Facing continued political stalemate in Washington, D.C., over federal climate change regulations, at least 800 mayors of cities large and small over the past three years have signed pledges to drastically reduce their carbon emissions.

Many of them appeared frustrated that Congress and the Bush administration had taken no action on carbon dioxide. This year, as Washington policy makers move gradually yet, in the minds of many, inevitably, toward emissions control, a key thought on the mayors’ minds is likely to be how any new federal scheme will affect state or local initiatives. When you look at the way the mayors’ movement to cut carbon began, it’s reasonable to conclude that they have inspired some of the movement in Washington.

Will new legislation be passed and enacted this year? What sort of action would the next President, Republican nominee-in-waiting John McCain (R-AZ) or Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Barack Obama (D-IL) push for? Each of the remaining three presidential hopefuls is expected to support greenhouse gas policies far different from those of the Bush administration. The ideas, or for many the threats, of preemption and consistency are likely to be of increasing interest as the deliberations proceed.

Regardless of what happens in the next year or two, the push for carbon policies at the local level has certainly shown the federal government what these local officials want – action, and soon.

The cities movement, now known as the “Cool Cities” campaign, started in Seattle about three years ago, where Mayor Greg Nickels and the sustainability department quickly drew in 140 other cities. Their effort became a project of the Sierra Club, which estimates that there are at least 305 “active” campaigns to cut carbon emissions in cities.

“It was extremely rewarding how quickly it took off,” said Steve Nicholas, the director of sustainability for Seattle. “We have more local action on global warming now than we’ve ever seen before. Hopefully it will continue to grow and continue to parlay into changes at the federal level.”

The mayors’ pledges provide insights on how grassroots America really is thinking about the future, and how seriously they take current data about climate change. These local pushes to reduce emissions offer journalists ever-developing and local stories on citizens’ efforts to minimize carbon emissions. But the agreement the mayors signed goes beyond their own turf, as they insist also on action at the state and federal level to curb carbon emissions. Those involved in the trenches say the movement is unlike any other they have seen in the country.

The Sierra Club – which started organizing local campaigns eight months after the mayors’ movement began – established a website, where city profiles and a map describe many of the projects. A clickable map takes browsers to summaries of each city, detailing what local leaders plan to do, whether that mayor has signed the U.S. Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement, and whether an active campaign is under way.

Another site was created by ICLEI, a major player in the movement since the beginning. (See related coverage of reporting on climate change on the city hall or local governments beat.)

Be warned: with so much changing so fast, organizers say that the websites might not be up to date, so reporters will need to check with local cities for the latest information. ICLEI offers a downloadable copy (pdf) of the mayors’ agreement.

It all started in Seattle Mayor Nickels’s office in February 2005 when the international Kyoto Protocol treaty was about to take effect. Nickels challenged other mayors to promise to meet the protocol’s standards even though the United States has not signed on. He drafted the U.S. Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement, a pledge to reduce carbon emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012, echoing the Kyoto standards. The agreement also asks state and federal legislators to act.

By mid-February 2005, when he unveiled the agreement, he and his sustainability department had rounded up nine other cities to sign, including San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Minneapolis, and Boulder, Colorado. A few months later, Nickels told a reporter for the Los Angeles Times that he would have 141 mayors signed on by June. That matched the number of countries that have signed the Kyoto Protocol.

“I thought it was a brilliant idea,” said Nicholas, the Seattle sustainability director, recalling that he learned of the mayor’s push for 140 other cities only after the LA Times article came out. “I was daunted by it. I think he had a better sense of how many mayors were ready. Clearly, he was right.”

The Sierra Club, based in San Francisco but with numerous chapters and volunteers around the country, later that year was inspired by the agreement to create the Cool Cities campaign. To be a “cool city,” local officials need not have actually signed the agreement, but the Cool Cities campaign tracks which cities have signed and considers that an important step.

“We’re here to guide them with the grassroots part of it,” said Stephanie Cutts, Cool Cities policy analyst in the Sierra Club’s Washington, D.C., office, “building the campaign, making others aware, educating their local government.” Key staffers work in Portland, Maine, and Chicago.

Cities and towns are learning what they can accomplish. Cutts said buildings represent “a huge chunk” of local emissions. Cool cities campaigns therefore look at local building ordinances and permits. Other ways to cut emissions involve changing transportation and development practices.

For instance, New York City, one of the first big cities to sign on – in May 2005 – has installed solar panels on the Coney Island/Stillwell Avenue subway station and changed traffic lights to energy-efficient bulbs (saving $6 million). The city now is replacing municipal vehicles with hybrids (about 1,500 out of a 13,000-vehicle fleet), and it now is introducing hybrid taxicabs, with about double the mileage of the traditional Ford Crown Victoria cabs. But, the Cool Cities website also points out that the city lacks a formal carbon cutting plan, suggesting that activists will continue to nudge.

Areas like Charlotte, N.C., and Miami-Dade County in Florida also are replacing city cars and maintenance vehicles with hybrids.

In Raleigh, N.C., where the mayor signed the climate agreement a year ago, officials said that meeting that 7-percent-below-1990 goal would mean reducing carbon emissions by about 30 percent. The city decided to spend $400,000 on new lighting for a new underground parking garage, calculating the new lighting will save 40 percent on electric bills and pay for itself in about four years. Mayor Charles Meeker told the Raleigh News-Observer that the city has changed the way it does business, ranging from how it constructs buildings to which vehicles it buys.

Cutts acknowledges that some cities find the Kyoto standards unreachable. In those cases, they are encouraged to reduce emissions by 2 percent per year starting with current emissions levels. In addition, many cities have adopted their own goals that differ slightly from Kyoto Protocol goals – always worth checking for a good story.

Climate change without question remains a global story and one with sweeping impacts around the world. For those editors and reporters looking for local angles, they could start by exploring their own communities’ actions, or inactions, to address the challenges they increasingly are facing.

Also see: Resources Abound for News Media Exploring City Hall/Climate Change Issues by Bill Dawson

Christine Woodside

Christine Woodside is a writer and editor based in Deep River, Connecticut. She started her career in 1981 in Philadelphia, first as a news clerk at the Philadelphia Inquirer and then as associate editor...