Will the green revolution be localized?

Robert Redford and his co-hosts invited mayors from across the U.S. to the actor's spectacular Sundance resort, hoping to inspire them to take action on climate change.

Published July 16, 2005 10:34PM (EDT)

City leaders from around the U.S. were treated to a rare bird's-eye view of the environment earlier this week at the Sundance Summit, a three-day mayors' retreat on climate change hosted by Robert Redford in Salt Lake City and at his 6,000-acre resort nestled beneath Utah's Mount Timpanogos, near Park City. In between briefings on "The State of the Science" and "Why You Should Care," and tutorials on emissions-trading programs and retrofitting public transport, a bipartisan troupe of 46 mayors representing nearly 10 million U.S. citizens slathered on sunscreen, grabbed bag lunches, and glided up the Sundance chairlift over miles of tumbling creeks, quivering aspens, and ponderosa pines.

"Oh, I'm just lovin' mayor camp!" said Melvin "Kip" Holden, the Democratic mayor of Baton Rouge, La., as he dismounted the lift and headed back to the conference center. "I feel like I'm back in college -- it's just that excitement of learning, that bigger-than-you feeling of wanting to make change."

That's precisely what Redford and his co-hosts -- Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson (D) and the nonprofit ICLEI/Local Governments for Sustainability -- had in mind when they organized the all-expenses-paid gathering, funded in part by Pew Charitable Trusts and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. "The whole idea was to bring leaders together in a magical place where the monumental implications of climate change and a passion for solutions could really take hold," Anderson told Muckraker.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D), who served as energy secretary under President Clinton, kicked off the retreat with a feisty call to arms: "Let's face it, if we wait around for the federal government to act, we aren't going to see anything happen," he said. Though Richardson has been a pioneer in promoting renewable energy at the state level, he argued that "even the states are not as accelerated as the cities" when it comes to implementing climate initiatives. "I know where the power is, and I know it's with you guys."

Redford echoed that theme in his opening speech: "You here are closest to the people," he said. "The best and most significant change comes from the grassroots." He later added, "We can't let America play Nero while the planet burns."

The summit was just the latest in a string of recent efforts to galvanize local action on climate change. This year, at the urging of Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, more than 170 mayors nationwide have pledged to adopt Kyoto targets for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. The New Cities project, launched by Madison, Wis., Mayor Dave Cieslewicz (D), has a network of mayors working to implement on the local level the energy-independence proposals of the Apollo Alliance, a coalition of labor, environmental, and other groups that aims to spur eco-friendly economic growth. The Institute for Policy Studies in June launched a Cities for Progress campaign that's pushing for energy security, among other goals.

The Nation recently chronicled these and other progressive city-level campaigns in its cover story "Urban Archipelago," arguing that cities are the spots to watch for innovative, positive change. And last week, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof praised Portland, Ore., for having slashed its greenhouse-gas emissions below 1990 levels, even as it's been booming economically, proving wrong President Bush's recent claim that "Kyoto would have wrecked our economy."

This kind of economic optimism was a recurring theme during the Sundance Summit. Executives from the British-based consultancy The Climate Group impressed many in the audience when describing how 17 major U.S. cities had already reduced their emissions below 1990 levels and saved a total of $600 million through efficiency measures. "You must understand that tackling climate is financially a competitive advantage, not a liability," stressed Steve Howard, CEO of The Climate Group.

Patrick McCrory (R), mayor of Charlotte, N.C., and head of the Republican mayors' association, noted that municipal leaders have the power to move markets: "We are the ones building roads, designing mass transit, buying the police cars and dump trucks and earthmovers. We're the ones lighting up the earth when you look at those maps from space," he said. "Together we have huge purchasing power, and if we invest wisely, that can have huge implications for the environment."

But not all of the attendees, at first, drank in the cheer. Mark Begich (D), mayor of Anchorage, Alaska, told Muckraker that among his predominantly conservative constituency, climate-change initiatives are a hard sell: "There are members on my city council who think the term 'global warming' is more objectionable than the term 'liberal.' Some consider it a wacko radical concept."

