Event Recap: Rockefeller Foundation Implementing Climate Action in America’s Cities

Event recap by Dhruv Kapadia

Watch the full report here!

On Tuesday, January 31st, The Rockefeller Foundation hosted “Implementing Climate Action in America’s Cities,” a conversation with local experts on climate justice and how the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) might transform front-line communities. Moderated by The Rockefeller Foundation’s Rachel Isacoff, panelists Nathaniel Smith of Partnership for Southern Equity, Justin Bibb, 58th Mayor of Cleveland, Ohio, and Katie Kienbaum of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance shared insights from the Initiative on Cities (IOC) 2022 Menino Survey of Mayors: Mayors and the Climate Crisis. The event was a part of The Rockefeller Foundation’s #RFBreakthrough series, a livestream series highlighting urgent and innovative discussions with thought leaders and industry experts.

Associate Professor of Political Science and Menino Survey Co-Author David Glick provided opening remarks for the virtual event. Glick provided context behind the 9th annual Menino Survey, which he calls the “only national representative sample of mayors.” Glick discussed the empirical methodology of the survey, which involves a mix of virtual and in-person interviews with 118 mayors of cities with more than 75,000 residents across the country. As an overarching theme for his remarks, Glick described mayors as a “receptive and motivated group of climate allies” seeking to address climate change at a local level.

Glick’s first major finding is the political understanding mayors share regarding climate change, with nine in every 10 mayors agreeing that “climate change is real and caused by human activities.” He continued, explaining that only 3% of mayors were “not concerned” about the local effects of climate change. In terms of policy preferences, the survey also found that mayors are eager to allocate public resources and create private choices and are conversely opposed to “restricting resident choices” or “uprooting status quo living.” Interestingly, according to the survey findings, mayors’ favored policies often fail to align with what they see as their most powerful tools to address climate change.

After Glick’s remarks, the panel of Nathaniel Smith, Katie Kienbaum, and Mayor Justin Bibb was introduced by moderator Rachel Isacoff. Isacoff opened the discussion by asking Smith how we can make sure that unprecedented investments like the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) benefit cities and their residents. Smith asserted that cities must take the time to conscientiously not reinforce inequities that have persisted for decades. “Historically, unfortunately, we have seen many times where good money has created bad outcomes,” said Smith, “we have not been intentional about ensuring that those dollars are invested in the delivery systems that we need in order to realize equitable outcomes.”

Mayor Bibb built on Smith’s answer, highlighting the increasing importance of local government in the fight against climate change. Bibb began by discussing the historical significance Cleveland has played in the creation of climate justice policy, citing former Mayor Carl Stokes’ championing of anti-pollution efforts that ultimately led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. He then moved on, highlighting the inextricable relationship between seemingly unrelated localized problems, like dying tree canopies and lead paint, and broader climate justice issues. “We as mayors have to do a better job of grounding good public policy in the lived experiences of the residents we’re serving every day, and sometimes that conversation is missed in those sacred halls of Congress or in our foundations, and we need to make sure we stay approximate to those people.”

Isacoff then transitioned the discussion from the broader IRA to a conversation about climate justice at a local level, specifically as it relates to electric vehicles. Kienbaum answered, focusing on the dual-sided issue of sustainable public transit. “There’s this question about how we ensure electric vehicle adoption is equitable and accessible,” said Kienbaum, “but then there is also this broader question of how we make sure that folks get where they need to go in a way that’s clean, affordable, and healthy.” Despite this conflict, Kienbaum did highlight the importance of implementing said electrification policies regardless of direct community support, as their positive environmental externalities are significant.

The discussion concluded with Isacoff asking the panelists what their near-term goals are for advancing climate justice past the IRA. Smith answered first, calling upon local governments to be inclusive and intentional in the distribution of federal subsidies and investments. “My hope is that, as we continue to transition to a clean energy economy, that all people will be positioned to participate in it.” Kienbaum agreed that local, state, and federal governments must prioritize equity when implementing climate justice policy. She continued, “one thing we think is really important is making sure we put power over these decision-making processes back in the hands of communities and people, and out of the power of large monopoly utilities who have historically caused disproportionate harm to Black and Brown communities.” Lastly, Mayor Bibb laid out a three stage plan for a future vision of community-oriented and inclusive climate justice policy-making.

“First, we need to elevate more voices around the table, not just when you’re community-organizing, but in decision-making power tables in this country. Number two, investments must be targeted and transformative to set up communities for a more prosperous future. And thirdly, we need to hold ourselves more accountable to make sure we get this moment right.”