Americans Want to Live in Healthy, Sustainable Communities

Who Will Lead Them?

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Posted: Wednesday, May 23, 2018 8:30 am | Updated: 2:42 pm, Wed May 23, 2018.

At first glance, cities like West Palm Beach, Fla. and Carmel, Ind. may seem worlds apart. But though they are separated by more than 1,000 miles and a vast array of social, political and economic differences, these two cities have one thing in common: they are both leaders in America’s new climate movement.

And they are not alone.

The mayors of West Palm Beach and Carmel stand shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of other cities, businesses, states, colleges and universities that have stepped up to fulfill America’s promise under the Paris Climate Agreement. Their commitments come at a critical juncture for the climate movement. Three-quarters of global greenhouse gas emissions originate in cities; without their participation, there is no viable global strategy to curb climate change.

With a U.S. federal government stepping back on climate, the need for local leadership is greater than ever. And according to a new poll, America’s mayors aren’t just on the right side of history; they’re also on the right side of what their residents want.

Clean air and clean water are most important for health and well-being in a sustainable city. But job opportunities were next on people’s minds.

The poll, commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund and conducted in April by SynoInt, surveyed more than 1,000 adults across the U.S.

People were asked to name the three most important things for their health and well-being as the resident of a “sustainable city.”

Clean air and clean water were a virtual tie for the top spot on the list, with roughly 66 percent of respondents naming them as among the most important. But most surprising, and encouraging, were the 25 percent of people who named “decent job opportunities” as essential for life in a sustainable city. Too often, the conversation around sustainability focuses exclusively on environmental issues, when in reality social and economic factors are just as crucial.

According to Americans, living in a "sustainable city" means investing more in renewable energy, fossil-fuel-free public transport, green space, and waste recycling.

The survey also asked people what programs their city should invest in to become a sustainable city. According to respondents, America’s cities could most benefit from increased investment in renewable energy (36 percent), waste recycling (32 percent), green space (23 percent) and fossil-fuel-free public transport (23 percent).

The main takeaway here: Americans have a strong grasp on what cities can do to cut carbon pollution. All these steps would help reduce emissions, a necessary step to ensure cleaner air and ultimately curb climate change. And therein lies our reason for hope, as well as our most persistent challenge. We know what we need to do; we’re just not doing it fast enough.

The science is clear: to avoid the worst impacts of a warming planet, we must phase out our use of fossil fuels by mid-century. For the world to successfully make this shift from fossil fuels toward renewable energy — and accomplish it in time to avert catastrophe — cities must do some of the heavy lifting.

A key area where cities can make a difference is transportation. In 2016, transportation overtook the electric power sector to be the largest source of emissions in the United States. Cities as small as West Palm Beach and as big as Los Angeles are already electrifying fleet cars and buses across their jurisdictions, but more cities need to do the same — and do it now.

Cities can also make a difference by transitioning their energy supply from fossil fuels to renewable energy. More than 60 U.S. cities have already committed to using 100 percent renewable electricity to power their operations by 2035.

The poll commissioned by WWF affirms that Americans are hungry for robust climate action. Mayors and other local leaders who commit to reducing emissions will find they have the overwhelming support of their constituents.

But while the poll tells us people are eager for solutions, it also reveals that many have lost hope in their power to affect positive change. Some 42 percent of respondents don’t believe they can help build a more sustainable city through their own actions, and 53 percent don’t believe they can influence their leaders to do the right thing.

It’s incumbent upon those very leaders to prove them wrong — by taking tangible and measurable steps to reduce emissions, and by raising awareness about what people can do in their own lives to bolster those efforts. Networks like Climate Mayors, C40 Cities, ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability, Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative, and the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy are great platforms where leaders can learn from peers about what’s working.

Hundreds of local governments are already implementing ambitious plans to reduce emissions. But if we want to deliver on our international and domestic climate targets, we need to pick up the pace, and foster greater collaboration. The lead up to September’s Global Climate Action Summit — the premier climate event of the year — is a perfect opportunity to do exactly that. Ahead of this important milestone, leaders can make a concrete pledge — before the eyes of their residents, the nation and the world.

Governors, mayors, university presidents and CEOs across America are declaring with one voice: “we are taking action.” Join them, and help put your community, our nation, and the world on a path to a sustainable future.

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