Mike McKinnon, mayor of Lynnwood, Wash., said he wasn't even sure what his constituents thought on the matter. "I don't believe we've had any discussions in our community on climate change. I have one staff member who is half-time on recycling -- that's the full extent of my resources on the environment." When asked why he attended the conference if the issue was so low on his radar screen, he said, "When I read on the invitation, 'Salt Lake City ... Sundance ... Robert Redford ... all expenses paid,' that said yes to me!"

Des Moines, Iowa, Mayor T. M. Franklin Cownie (D) said he wasn't willing to sign any climate-related agreements without first getting the support of his city council. "I want to sell 'em first rather than go dump it on 'em. I need to make sure they understand gas-house [sic] emissions and all that before I make any big pledges," he told Muckraker.

Graham Richard (D) of Fort Wayne, Ind., put it this way: "My job is to be pragmatic. If I approach this issue with my constituents as some kind of Kyoto thing, I guarantee that'll raise a stink. Now if I sell it as a cost-saving measure, that's another story."

After hearing a litany of suggestions for investing in energy-efficient lighting, clean energy for municipal buildings, and hybrid-engine police cars, Roberta Cooper of Hayward, Calif., said, "I am a small-town mayor with small-town resources. I don't have the budget or the political leverage" to buy into such programs.

But these are precisely the doubts and barriers that the Sundance organizers hoped to address. "We didn't want to bring the choir here," said Mayor Anderson. ICLEI Executive Director Michelle Wyman explained that a lot of research went into selecting cities and towns that "historically tended to be more conservative on enviro issues and were also hotspots for CO2 emissions. We wanted to cut through the partisan barriers and recruit grassroots climate leaders in new regions." And they had reason to be proud of their outreach -- of the 58 invitations sent out, 48 were accepted.

Indeed, as the sessions went on, skepticism began to fade and the message got through to even some of the most dubious participants.

The most persuasive cris de coeur came from Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, a Democrat, whose photograph was snapped admiringly by more than a few of his smaller-town counterparts. He has implemented measures on everything from tree planting and bike paths to renewable-energy standards and requirements that "all of our major big-box [stores] have to do green roofs," he said. He later told Muckraker that cities, more than states or federal agencies, "are terrific laboratories for testing environmental policies and initiatives. We can demonstrate what works [to reduce emissions] and send a signal to the federal level that they are economically safe to implement."

Soon, the ideas were flowing. Hayward's Cooper suggested that all small-town mayors unite in a coalition to increase their purchasing power for clean energy and green products: "If I join forces with mayors in neighboring cities, I have more leverage. By joining each other we can be more effective and adventurous than by standing alone." Fort Wayne's Richard then expanded on the idea, proposing a large nationwide network of mayors that could buy green products collectively in an online auction to accelerate economies of scale.

Aspen Mayor Helen Klanderud suggested that cities participate in a "Canary Alliance" in which they would document the local impacts of climate change -- "how warming is threatening the skiing industry in Aspen, how drought is affecting crops in Idaho, and so on. That's the way to get people to understand that it is a local problem."

ICLEI's Wyman was thrilled with the results of the conference, saying, "What happened over the course of the past three days will change the way U.S. cities consume resources and do business." She pledged that her organization would help implement the ideas that emerged, chronicle successes and failures, and organize annual follow-up summits.

Redford, too, was positively buoyant: "What gives me hope is that in politics, baby steps can lead to sea change," he told Muckraker. "The whole political system can be terribly sluggish, stalemated, constipated -- the barriers can seem insurmountable. But then all these distributed little pockets of inspiration slowly begin opening up, joining together, building a collective force, and can suddenly give way to tremendous momentum and change. That, I hope, is what's under way."

McKinnon of Lynnwood may end up bringing inspiration back to his pocket of the world; he's now vowed to strike up a dialogue in his community on climate change. "I've decided to make my half-time employee full-time," he beamed, "with a focus not just on recycling, but climate too. I just can't wait to get back home and start implementing."

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By Amanda Griscom Little

Amanda Griscom Little is a columnist for Grist Magazine. Her articles on energy, technology and the environment have appeared in publications ranging from Rolling Stone to the New York Times Magazine.

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