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The Footprint Factor

Cities of all sizes are banding together to reduce their own -- and eventually the world's -- carbon emissions.


Tom Arrandale

Tom Arrandale is a GOVERNING correspondent.

The mountain resort town of Sandpoint sits close to the tip of the Idaho panhandle. Its natural setting near wilderness areas makes it a magnet for those fleeing the havoc of congested cities. Increasingly, new arrivals come to Sandpoint in search of the simpler life of a small community, even though Sandpoint's civic leaders have had their hands full in the past decade with Aryan Nation and Christian Identity adherents who set up nearby enclaves.

Given the quirky politics and pristine isolation, Sandpoint's citizens wouldn't seem to have much in common with the environmental activists in such bustling and pollution-challenged places as Chicago, Boston or Austin. So it's significant that Ray Miller, who was mayor of Sandpoint last year, led his city to join the international campaign to control global warming. As did mayors of hundreds of other local governments all over the world, Miller committed Sandpoint citizens to curbing carbon dioxide emissions.

With 8,000 or so residents and no energy-intensive industry, Sandpoint obviously creates a minuscule contribution to the greenhouse gases building up in the atmosphere. But even in thehinterlands, local political leaders have determined that their constituents are ready to take a stand to limit the damage around the world from a rapidly heating climate.

The pledge that Miller and some 600 other mayors signed was drafted by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. The goal is to surpass the Kyoto Protocol's international targets for curtailing greenhouse gases. The other U.S. communities that took the pledge were from all over the country -- from Chicago to Seattle, Berkeley to Boston, and Anchorage to Coconut Creek, Florida. To shave their own contributions to carbon dioxide releases, those municipal governments have committed to cutting energy consumption and finding alternative sources of renewable power. As Sandpoint Mayor Miller says, "Whether you're doing it for the economy or for the environment, it just makes good sense to do these things."

Sandpoint officials, for instance, have just begun working with the local electric utility on energy-saving investments in municipal facilities. To share ideas on how to follow through on those promises, roughly 350 city and county governments have also banded together to share climate-protection ideas through an international organization called Local Governments for Sustainability, originally known as the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, or ICLEI. The group's American affiliate, headquartered in Oakland, California, provides technical assistance through regional offices based in city halls in Boston, Chicago, Houston, Seattle, and Fort Collins, Colorado. The organization works with communities of all sizes from all over the country, "and not just teeny liberal towns in California," notes Annie Strickler, the group's public spokesperson.

A case in point: Fayetteville, Arkansas. Last summer, its mayor, Dan Coody, was honored by the mayors' organization for the city's plans to curb greenhouse gases by promoting alternatives to driving cars. One aspect of that plan is to build 129 miles of trails through the city so that residents can bicycle, hike or walk to work. "If Fayetteville, Arkansas, can do it," Coody says, "other cities should be able to as well."

Last summer, Albuquerque's Mayor Martin Ch?vez was recognized for his AlbuquerqueGreen Program. It encourages pedestrian-friendly development and green industries. It also calls on the city itself to revamp government operations to cut natural gas use by 42 percent and greenhouse emissions by two-thirds. In the past couple of years, almost all the nation's most sophisticated cities have responded to the American public's conviction that climate change must be confronted as the earth's most serious environmental threat. Reducing our carbon "footprint" has become trendy enough that the National Football League is buying renewable power to light the Super Bowl stadium.

Mayors should be commended for building a public consensus on climate change. What's not clear is whether political leaders are preparing communities to recognize that progress down the road might be a lot more painful. How to reverse climate change and also keep the national economy humming still isn't front and center in the country's political discourse.

Miller lost his reelection bid last fall over a controversial highway bypass. But his successor, human rights activist Gretchen Hellar, says she'll follow through on Sandpoint's climate-change commitments. Hellar is well aware that limiting greenhouse emissions while managing the way Sandpoint's economy grows will inevitably be contentious. "There are economic reasons to be sustainable in addition to global warming," she says. Her underlying point is an important one: To contribute to solving global warming -- and a host of related environmental threats -- mayors will need to develop the case that even tougher trade-offs are worth making.

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