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INTERVIEW-Despite city's newest resident, Washington D.C. pushes climate action

by Laurie Goering | @lauriegoering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 14 March 2017 00:02 GMT

Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser speaks to the press after meeting with U.S. President-elect Donald Trump at Trump Tower in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., December 6, 2016. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

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Mayor Muriel Bowser, who has run Washington D.C. since early 2015, says in the face of federal backpedaling on climate change action, U.S. cities are stepping forward

By Laurie Goering

LONDON, March 14 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - U.S. President Donald Trump may not consider action on climate change a priority, but his newly adopted city has different ideas.

In 2015, Washington D.C. signed a 20-year deal to get 35 percent of the electricity needed to power government buildings from a Pennsylvania wind farm – the largest wind power deal ever signed by a U.S. city.

It has since signed another 20-year agreement to buy solar power from a company that is installing solar panels on roofs and on parking lots in the city.

And it's passed a law to help ensure that the benefits of solar power expansion reach the poor, the elderly and young people in need of jobs as well as wealthier business and families.

Mayor Muriel Bowser, who has run Washington D.C. since early 2015, says that in the face of federal backpedaling on climate change action, U.S. cities are stepping forward – and saving money in the process.

"We know in cities we can use our procurement power, our power in building codes and our bully pulpit to say we must fight climate change. And there are some very real effects on our bottom line," she said in a telephone interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The wind deal, for instance, will lock in power rates for Washington for the next 20 years, saving taxpayers an estimated $45 million, she said. The solar deal is expected to save $25 million over the same period.

"We regard our role as being at the forefront of moving climate change policy and fighting climate change," said Bowser, 44. "More than ever when federal policies are uncertain, we know cities can get a lot accomplished – and influence national policy."

Around the world, cities are increasingly at the forefront of action to curb climate change. Some have set ambitious emissions reduction goals, while others have pushed ahead with policies despite national-level foot dragging.

Increasingly, many of the cities pushing green energy and other climate change action – including Paris, Cape Town and Sydney – are run by women.

In two years, the number of women leading large cities at the forefront of climate action has risen from 4 to 16, according to the C40 Cities network of cities committed to addressing climate change, which is organising a conference for women leaders in New York this week.

Bowser says there's good reason for women – and cities such as Washington, with large numbers of African-American residents – to take climate change risks personally.

"We know the effects of climate change around the world have a disproportionate impact on women, people of colour and people with lower incomes," she said.


The city is already – literally – feeling the heat of climate change. Summers are growing increasingly sweltering in the already humid city, she said, and more unpredictable weather, including warm spring-like days in February followed by blizzards, threaten the city's famous spring cherry blossoms, a major tourist draw and income earner.

"Past winters and summers are great examples of how volatile our climate is," the mayor said. "While people might enjoy a 70-degree (21-degree Celsius) day in February, we know what it portends for our earth. It's a constant reminder when we have these wild fluctuations in temperature."

The city is doing what it can to fight back. In November, it put in place a resilience plan to help it assess, prepare for and deal with expected threats such as worsening heatwaves, more severe storms and flooding.

The plan considers what areas of the city are most flood-prone, for example, and what to do if services such as police, fire or the Metrorail mass transit system were hit, as well as looking at where neighbourhoods with large numbers of poor or unemployed people might struggle to afford air conditioning to battle heatwaves.

Bowser is also also pushing this year to incorporate green procurement practices across city government. "The government buys a lot of services and materials, so we can drive a lot of innovation," she said.

Getting green energy to the poor – as well as the rich – is another priority. A fee on energy bills across the city now funds home retrofits for energy efficiency and helps lower-income families and apartment buildings get access to solar energy, she said.

And the mayor is now trying to host "zero waste" city events where throw-away items, such as paper plates, paper tablecloths and disposable water bottles, are eliminated.

"That demonstrates to people that you don't have to create a lot of trash when you organise an event," she said.

While Washington D.C. is pressing ahead on dealing with climate change despite changing priorities in the White House, some of the federal changes present risks, Bowser acknowledged.

A share of the city's funding for clean energy programmes for low-income residents, for example, comes from the federal Department of Energy, and potentially could be withdrawn.

She said the nation's capital city will look for ways to protect as much funding as it can, and push ahead with climate action regardless.

"Making the city more resilient is how we will truly deal with climate change," the mayor said.

(Reporting by Laurie Goering @lauriegoering; editing by Zoe Tabary.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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