An interview with Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels on his pro-Kyoto cities initiative
Meet the pied piper of one of the most exciting green grassroots uprisings to hit the U.S. in years: Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels (D).
He’s managed to get roughly 300 mayors nationwide — from the Northwest to the deep South and everywhere in between — to agree that it’s a good idea for U.S. cities to meet or beat Kyoto Protocol targets for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, despite the Bush administration’s rejection of the treaty. Municipal leaders attending a U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in Chicago on Monday unanimously endorsed Nickels’ initiative calling on cities to do their part to stave off climate change. Before the conference vote, 165 mayors from 37 states had individually signed on to the initiative; now Nickels hopes many more will follow suit.
Granted, the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement is non-binding, so cities could climb aboard the bandwagon but not follow through on meeting the targets. But the fact that there’s a bandwagon at all is noteworthy, and the timing is fortuitous. As the Senate deliberates a number of bipartisan climate amendments that have been proposed for the energy bill, mayors from New York City to Salt Lake City are sending a powerful message to D.C. lawmakers that America wants action on global warming.
Nickels spoke with Grist‘s Amanda Griscom Little yesterday from Chicago, where he was still attending conference meetings, about his surprisingly successful climate crusade.
Tell us about how you came up with the idea of rallying mayors nationwide to adopt Kyoto targets.
The idea began forming over the winter as I got briefings from my superintendent of City Light — our city-run electric utility — and from the fellow who runs my water department. Week after week they told me that we had no snow pack or minimal snowpack. Skiing season was cancelled, which was a disappointment for a lot of people, but for the city itself that snowpack is essential for water and power throughout the summer. As it melts we capture the water and reuse it.
So climate change was having direct impacts on the way our city operates, and in my State of the City address early this year I talked about the fact that the Kyoto agreements were going to become law in 141 countries — but not the U.S. — and the issue of global warming was one we needed to address directly. On Feb. 16, when Kyoto went into effect, I issued a challenge to mayors across America to join with me in taking local action to try and meet the spirit and letter of the Kyoto accords while our federal government was failing to act.
Your idea seems to have snowballed into something bigger than you or anyone else expected. Can you describe its path?
I knew that this idea would resonate in Seattle, a very environmentally conscious city, but I didn’t know how it would be received in a lot of other cities. So my first outreach was to similar-minded cities like Portland [Ore.] and San Francisco, and then to cities like Minneapolis and Burlington [Vt.]. That group of mayors — there were eight or nine of us — then issued the challenge further to all the mayors. We sent a letter on March 30 to about 400 mayors. Almost immediately we started getting positive responses — some very memorable — back from cities. At this point, 170 mayors from 39 states have signed on.
What were some of the most memorable responses?
I think the most poignant one that I got was from Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans, who said that another foot of water in the ocean, and New Orleans is gone. That really brought home the fact that the issue of global warming is not one of comfort or convenience — it really is an issue, in many cases, of survival.
Is it also a partisan issue? Did you meet resistance from conservative mayors when you brought it to the U.S. Conference of Mayors this week?
Well, we’ve had support from a number of Republican mayors from the beginning, but we brought it to the U.S. Conference of Mayors to see if there was a major national organization that would be willing to endorse this grassroots effort across party lines and regional borders. We expected there to be opposition, and I think initially there was. But we worked and played with the language a little bit to make people more comfortable that it wasn’t a frontal assault on one party or the other. Eventually it wasn’t just the Democratic mayors voting for it and Republican mayors voting against it, it wasn’t just the West Coast and the East Coast — it was unanimous, mayors across the country.
Can you describe the opposition in more detail?
We had heard from various sources that the Bush administration was not anxious to have the conference endorse this — there were some mayors close to the administration who would object. So we worked with Pat McCrory of Charlotte [N.C.], who is head of the Republican mayors’ association and chair of the [U.S. Conference of Mayors’] Environment Committee, and Bob Young, mayor of Augusta [Ga.], who chairs the Energy Committee. We tussled a little bit over the language and ultimately came to a compromise that both of them could support. It led to a unanimous endorsement in both the environment and energy committees, and ultimately by the full conference of mayors.
