year, the BBC reported that Miami faces the highest financial and property risks of any coastal metropolis in the world when considering rising sea levels. Here, in the eighth most populous metro region in the United States, both the tides and the population are rising quicker than anywhere else, and in horrific synchronicity.

It makes sense then that Miami — and more specifically, the city of Miami Beach — served as host city for the 85th Annual Meeting of the United States Conference of Mayors (USCM). While topics like education, community development and immigration were all discussed, the headlining news out of the meeting held in late June was the adoption of several resolutions centered on resiliency and countering the impacts of climate change — sea level rise included.

Most notably, one specific resolution saw the mayors of America’s largest cities pledge to use 100 percent renewable energy, by 2035.

The USCM’s push toward 100 percent clean energy along with other climate change-related adopted resolutions isn't surprising. Over the past several weeks, numerous cities — and several states including New York, California, Washington, Connecticut and Colorado — have vowed to march forward into a cleaner, healthier and more efficient future as the federal government, under the fossil fuel-friendly Trump administration, assumes a regressive stance.

Among other things, the Trump administration aims to lift emissions regulations on power producers, open up protected lands for drilling, make "nuclear cool again" and also somehow revive the ebbing coal mining industry. Meanwhile, America’s mayors aren’t having any of it.

Miami Beach, coastal flooding
Extremely vulnerable to rising seas, Miami Beach was an apropos setting for a meeting of over 250 mayors to discuss climate resiliency and clean energy. (Photo: Miamibrickell/flickr)

Led by current conference president and mayor of New Orleans Mitch Landrieu, the bipartisan USCM is open to the mayors of American cities with populations of 30,000 or more. Based on this criterion, there are 1,408 qualifying cities across the country. Joining Landrieu in Miami Beach were the mayors of over 250 of these cities, representing burgs ranging from Beverly Hills to Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. The mayors of 10 Puerto Rican cities also registered while the Sunshine State, naturally, enjoyed a large contingent in addition to Tomas Regalado of Miami and Philip Levine of Miami Beach. Per the BBC, Floridians are more at risk to the ill effects of climate change than the residents of any other state according to recent studies.

United in opposition to the Trump administration’s exit from the Paris climate agreement, these city leaders have pledged to do everything and anything within their power to stop climate change in its tracks. And unlike the White House's intentions to place renewables in the backseat on the road to “energy dominance,” mayors, in the spirit of the Paris agreement, are insisting that wind, solar and geothermal ride up front.

(Although recently championed by Secretary of Energy Rick Perry during the White House’s so-called “Energy Week,” nuclear power is excluded from the USCM’s definition of “renewable energy” along with waste incineration, large-scale hydroelectric dam projects and everything and anything fossil fuel-related.)

Rooftop solar panels in NJ
Rooftop solar panels in NJ. (Photo: Kimco Realty /flickr)

As for Donald Trump himself, he has stacked his cabinet with climate change contrarians and his official stance on renewable energy is cloudy at best. However, he recently suggested the idea of festooning his proposed border wall with Mexico with solar panels, a concept that’s been dismissed as “science fiction” by Greenpeace and raised serious concern among wildlife experts. Trump claims that an electricity-generating, illegal immigration-curtailing border wall will lessen the construction bill that he eventually plans to hand off to Mexico. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has repeatedly stated that his country will not pay a dime for the wall, solar panels or not.

And then there’s wind power.

Not all that long ago, Trump, as a real estate developer, waged war against the Scottish government over an offshore wind farm that he believed marred views from his newly opened luxury golf course development. Wind turbines, it would seem, are still a foe of Trump, now commander-in-chief. In a recent speech in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, he stated: “I don’t want to just hope the wind blows to light up your homes and your factories ... as the birds fall to the ground.”

These comments elicited widespread groans across Iowa, a state where roughly a third of homes and businesses are powered by wind energy and where the very industry that Trump dismissed as being unreliable has been heralded as a “bipartisan success story,” according to the Associated Press.

Ron Corbett, Cedar Rapid's mayor, was not in attendance at the annual meeting of the USCM. However, the mayors of Des Moines, Dubuque and Waterloo were.

Wind farm, Iowa
A wind farm in Iowa, a state where wind power is a booming business. Curiously, President Donald Trump made dismissive remarks about wind power at a recent speech in Cedar Rapids. (Photo: Mark Evans/flickr)

Mayors with Paris on the mind

The commitment to pursue 100 percent renewable energy over the next two decades as well as the other climate-related resolutions adopted by the United States Conference of Mayors can be viewed as a sort of unofficial, city-centric rejoining of the Paris climate agreement. (Although the symbolic damage has been done, the U.S. will remain part of the accord until at least November 2020, which is the earliest withdrawal date.)

While cities cannot formally join the agreement although they can certainly pledge to move forward in tandem with member countries and, according to one resolution, “commit to doing their part on climate action via aggressive policies and programs that reduce our environmental footprint while promoting a 21st century economy.”

