George Diepenbrock
KU News Service

Federal aversion to climate protection policies could energize some cities, researcher says

Wed, 01/25/2017

LAWRENCE — In one of his first actions as president, Donald Trump rolled back previous federal policies on climate protection, energy efficiency and sustainability. But don't expect some local governments to slow down their own efforts, said a University of Kansas scholar of urban sustainability.

"Hostility to climate protection on the federal level could even energize some cities because they may view their efforts more important now than ever," said Rachel Krause, associate professor in the School of Public Affairs and Administration.

Krause is available to discuss implications of the changing federal landscape and what it means for local governments. Krause has co-authored several journal articles on local governance and urban sustainability efforts, including how cities' council election process influenced sustainability initiatives and which factors influence long-term local climate policies.

Q: What will be key things to watch for as cities seek to institute or continue to institute climate change or environmental policies under a Trump administration that likely will be less friendly to those types of policies?

Krause: There is likely to be less federal money for climate, energy efficiency and sustainability efforts under a Trump administration. The Clean Power Plan, which had considerable potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from electricity producers, is also likely dead in the water. So there is considerable reason to be concerned about efforts in the U.S. to fight climate change.

However, I am not convinced that the Trump administration will bring local climate protection initiatives to an end. Widespread city climate protection efforts were actually born out of protest to the lack of federal policy in the early 2000s. In 2005, the Kyoto Protocol entered into force without the participation of the United States. This ended up being a major catalyst for local efforts, and hundreds of cities adopted the goal of reducing their emissions by 7 percent under 1990 levels, which is what would have been the goal for the U.S. if it had ratified Kyoto. Certainly, different cities followed through on their commitments with different levels of enthusiasm, but it was the lack of federal policy that inspired them. It is possible that a similar dynamic could be repeated again now.

That said, local climate efforts peaked in 2010, helped in no small part by the federal 2009 economic stimulus package and energy efficiency conservation block grants. So federal monies do go a long way in helping to facilitate and finance their implementation.

Q: How might different cities approach climate policies for at least the next four years?

Krause: I sometimes think of cities as falling on a bell curve where some are real climate innovators and some are real climate laggards, but most are somewhere in the middle. The laggards likely won't take meaningful climate action regardless of what the federal government is doing and the innovators will continue to almost no matter what, so it seems reasonable to predict that decrease in federal energy, climate and sustainability funds will have the most impact on the middle-of-the-pack cities. Those are the cities that would be happy to pursue climate or energy initiatives if there is external money for them but are less willing to spend their own resources. 

Q: Is there evidence that municipal governments made gains or significant climate change policies under the Obama administration? If so, what would be the fallout from not keeping this type of momentum going at the local government levels?

Krause: I think it is safe to say that over the last eight years the energy efficiency of government operations have improved considerably in most cities. For example, LED traffic and streetlights are now a norm in most places, many older city buildings have been retrofit, and newer ones are being built to high-energy efficiency standards. I think a lot of this is here to stay. 

On the other hand, it is a lot harder for cities to induce changes that make big reductions in emissions communitywide. For many cities, this change has been incremental because they don't have authority over big factors like the carbon intensity of the electricity their residents use or the efficiency standards of the vehicles they drive. 

Also, in most places, the urban form has already been set. If a city is physically structured as sprawling and auto-dependent, it will probably remain that way for quite some time. This is not to say that important changes haven't been made at the margins – for example, efforts to increase downtown density or improve public transit. The many small and moderate changes made by cities certainly add up, but they may not result in the sweeping greenhouse gas reductions that something like the Clean Power Plan would have. Many of the cities that have made the biggest all-around reductions to greenhouse gas emissions are those that own their own electricity-producing utilities and can transition production toward renewables. 

Q: National media reports mention a couple of cities, such as San Antonio and San Diego, that either are in more traditionally Republican areas or had Republican mayors who pursued certain climate-action policies. Is there a common thread behind those types of action? Perhaps local environmental issues in those areas, like disasters or water shortages?

Krause: If you think about it, energy efficiency is extremely consistent with fiscal conservatism. If a city government saves money by saving energy, it is using taxpayer dollars wisely — a key element of traditional fiscal conservatism. Energy efficiency is the sub-issue where this connection is made most easily, but there are many other issues related to climate where this idea also holds. For example, if a city is facing a big drought, it makes sense, again from a fiscal conservative's perspective, to embrace proactive preventative policies rather than run the risk of running out of water, which would be financially ruinous.

Finally, cities are in constant competition with each other. They are competing for businesses and tax-paying residents – being "green", sustainable, having clean air and providing residents with a good quality of life, etc., can prove to be a competitive advantage for cities. We often think of climate change mitigation as the ultimate public good, but there also can be local benefits to pursuing it. I think the latter may be particularly important in traditionally Republican areas.

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