What kind of modifications did you make?
There were a few phrases in there — like when we referenced the Kyoto agreement, we said “yet to be adopted by the United States” — that caused some concerns. It was just modest modifications of the language to make [some mayors] more comfortable. Getting that unanimous vote was critical: the mayors’ conference is the first major organization to endorse the initiative, and I think it will be a signal to other cities that it’s OK to sign on, that it’s not something that they need to be concerned about or afraid of.
Wasn’t there also a clause in your original supporting the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act that you cut?
There was. They were not comfortable mentioning that legislation, and frankly it has changed [with the addition of new incentives for nuclear development] and we weren’t all that comfortable with it anymore.
What are the requirements of the initiative? When a mayor signs on, are there penalties for cities that don’t meet the requirements?
No, no. This is purely advisory.
What kind of follow-up will you be doing with the cities to be sure they follow through with their pledge?
We will work with an organization called ICLEI [International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives] on the follow-up. We are going to find every opportunity to make sure that success stories are trumpeted, which will hopefully motivate others to want to innovate. We’re going to ask other cities what they are going to do at a local level and what their experience is, so that ultimately we are going to have a clearinghouse of ideas, a menu of things that have worked and a similar menu of what didn’t work, and be able to share that across the country.
What are some innovative emissions-reduction programs you’ve seen implemented in cities?
Let me just share with you what we’ve been doing [in Seattle]. We’ve already set a policy at Seattle’s utility, which is a billion-dollar-a-year operation, of no net greenhouse-gas emissions. And by the end of 2005 this year we will have achieved that, largely with investments in wind power and low-impact hydro power.
We have cruise ships that come into our port with huge diesel engines that are equivalent to about 30,000 automobiles’ worth of emissions. When they dock, they plug into our electric grid and turn those engines off. We also worked with the Washington State Ferries, which is the largest ferry system in America, and they are working on converting to biodiesel. We have the second-largest portfolio of LEED-certified buildings of any city in the country, and we’re offering very strong incentives to private developers. I don’t think there will be any more buildings built in downtown Seattle that are not LEED-certified.
And presumably you’ll be able to demonstrate that there are long-term economic benefits to these kinds of efforts.
Absolutely. That’s what we want to show: Instead of it being a lose-lose situation because we have to change from a carbon-based economy, we think there are great opportunities. But you’ve got to be in the game, you have to embrace the fact that this change is going to occur, and then put entrepreneurs to work figuring out how to create green jobs. When people see change, they are scared; when they see opportunity, they embrace it.
Is your goal ultimately to put pressure on Washington to adopt ambitious climate-change legislation?
We would like to pave the way for the federal government to endorse these efforts. Local government is in many ways much more nimble than other levels of government, so historically one of its roles is to experiment and show that things can work and then have it embraced at state, regional, and ultimately national levels.
The best-case scenario would be to set the stage for our country to not only join the community of nations in this effort, but lead the community of nations. Because Kyoto is only a beginning. It is really an order of magnitude short of what will be necessary this century to stem global warming and ultimately climate disruption.
Tell us about your personal commitment to the environment — what kind of decisions have you made in your own life to reduce your carbon emissions?
That’s an interesting question, because in my private life [my wife] Sharon and I are environmentally aware, but we are not, you know, rabid environmentalists. We are people who are concerned about human health and the health of our community. Much of the motivation for me has been practical concerns as mayor about providing water and electricity after an unprecedented drought winter. So for instance, this last winter we switched over from a conventional clothes washer to an ultra low-use — both electric and water use — model. But generally speaking we have become aware probably along with the rest of our community as to the fact that global warming is happening. It was even on the front page of USA Today [this week] that the science really is not in dispute. And we are going to have to take action in our individual lives to change that.