Local governments hit hardest by climate change costs
The dying U.S. fossil fuel industry may not quite get it yet, but thousands of towns — and millions of Americans living in those communities — do. The threat of climate change is real, and growing, according to a coalition of cities that filed a legal brief in federal court last week.
More than 50 city and county governments from 28 states, together with The U.S. Conference of Mayors, the National League of Cities, and the mayors of Dallas, Knoxville, and Orlando all signed an amicus brief explaining why the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan is critical to the safety and economic security of local communities across the United States.
“The nation’s mayors are pleased to join in the defense of the Clean Power Plan, which is an essential part of our nation’s ability to respond to climate change,” said Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, president of The U.S. Conference of Mayors. “This Plan will significantly cut carbon pollution from U.S. power plants; we must implement it now. Mayors know cities have the most to gain, as well as the most to lose in this debate because climate change and rising sea levels threaten the physical structure of our cities. Cities have been combating climate change for over a decade through our Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement, but we need a national response.”
The signatories represent a diverse geographic, economic, and political mix and include Miami Beach, Miami and other southeast Florida cities; Tucson; Salt Lake City; Los Angeles; San Francisco; Houston; Jersey City; Pittsburgh; and Boston. Twenty-three of the signatories are local governments within states that have joined the lawsuit to defend the Clean Power Plan against a challenge from the fossil fuel industry. In all, the signatories represent 51 localities—home to more than 18 million Americans—and more than 19,000 additional cities, villages and towns that are part of the USCM and NLC networks.
“Supporting the administration’s Clean Power Plan efforts is not just the right thing to do, but necessary for Miamians as we fight for the very survival of our city,” said Commissioner Ken Russell of Miami, Florida. “I am proud to have led the effort within Miami’s government to sign on to this amicus brief and look forward to taking the lead wherever I can in combating and adapting to sea level rise.”
“Cities have an essential voice to add to the legal debate over the Clean Power Plan,” said Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School, the institution that authored the amicus brief. “All around the country, local governments have had to contend with the devastating impacts that sea level rise, heat waves and severe storms have on people and the infrastructure they depend on,” Burger said.
City and county governments are the first line of defense in weather disasters and climate impacts, which grow increasingly frequent and severe as greenhouse gas emissions cause the climate to change. Many cities are already experiencing — and paying for — damage caused by climate change. The amicus brief provides examples:
- Faced with flooding propelled by rising sea levels, Miami Beach is investing $400 million in an adaptation strategy that includes pumping stations, raised roads, and seawalls. Rising seas likewise put Miami at risk for “losing insurability,” and threaten drinking water supplies across southeast Florida.
- The 2011 Texas heat wave not only filled hospital emergency departments in Houston but also burst pipes and water mains, draining 18 billion gallons of drinking water and with it millions in revenue for the city. Disruptive heat waves in Grand Rapids, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh have caused electricity brownouts and blackouts; in Arlington County, Evanston, Dallas, Minneapolis, and Salt Lake City they have compromised an airport runway, buckled roads and warped rails.
Cities and counties disproportionately shoulder the impact and bear the costs of continued inaction on climate change, and many are acting on their own to reduce the emissions under their direct control. However, local governments’ ambition to act on climate change is limited by their lack of control over many aspects of this worldwide problem. According to the brief:
Cities’ efforts to adapt to a changing climate and to mitigate its causes are highly sensitive to national policies like the Clean Power Plan, which shape national markets, steer state action, and have the largest impact on nationwide emissions … Cities working to shoulder the burdens of adaptation would therefore face an ever harder—and ever more expensive—task in the absence of the Clean Power Plan.
“This amicus brief shows how cities across America are leading the way in the fight against climate change—and how eager they are for state governments to join them,” said Michael R. Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg LP, three-term mayor of New York City and the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Cities and Climate Change. “Mayors are responsible for people’s health and safety, and with their cities already feeling the effects of climate change, they can’t afford to let ideological battles slow the great work they’re doing to clean the air, strengthen local economies, and protect people from risks.”