In between well-rehearsed one-liners directed at President Donald Trump – the “climate change denier at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue” – Mayor Rahm Emanuel touted Chicago’s efforts to combat global warming in spite of Trump’s actions during a high-profile, yet mostly symbolic, climate summit Tuesday with mayors from some of the world’s largest cities.
Highlighting the program was an appearance by former President Barack Obama, who played a key role in achieving the Paris climate agreement only to see Trump withdraw the U.S. from the deal. Signed in 2015, the landmark agreement aims to keep global average temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels.
“We’re in an unusual time where the United States is now the only nation on Earth that does not belong to the Paris agreement, and that’s a difficult position to defend,” Obama said from a ballroom stage at the Sheraton Grand Chicago. “Now, the good news is that the Paris agreement was never going to solve the climate crisis on its own. It was going to be all of us. Cities and states and businesses and universities and nonprofits have emerged as the new face of American leadership on climate change.”
Prior to Obama’s speech, Emanuel was joined by mayors from Paris, Mexico City, Montreal, Vancouver, San Francisco and dozens of other cities for a series of panels and workshops to address climate change. Emanuel and a total of 50 mayors from 10 countries also signed the Chicago Climate Charter, which Emanuel said gives cities a framework to achieve goals set in the Paris climate agreement.
The document highlights the cities’ commitment to achieve reductions in greenhouse gas emissions at least equal to levels set for their respective countries in the Paris agreement. It also outlines cities’ intentions to report emissions data publicly, incorporate marginalized communities in crafting climate policy and advocate for stronger local authority to aggressively combat climate change.
“The purpose of the Chicago Charter is to have distinct and defined plans to [meet] the Paris protocols for our respective cities,” Emanuel said. “Other countries have leaders that are in a different place. We don’t. That doesn’t mean we’re going to stand by on the sidelines and just complaint about it. We’re going to do something about it.”
Many of the cities represented at the summit, including Chicago, had already committed to upholding the commitments of the Paris agreement after Trump withdrew the U.S. earlier this year.
This summer, Chicago announced results from an analysis of citywide carbon emissions showing that the city is about 40 percent of the way to meeting the original U.S. commitment under the Paris deal, which set a target of reducing emissions by 26 percent to 38 percent from 2005 to 2025.
Emanuel announced earlier this year a commitment to transition the city’s municipal buildings and operations to 100 percent clean and renewable energy by 2025. On Tuesday, he also highlighted Chicago’s transition to LED street lights, the city’s growing effort to retrofit outdated buildings and plans to expand and modernize public transit.
But despite Emanuel’s efforts to position Chicago (and himself) as a leader on climate change, the city does not – at least for now – plan to join the 25 international cities that announced commitments to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 during last month’s United Nations climate conference in Bonn, Germany.
That list included six U.S. cities: Austin, Boston, Los Angeles; New York City, Philadelphia and Portland.
“We haven’t made that commitment yet, but that’s that something we’re exploring,” said Chris Wheat, Chicago’s chief sustainability officer, a position run out of Emanuel’s office. “We know a lot of cities are pursuing that. We also want to make sure that we’re doing something realistic and also that falls into our issues around quality of life.”
Obama, meanwhile, noted that in many places, climate change is already having serious effects on residents’ lives.
“Miami already floods on sunny days,” he said. “Western cities across North America are dealing with longer and harsher wildfire seasons. A conveyor belt of some of the strongest hurricanes on record this summer smashed into Houston and Florida and Puerto Rico, and more than two months later they are still struggling. And all of this is happening while global carbon emissions and global temperatures are still on the rise.”
‘It’s woken a lot of us up’
Although Tuesday’s event mostly reaffirmed cities’ commitments to meeting the goals set in the Paris agreement, it did offer mayors a chance to reflect on how perceptions on climate change have shifted in recent years.
In 1997, Emanuel was an advisor to President Bill Clinton when the U.S. and other countries signed the Kyoto Protocol, the first legally binding agreement that addressed greenhouse gas emissions contributing to global warming.
“The politics between those two periods of time are dramatically different on this issue,” he said. “We are actually catching up, all of us, to where our residents are. Businesses understand this. The public understands this. Local governments understand this. We may have one person in denial at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, joined by another person in denial at the EPA. They’re entitled to their own opinions; they’re just not entitled to their own facts. Those are shared by us.”
Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, who has pledged to make Vancouver the “greenest city in the world” by 2020, said the Trump administration’s disregard for climate science has actually boosted cities’ efforts to combat climate change.
“I think it catalyzes the rest of us to step up and take action,” he said. “I think that’s what’s happened now – it’s woken a lot of us up.”
San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee said the city’s fire trucks recently transitioned to renewable diesel, resulting in a 60-percent reduction in emissions without any infrastructure change. When told about the change, some of the city’s firefighters said they weren’t sure it was a good idea, unaware that the fire chief had already signed off on the cleaner energy source.
‘What do you mean you aren’t sure?’” Lee told them. “‘We’ve been putting it into your fire trucks for the last six months.’”
San Francisco has also switched its public works vehicles to renewable diesel, and Lee said Bay Area ferries are also making the switch.
Not all mayors in attendance represented big cities like Chicago or San Francisco. Mayor Cindy Perry of Pittsboro, North Carolina – population 4,266 – said her town 45 minutes west of Raleigh is about to add more than 1,000 residents thanks to a new planned use development.
While Perry is working to incorporate climate science into Pittsboro’s growth plan, she said about half of the town’s residents remain climate change “deniers.”
“That makes it very difficult,” she said. “We’re struggling to begin the educational process, which is really why I’m here today.”
Even for cities like Chicago that at least say they are fully committed to fighting climate change and reducing emissions, how will residents and other be able to hold cities accountable, especially when cities are running the numbers themselves?
Wheat said Chicago’s system for calculating emissions is compliant with the Global Protocol for Community-Scale Greenhouse Gas Emission Inventories, a set of standards for measuring and reporting emissions created in 2014 to help cities collect accurate inventories.
But he also acknowledged a need for independent auditing to serve as a check on cities.
“We know that that’s actually an issue, and I think there’s a lot of folks working on that issue right now,” Wheat said.
Dec. 1: Organizers are demanding more action from the city to combat air pollution in industrialized neighborhoods as Mayor Rahm Emanuel prepares to host a high-profile summit on climate change.
Nov. 15: Lake Michigan is getting warmer, and eventually it will mean winters with less snow in Chicago. But don’t plan yet for winters free of the white stuff.
June 5: Chicago, Pittsburgh and dozens of other U.S. cities are standing by Paris despite President Donald Trump’s announcement last week that he will withdraw the U.S. from the landmark climate change agreement.