With the implementation of the Inflation Reduction Act and 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law underway, Kate Wright, executive director of Climate Mayors, a bipartisan, peer-to-peer network of U.S. mayors focused on climate leadership, spoke with Smart Cities Dive about what the organization has accomplished since its founding and how it’s navigated the shifting landscape of federal climate policy.
Federal interest in climate issues has fluctuated wildly since the group’s founding, from the high of the U.S. signing the Paris Agreement to the low of former President Donald Trump withdrawing from it and then the federal recommitment to fighting climate change with funding under the Inflation Reduction Act and 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law. Despite that federal back and forth, at the local level, hundreds of mayors have reached consensus that cities are being affected by climate change and that city-level actions can have a significant impact.
“Cities account for 70% of global emissions. So what cities do on the ground really does make a difference,” Wright said. “When the United States was pulled out of the Paris Agreement and didn't have that federal leadership, cities really stepped up and were able to keep us on track to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
SMART CITIES DIVE: Climate Mayors was founded in 2014. What has the organization achieved since then?
KATE WRIGHT: I see that first phase in 2014 as really laying the foundation for work to come. In 2014, the group was really focused on urging President Obama to pursue an ambitious agreement in Paris during [the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference,] COP 21. We had 33 climate mayors [in the U.S.] when the Paris Agreement was initially signed in 2015. And then in 2017, when President Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris Agreement, that number grew to almost 300 mayors committing to it in less than a week. Cities and mayors, in particular, were really eager to take the responsibility that the federal government was not taking and continue to make an impact on moving the climate agenda forward. The first phase was really trying to address either a lack of support from the federal government or encourage leadership from the federal government.
We're now in a phase where we have significant support from the federal government through the Inflation Reduction Act and the bipartisan infrastructure law. Our focus now is on how we take advantage of the moment we're in to build on the great work that mayors within our membership base have been doing all these years, creating really ambitious climate action plans, setting ambitious targets, and now meeting the moment with the funding to deliver on those plans.
Since 2014, Climate Mayors has mobilized more than 750 mayors in the United States and demonstrated that leadership through meaningful action in cities representing nearly 60 million Americans across 45 states. We've had a significant impact. We created an electric vehicle purchasing collaborative for city governments, which includes over 250 municipalities committed to purchasing over 400,000 electric vehicles. Pulling that purchasing power together brings down the cost and allows cities to purchase more vehicles and have more impact. We also have a big focus on the Inflation Reduction Act's implementation, supporting that with resources like a guidebook that we developed with C40, and we will continue to keep our members apprised as those grant programs are developed.
You talked about the IRA and the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law. But many traditional infrastructure projects, like roads, are carbon-intensive. How does the new funding help cities meet their climate goals?
We're working closely with both our federal partners and cities on that and really encouraging our mayors to advance infrastructure projects within their climate action plan. There is new funding available for clean energy production, home and [other] building efficiency projects and community and forestry pollution reduction. So, that's really where we're focused. To the extent that we're looking at infrastructure for things like roads, we've always encouraged that mentality of looking at holistic projects and getting as many benefits as possible. We're looking to help mayors advance public transit. We're looking to help mayors put in bike lanes and make their cities more bikeable and walkable within the opportunity that lies with this new infrastructure funding.
Mayors across the country face some of the same challenges, but often they're dealing with different problems, geographies or demographics. What issues are you keeping an eye on?
We've been looking at how we can take both a big-tent and a small-tent approach. The big tent is about how we mobilize our whole membership to engage with the federal government and speak to needs that cut across the different regions. But we're also looking at how we can do more regional cohort work to address some of those more regionally- or geographically-specific issues. For example, we're working with Western mayors along the Colorado River Basin states to address issues around water insecurity. That's one example of how we can drill in to be more regionally specific.
That said, many of the issues that are top of mind for us are focused on the main sectors contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. We'll be focused on electrifying the transportation sector and supporting environmental justice, increasing building efficiency and electrifying the building and transportation sectors will create a need for grid modernization as well.
Where are most of your members located? And what is the partisan split in your membership?
There is a recognition of the impacts of climate change at the local level across partisan lines in a way that is often less clear at the state and federal levels. We see the Inflation Reduction Act as a significant bipartisan act and a recognition that our members are experiencing the impacts of climate change. We have the highest concentration of active mayors in California, New Jersey, Florida and New York, where a lot of climate impacts are being acutely felt.
We are having those conversations across party lines and have leaders from both parties that are showing significant progress and recognizing that this is a big issue. With the Inflation Reduction Act, there was a lot of focus on reducing energy costs, creating green jobs, reducing pollution and creating healthier cities. There's a lot of support for those issues across both parties.
What advice do you have for mayors who want to act on climate change but aren't sure where to start?
They don't need to reinvent the wheel. Our mayors talk openly and affectionately about stealing good ideas from each other. Climate Mayors is really intended to provide that opportunity for mayors to learn together and go further and faster toward ambitious climate goals. We are set up to provide resources for learning across different regions, finding like-minded leaders and inspiring them to be more ambitious and follow in the footsteps of fellow mayors.