Resources Abound for News Media Exploring City Hall/Climate Change Issues

Newspaper journalists are seeing some environmental coverage migrate from the specialized environmental beat to other coverage areas, such as business and religion.

Municipal government – historically a key beat at most dailies – is becoming particularly fertile territory for reporting on climate change. Mayors in hundreds of cities across the U.S. are launching policy initiatives aimed at conserving energy, preparing for projected impacts, and otherwise addressing a warmer world.

Meanwhile, several sometimes-interrelated programs have stepped up efforts to encourage cities’ development of climate-related policies by providing technical assistance and fostering opportunities to collaborate and share “lessons learned.”

All told, extensive resources detail initiatives by various cities and also the help being offered to them. These materials can help inform city hall reporters’ efforts to add climate-related programs to the suite of municipal activities they traditionally have monitored.

The trend toward more and more municipal action on climate marks at least a temporary and partial shift from the decades-long federalization of environmental law and policy that began with passage of sweeping landmark laws such as the Clean Air Act and the National Environmental Policy Act in 1970.

With the Bush administration loath to adopt aggressive, mandatory measures to cut greenhouse gases on the national level, city officials eager to take action on climate change have stepped into what many regard as a policy-making void. (Numerous state and county governments, acting alone and in regional groupings, also are working on parallel tracks with their own climate initiatives.)

The city movement exploded in 2005 when Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels introduced the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, which commits mayors who sign to “strive to meet or beat the Kyoto Protocol targets (a seven percent cut below 1990 greenhouse emissions by 2012) in their own communities, through actions ranging from anti-sprawl land-use policies to urban forest restoration projects to public information campaigns.”

Nickels’ administration reported last year on Seattle’s progress in cutting greenhouse emissions, and the city’s (and Nickels’ own) climate-related actions have prompted continuing coverage by Seattle reporters.

The U. S. Conference of Mayors subsequently endorsed and assumed administration of the Mayors Climate Protection Agreement – signed by 802 mayors as of the end of February 2008. Early last year, it also launched the Mayors Climate Protection Center “in recognition of an increasingly urgent need to provide mayors with the guidance and assistance they need to lead their cities’ efforts to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are linked to climate change.”

The Conference of Mayors in November 2007 teamed with the City of Seattle to host the 2007 Mayors Climate Protection Summit. A key theme of the discussions: How to pay for local climate protection measures, and finding leverage capital to incentivize private actions.

The group also published an updated version of the Mayors Climate Protection Center’s “Climate Protection Strategies and Best Practices Guide,” (pdf) brimming with details of numerous cities’ climate initiatives.

Another organization that cities join for help in developing their climate-related actions is ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability, founded in 1990 as the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives. ICLEI runs programs for its hundreds of member cities and counties, such as its Cities for Climate Protection.

Examples of ICLEI’s publications include a downloadable guidebook, produced with the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts group and King County, Washington’s global climate team. The guidebook provides information on developing, implementing, and monitoring local, state, and regional climate change impact plans.

In December 2007 in Bali, Indonesia, where the U.N. was holding post-Kyoto plan talks, ICLEI and other groups launched the World Mayors and Local Governments Climate Protection Agreement. The agreement’s commitments include reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent from 1990 levels by 2050 in the U.S. and other industrialized countries.

In Albuquerque, N.M., in May, ICLEI is to hold its Local Action Summit 2008, billing it as “the premier event for local government staff and elected officials who are advancing climate protection and sustainability at the local level.”

The U.S. Conference of Mayors and ICLEI’s Cities for Climate Protection, working with the City of Seattle and Sundance Preserve, comprise yet another association, the Mayors for Climate Protection. Its Cool Mayors website offers a collection of links to relevant news stories, an extensive list of profiles of municipal activities, and “success stories” in areas including power generation, transport, and green building.

Much of the city-level activity on climate change involves initiatives to further green building technologies through building codes and other efforts.

Understanding green building standards can be challenging, but the U.S. Green Building Council website provides extensive explanatory material about its well-known and extensively-used LEED (for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Green Building Rating System.

A consortium of more than 20 local governments, non-profit organizations, government agencies, and utilities has produced the Playbook, a web-based resource offering tips to local governments for addressing the climate issue – either on a first-time basis or through growth of existing programs addressing “green building, green neighborhoods, and sustainable infrastructure.”

In 2007, the William J. Clinton Foundation’s Clinton Climate Initiative launched an Energy Efficiency Building Retrofit Program, working initially with 16 large cities around the world, including Chicago, Houston, New York, and Toronto in North America.

The 16 participants are members of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, an international group of 40 large cities affiliated with the Clinton Climate Initiative, which has scheduled a workshop in April in Los Angeles on cutting greenhouse emissions from airports and aviation operations.

Numerous examples of news coverage of local-level climate initiatives are available. These include a Boston Globe article last November that examined efforts in small Reading, Mass., and a piece in the Los Angeles Times (available at the ClimateArk.org website) the same month reporting that some mayors who have committed to reduce greenhouse gases are finding that “changing the carbon footprint of their cities is turning out to be harder than they thought.”

The city hall beat is just one area of news reporting expected to benefit when reporters learn more about climate change – its potential impacts and the measures being discussed and undertaken to address those impacts. The list of such beats likely will only get longer.

Also see: Sierra Club Prodding Local Actions
Through ‘Cool Cities’ Climate Campaign
by Christine Woodside

Bill Dawson

Bill Dawson is an independent journalist who edits Texas Climate News, an online magazine published by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Houston Advanced Research Center. He was previously environment writer for the Houston Chronicle. (E-mail: bill@yaleclimatemediaforum.org)
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