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<< Back to: ICLEI e-News | issue 15, November 2008
"We need to stop seeing our cities as the problem and start seeing them as the solution,” Barack Obama, President-elect of the United States of America.

President Obama and Local Governments: A Partnership With Potential

Michelle WymanEditorial by Michelle Wyman, ICLEI USA Executive Director            It’s no secret that President-elect Obama has instilled a new sense of optimism in people who are passionate about climate protection, both in the United States and across the globe. In President-elect Obama, local governments have a new partner who has promised to listen to their needs and address their priorities. Obama’s Promises: Stronger Cities, Cleaner Energy Throughout his campaign, Obama pledged to address the needs of urban communities. In June 2008, at a speech before a U.S. Conference of Mayors gathering, Obama expressed his commitment to urban revitalization and offered to form new partnerships with urban leaders.

“We need to stop seeing our cities as the problem and start seeing them as the solution,” said Obama. “Because strong cities are the building blocks of strong regions, and strong regions are essential for a strong America. That is the new metropolitan reality and we need a new strategy that reflects it. As president, I’ll work with you to develop this kind of strategy and I’ll appoint the first White House Director of Urban Policy to help make it a reality.”

Obama articulated an equally impressive vision on climate protection and clean energy.

“To completely revamp how we use energy in a way that deals with climate change, deals with national security, and drives our economy, that’s going to be my number-one priority when I get into office,” said Obama in a recent Time interview. A few of the major goals of the energy plan he outlined during the campaign:
  • Implement an economy-wide cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2050.
  • Help create five million new jobs by strategically investing $150 billion over the next ten years to catalyze private efforts to build a clean energy future.
  • Ensure 10% of our electricity comes from renewable sources by 2012, and 25% by 2025.
  • Deploy the cheapest, cleanest, fastest energy source: energy efficiency.
  • Weatherize one million homes annually.
  • Increase fuel economy standards.
  • Get 1 million plug-in hybrid cars on the road by 2015.
  • Within 10 years save more oil than we currently import from the Middle East and Venezuela combined.

U.S. Local Governments’ Opportunity

For ICLEI USA member local governments, an especially exciting opportunity has arisen. Our task over the next several months is to let President Obama know, loudly and in unison, that climate protection and clean energy can be addressed from the ground up through local solutions, and that involving local governments is the key to success for his clean energy and climate goals. ICLEI USA and its partner, Climate Communities, have taken the lead in this effort by drafting a Climate Action Blueprint, which will be endorsed by hundreds of local government leaders and then submitted to President Obama and the next U.S. Congress.

Connecting the Dots: Local Climate Action and Economic Stimulus

From a local government perspective, Obama’s energy and climate vision fit perfectly with his support for stronger urban communities. By following the recommendations in the Blueprint, President Obama and Congress can create federal leadership on climate policy while reinforcing, rather than preempting, strong local action.

President Obama’s first priority, however, will be to address the ailing U.S. economy. It is widely predicted that he will work with Congress to implement an additional stimulus package that features mostly infrastructure spending. The plan is to inject existing federal programs with money to repair or build new infrastructure and quickly create jobs. But smart spending can accomplish two more goals: By funding local governments to implement energy efficiency programs or public transit expansions, an economic stimulus package can help to revitalize urban centers with green jobs, and jumpstart the coming clean-energy economy.

The Blueprint calls for the following plans, some of which could be included in such a stimulus package: Enact a national climate policy that:
  • Sets mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions with market-based trading;
  • Invests the proceeds from carbon trading into local government actions that reduce emissions through green buildings; transit, smart growth and other VMT reduction strategies; green local fleets and fuels; renewable energy; green infrastructure; and green jobs and businesses; and
  • Allows regulated emitters to invest through carbon off sets in local green infrastructure that reduces greenhouse gases, including community forestry, green roofs, and open space and farmland preservation.
Implement clean energy policies that:
  • Reduce building energy use by 30 percent by 2025 by establishing national building efficiency targets and providing annual funding to help local governments meet or exceed the national targets; and
  • Produce 25 percent of the nation’s power from renewable energy by 2025 through renewable portfolio standards, and measures to overcome interconnection and rate barriers to community-scale renewables.
Invest in local climate capacity through annual federal appropriations that:
  • Fully fund the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grants at $2 billion
  • annually;
  • Provide $250 million annually for EPA Local Climate Demonstration Grants;
  • Provide $400 million annually for the DOE Clean Cities program to support low-emission vehicles and cleaner fuels including alternative fuels infrastructure and plug-in hybrid vehicles; and
  • Provide $100 million annually for the Forest Service’s Urban and Community Forestry program.

On the Cusp of a New Era

The task before President Obama is enormous. Leadership on climate change has been absent on the national and international level for nearly a decade, and there is much to accomplish if the United States hopes to make deep reductions in greenhouse gases.

What gives us hope is the momentum and the groundswell of support that President-elect Obama carries into the White House. A Zogby post-election survey of 3,357 voters nationwide found that 78% believed investing in clean energy is important to revitalizing America’s economy. In July, a nationwide poll conducted by the nonpartisan Presidential Climate Action Project found that 62% of respondents believe it is important that the next U.S. president initiates strong action to address climate change soon after taking office.

Abroad, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier recently urged Obama to give the world a “New Green Deal.” United Nations leaders have voiced similar messages. "With President-elect Obama,” said Yvo de Boer, Executive Director of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, “my hope is that the U.S. can take on a leadership role and help to move [climate] negotiations forward.”