Ready for 100

These Mayors Are Leading the Charge on National Climate Change Action

A coalition of mayors is about to meet in Miami to decide on a 100 percent renewable energy policy.

by Meg Charlton
Jun 22 2017, 4:00pm

Image via Google Maps

Progressive activism surged in the wake of November's election. There were marches, of course. Planned Parenthood saw a spike in donations. So did the ACLU. But these were mostly actions "against" -- cries of "No" in the form of money or punny protest signs. It's a form of activism that Eva Resnick-Day, a Sierra Club organizer in Pittsburgh, knows well.

"It always felt important to be fighting against bad things that are happening," she says, adding that she spends much of her time as an organizer doing just that, battling pipelines and polluting corporations. And those fights are important, she says. But after the election, she thinks people were craving something different.

"It felt like a moment where people needed to see something positive to look towards. They needed to see the solutions being built."

For Resnick-Day and other organizers and cities around the country, those solutions are taking shape in the Sierra Club's Ready for 100 campaign, a grassroots movement of local officials, business leaders and citizens committed to powering their cities on 100 percent clean energy. A natural outgrowth of this is Mayors for 100 percent Clean Energy, which is exactly what it sounds like.The campaign is a national coalition of mayors from cities large and small alike who have either moved their cities to all renewables or have pledged to do so.

Cities and municipal utility policies are a crucial part of addressing climate change, even under more environmentally friendly administrations.

Despite its current relevance, the campaign was not conceived as a direct response to the Trump administration; the Sierra Club actually launched it last spring, under President Obama, just after the signing of the Paris climate accord. Cities and municipal utility policies are a crucial part of addressing climate change, even under more environmentally friendly administrations. But campaign director Jodie Van Horn says the election galvanized people to act locally.

"On November 8th, we were in about 16 cities," she says. "Today, we have active campaigns in over 100."

For many cities, however, this isn't just a matter of principle or sticking it to Trump. For Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, a co-chair of the effort, addressing emissions and climate change could not be more urgent. The city is uniquely situated to trap smog -- it sits in a basin, and as heavy, cool air comes off the surrounding Rocky Mountains, it holds the city's hot, polluted air in place. In 2016, the city recorded 38 days in which they failed the EPA's clean air standards, including one that saw pollution worse than Beijing's.

"We have real concerns here. In Salt Lake City and the state of Utah, we are warming at twice the global rate,"Mayor Biskupski. "That has a real impact on the watershed."

When she took office last year, Mayor Biskupski had the chance to renegotiate Salt Lake's agreement with Rocky Mountain Power, their local electric utility, to transition to cleaner sources of power, reaching her goal of 100 percent by 2032. Mayor Biskupski says she agreed to co-chair the Sierra Club's initiative in part to underscore the urgency of her city's plight.

"I take on these national roles because the impact here is so significant. I need my partner mayors to understand this and get them on board to help," she said.

"Wind's going to compete with fossil fuels in ten years. Whose team do you want to be on? The wind farmers or the fossil fuel producers?"

Many already are; 97 cities have signed on to the campaign, and some, like Bernie Sanders's HQ Burlington, Vermont, seem like natural fits for the campaign. But others, like Georgetown, Texas, show the real scope of the movement.

Georgetown is a small city, but growing fast. (The fastest in country in 2015.) It's 30 miles from Austin and 300 from the Midland Basin, where last year geologists discovered one of the largest deposits of natural gas in US history. The city sits in the solidly red Williamson County, which went for Trump in the general election.

Georgetown Mayor Dale Ross, solidly Republican himself, has shepherded his city to running on 100 percent renewables. While the perceived paradox of this position has made him something of a media darling, he approaches the issue from a true conservative perspective. He sees an opportunity with wind and solar power to attract businesses to Georgetown while limiting price volatility and regulatory meddling.

"With renewables, what kind of regulation are you going to put on windmills that are going to raise the cost?" He told VICE Impact, adding, "Wind's going to compete with fossil fuels in ten years. Whose team do you want to be on? The wind farmers or the fossil fuel producers?"

The transition to 100 percent clean energy -- where all of the electricity consumed within a municipality is derived from renewable sources -- will be slow. It will require negotiation with local utilities, development of new infrastructure and, for parts of the country not blessed with as much sun or wind, a creative use of natural resources. But most of all it requires political will and this weekend poses a unique opportunity to build momentum.

READ MORE: Tell Your Mayor to Support 100 Percent Clean Energy

Beginning Friday in Miami Beach, the US Conference of Mayors is holding their annual meeting. First on the agenda, fittingly for a meeting in this slowly submerging city, is climate change. Just like a political party, the Conference of Mayors sets a kind of platform, voicing their positions on issues from urban heat reduction to illegal sports betting. This year, there's a resolution on the table to formally adopt 100 percent renewable energy as part of the mayor's urban policy platform. According to research by the Sierra Club, if the nearly 1,500 cities in the conference actually made that transition, it would reduce the US electric sector's carbon output by over a third.

"[This resolution] really does send a signal that this would be the new normal for city leadership on energy and climate" Van Horn says.

In the wake of other local actions, like city's pledging they're still in the Paris agreement, no matter what the president says, it seems the new normal might already be here.