Separate from the USCM resolutions, 338 American mayors (and counting) representing 65 million Americans have vowed to honor and adhere to the Paris Accord in the aftermath of Trump’s decision to withdraw from the historic agreement. Aside from the U.S., the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases behind China, only war-torn Syria and Nicaragua, which found the emissions-reduction standards outlined in the agreement to be too weak, are sitting out.

Banded together as the Climate Mayors, the battle cry of this impressive alliance that includes the mayors of America’s most populous and influential towns — New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Seattle, Boston and beyond — is simple: “The world can’t wait — and neither can we.”

What’s more, a Michael Bloomberg (the former New York City mayor has been a very busy man as of late) co-chaired coalition called the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy that includes leaders from over 7,400 global cities recently joined forces in an effort to assist American cities in honoring the commitments made by President Barack Obama in 2015.

“Right now you have a level of collaboration and focus and sharing of best practices that I haven’t seen. I came from Brussels from a meeting of the US conference of mayors ... and more than 300 mayors signed a letter reflecting our will to deliver the Paris accord commitments,” Atlanta Mayor Kassim Reed, who was also one of four Georgia mayors in attendance at the USCM annual meeting, explained.

“My firm belief is that President Trump’s disappointing decision to withdraw from the agreement will actually have the opposite effect in terms of execution.”

And Reed is right. Cities are now poised to lead the way. Although difficult to call it a blessing in disguise, the Trump administration’s choice of inaction over ascendancy in the climate change and renewable energy fields has served as a catalyst — a somewhat impolite wake-up call — for cities, particularly Democrat-led cities in states with Republican governors, to start ramping it up their efforts in a big way.

Downtown Columbia, South Carolina
Hoping to inspire other cities large and small, Stephen Benjamin, the mayor of Columbia, South Carolina's capital and second largest city, is leading the Mayors for 100% Clean Energy initiative. (Photo: Sean Rayford/G)

'It's up to us ...'

As the United States Conference of Mayors notes, 36-some cities are already leading the way — some of them for some time now — by adopting 100 percent clean energy goals. Six other cities including Greensburg, Kansas; Burlington, Vermont; and Aspen, Colorado, haven’t just established 100 percent clean energy targets ... they’ve already hit them.

Columbia, South Carolina, is one city striving to meet a 100 percent renewable energy goal. The city's mayor, Stephen Benjamin, is vice-president of the USCM as well as one of the co-chairs of Sierra Club-backed Mayors for 100% Clean Energy initiative alongside Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and host city mayor, Philip Levine of Miami Beach.

Says Benjamin: “It’s up to us as leaders to creatively implement clean energy solutions for our cities across the nation. It’s not merely an option now; it’s imperative. Cities and mayors can lead the transition away from fossil fuels to 100 percent clean and renewable energy. With this measure, we intend to show that we will.”

Although not in attendance at the annual meeting of the USCM alongside his Keystone State colleagues Jim Kenney (Philadelphia) and Ed Pawlowski (Allentown), Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto is another leader who announced his city’s 100 percent clean energy ambitions ahead of the meeting.

Peduta was among the more vocal mayors in the choir of condemnation that erupted in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s decision to pull out from the nonbinding Paris agreement. Almost immediately, Peduto issued an executive order calling for, among other things, a complete shift to renewable energy by 2035.

Peduto, a Democrat, also had harsh words for Trump, who earlier in the day had name-dropped Pittsburgh in his speech announcing the Paris agreement exit, stating that he was “elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.”

pittsburgh skyline
Alongside San Diego and Salt Lake City, Pittsburgh is one of several major cities led by a mayor who has formally vowed to completely ditch dirty, outmoded forms of energy by 2035. (Photo: brian donovan/flickr)

“Donald Trump said he was elected by voters of Pittsburgh, but his misguided decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement does not reflect the values of our city,” responded Peduto in a statement. “Pittsburgh will not only heed the guidelines of the Paris agreement, we will work to move towards 100 percent clean and renewable energy for our future, our economy and our people.”

While some of Pittsburgh’s outlying counties were won by Trump in the 2016 presidential election, Pittsburgh proper — America's erstwhile coal capital — overwhelmingly voted for Hillary Clinton.

As for the clean energy resolution adopted earlier this week in Miami Beach, the USCM will send it to Congress and the White House in hopes that it will help to influence legislation, as much of an uphill battle as it may seem.

“I think most mayors in America don’t think we have to wait for a president whose beliefs on climate change are disconnected from science,” said USCM president Landrieu at the meeting’s opening. “If the federal government refuses to act or is just paralyzed, the cities themselves, through their mayors, are going to create a new national policy by the accumulation of our individual efforts.”

As David Sandalow of Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy tells the Miami Herald, the 100 percent renewable energy goal established by Benjamin and his conference colleagues is an “ambitious” one that’s “certainly possible in some cities, more challenging in others.”

Still, there’s no underestimating the sheer strength in numbers here. As the sea continues to rise around at-risk coastal cities like Miami and Miami Beach, so will an increasing number of America’s mayors. Their mission? To inspire, collaborate, innovate and tackle the impacts of climate change head-on all the while embracing energy created by the wind, the sun and, yes, even the tides.