I’m spending time this week in Washington, DC for the National League of Cities Winter convention. This is an opportunity for council members from cities throughout the country to get together, discuss issues of mutual interest, and lobby national officials for causes that are important to cities. There are a number of paid classes, breakout sessions, and panel discussions that are a part of the conference, and I’m free to pick and choose what I want to do. My priority is always the meetings with our local officials, and then I fill in the remaining time with classes and meetings of interest.
My focus for elective meetings tends to be environmental meetings, so I attended the Energy, Environment and Natural Resources (EENR) Committee meeting yesterday, and the discussion today of Cities’ Role in Climate Change. These are always interesting, because unlike meetings back home, these are meetings of nationwide electeds. And whenever I get outside of the Bay Area bubble, I’m always surprised by the scope and variety of the national perspective. We get communities like Cambridge which are enforcing carbon neutral requirements, and we get other communities that seem to be enclaves of climate change deniers. During a discussion of the Paris conference and its significance to cities in the environmental committee, one gentleman from Texas got up to say that his community is one with an economy based on oil and natural gas, and he thinks it’s important for the EENR (!) to take into account communities like his, and advocate towards policies that help protect these economies. Wow.
One of the interesting dynamics I’ve observed over the past two years is that our biggest allies in our efforts towards environmental sustainability are the elected representatives from Florida. I’ve now attended multiple meetings where I went in prepared to raise the issue of sea level rise and the need for federal engagement to protect the San Francisco Bay Area. And every single time, I’ve been beaten to the punch by elected officials from Florida who have raised the same point regarding their jurisdictions. In fact, I was just reading in the news about a collection of 21 Florida mayors who have written a letter to the organizers of an upcoming Republican presidential debate, asking them to make climate change and sea level use a question posed to the Republican candidates. To date, I don’t believe that the Republican debates have included a single question on these issues. Anyway, there are some strong allies from unexpected areas who are contributing to our efforts.
At any rate, there has been a lot of talk about the Paris COP 21 conference at this year’s NLC – what took place, what significance that conference holds, and what takeaways we should get as policy makers. And there was a very positive message put out to all of us, emphasizing how cities are really the ground troops in the effort to mitigate man-made climate change, and putting forth examples of best practices that many of our cities have enacted. It’s all been very rah rah, you’re doing great, keep it up, and push yourselves to go further. It’s always followed by discussion of how the White House is a strong supporter of these efforts, as evidenced by the US position at the Paris conference. This is all true, and it’s all great to have those efforts championed in such an organized way.
But there’s an undercurrent to all of this which isn’t quite discussed openly, which is the open hostility that the US Congress (particularly the Senate) has shown towards the topic of environmental sustainability, and the extent to which this seriously undercuts all of our efforts. We’ve got a Senate Majority Leader from a coal-producing state, plus a Chair of the Senate Environmental Committee who believes that all of the science of climate change is disproved by the existence of a snowball. The result is a Senate that refuses to act on environmental issues. And this impacts every nationwide and international effort to address man-made climate change. One speaker openly commented that many countries made commitments in Paris based on the US’ own commitments, and a failure by the US to act on its promises would have a world-wide impact on efforts to mitigate climate change.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the EENR committee meeting, where a couple of councilmembers from Flint Michigan spoke to the committee about the lead crisis that they face. They expressed real and understandable anger towards Governor Snyder and state officials, towards the EPA, and towards Congress. Federal funding for Flint relief efforts are being blocked by holds by two Republicn Senators (any Senator can place a hold on any bill, which requires 60 votes to override), and the dispute seems to be focused not on the money or its purpose, but rather where the money is coming from and whether the offsets to pay for the relief are true “offsets”. Basically, Flint is on fire, and a couple of Senators are arguing over the diameter of the hoses.
Another point that was called out as a significant risk is the Supreme Court’s stay on the EPA’s Clean Power Plan – how exceptional the stay really was, how partisan the Supreme Court has been on this particular topic, and how the balance of the Supreme Court will directly affect national efforts towards environmental sustainability. The Clean Power Plan is a key part of the US’ commitment to the Paris conference, and the Supreme Court has put it on hold, possibly for years. The broader point of the Supreme Court’s role in national environmental policy has been raised repeatedly since the death of Justice Scalia and the Republican obstructionism that has followed. The clear message is that the new appointee will define the balance of the Supreme Court on environmental issues, which will have world-wide significance.
This isn’t a conference that lends itself to partisanship, because it is a collection of nationwide elected leaders, by definition a non-partisan gathering. But there is significant dissatisfaction here, mostly with a Congress that is perceived as not just “do nothing” but “block everything”. In a gathering of elected officials dedicated to improving residents’ lives, it isn’t hard to understand the serious resentment that exists from being blocked at the federal level by an obstructionist Congress seemingly focused on shutting down federal efforts at a time when those efforts are needed the most. Add to that some real fear over the nature of the Republican presidential candidates and anger towards Republican obstructionism on Supreme Court nominations, and it’s a rough time here. It’s tough when you speak to a White House official who sympathizes and agrees with you, but who then points you to Congress to resolve your issue, knowing that the Congress majority isn’t interested in listening.
At any rate, it’s a mixed bag here. Cities are doing some new and exciting things, and I’ve seen a serious commitment to addressing climate change and environmental sustainability. But the foes of science have only gotten more determined over the past couple of years. And the lesson I take away from all of this is a pretty simple one – elections matter.