Cities Take on Climate Change, With or Without Trump

4 min read
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President Trump asserts that there should not be a binary choice between job creation, economic growth, and caring about the environment.

President Trump asserts that there should not be a binary choice between job creation, economic growth, and caring about the environment. This week’s new executive order rolling back several Obama administration regulations on climate change is a clear signal, although not a surprising one, that the president is betting big on coal and fossil fuels to deliver the prosperity to “make America great again.”  While the executive order left the status of the U.S. adherence to the Paris Climate Accord and the Clean Power Plan in question, U.S. cities and states definitely see the writing on the wall — you are on your own.

Maybe that is not such a bad thing. More and more subnational leaders know that the pathway toward energy security, economic growth, and job creation will not come from Washington, DC.  Nor will it come from the carbon economy. In contrast to Trump, subnational leaders from both sides of the aisle are betting on renewable energy and increased energy efficiency. Solar and wind industry associations reported earlier this year that there are now more jobs in these sectors than in coal. In the last two years, the renewable energy received $96 billion in investment, making it the largest source of private infrastructure investment in the United States. Jobs to support these industries are on the rise, ranging from advanced manufacturing to installation and construction. A key issue will be the capacity and rate of upskilling and training to leverage opportunities and meet the demands of the industry.

Adapting and mitigating the effects of climate change is a key transatlantic issue, not only from an economic perspective, but also in terms of security. Just last week, Pew Research Center revealed results of a survey conducted with participants of GMF’s Brussels Forum and key leaders in the transatlantic relationship from the organization’s network. One of the key findings from the survey was that 70 percent of respondents found that global climate change was the greatest threat in their country, surpassing threats from the self-proclaimed Islamic State group, cyber-attacks, and Russian influence. A step back in global leadership on climate change by President Trump, also may give Europe and China the upper hand in renewable energy and low-carbon technology.

U.S. cities and states are catching up to their transatlantic counterparts in commitments to the energy transition and the low-carbon economy. While leading big cities like Frankfurt, Barcelona, San Francisco, and New York, may attract headlines, the front lines are the small and mid-sized cities that comprise the majority of the urban population in the United States and Europe. In places like Carmel, Indiana, six time Republican Mayor Jim Brainard has been committed to addressing climate change and promoting sustainability for many years. Brainard, who spoke last week at GMF’s Brussels Forum, reinforces the importance of cities working toward their own goals based on constituents needs because “at the local government level you can still make a real difference.”

A more poignant example in reaction to this week’s news comes from the city of Bottrop, Germany, which has the country’s last working coal mine that is scheduled to shut down in the coming year. Bottop’s Mayor Bernd Tischler has been leading a comprehensive effort to shift his city’s historical and economic connection to coal by embracing bold ideas, like turning the mine into a hydroelectric storage facility or battery. 

Like much of President Trump’s domestic agenda, U.S. cities and states will need to stay true to the priorities established at the local level and navigate the changing federal landscape as they have done under previous administrations. As the National League of Cities president, Matt Zone of Cleveland commented, “cities will continue to lead on….even if Washington will not.” This action at the federal level only reinforces the opportunity to connect cities across the Atlantic to share strategies on managing the energy transition and strengthening the low carbon. Claire Roumet, the executive director of Energy Cities, shares this belief: “cities across the Atlantic will continue their dialogue more than ever and drive their energy transition because they have do, for the health of their inhabitants, for the development of their economy, and to share the wealth created.”