San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer chuckled when he was recently asked to compare his attitude about climate change with the denial displayed by many elected Republicans. That denial was on full display this week at the Republican National Convention.
Despite the fact that coal is one of the biggest generators of greenhouse gases, the GOP party platform claims it’s “clean.” The party says concern over climate change “is the triumph of extremism over common sense,” and wants to open up public lands and the outer continental shelf for fossil fuel exploitation and minimal federal regulation of fracking for natural gas.
But speaking in a beach park after cutting the ribbon for a boardwalk-restoration project, Faulconer noted how California’s droughts, fires, and floods put the state on the front lines of climate change.
“Protecting the environment is not a partisan issue,” he said. “I’ve never viewed it through the lens of what we have right now, but what we’ll have for future generations. You have to start with the premise that sustainability is the right thing.”
Was that a Republican talking Sierra Club? Doing the right thing on sustainability is making this city a national role model of bipartisanship on major environment issues. In December, its city council of five Democrats and four Republicans unanimously mandated that the city be completely run on renewable energy by 2035.
That makes San Diego the largest city in the United States to impose legally-binding municipal targets for renewable energy. Faulconer proposed putting $127 million toward the mandate, through bike and pedestrian improvements, tree planting, energy efficient street lights, water conservation, and trash trucks powered by gas from landfills.
This raises the bar everywhere else, including here in Massachusetts. At this moment, the Legislature is hammering out a groundbreaking energy bill that begins to reduce emissions with hydroelectric power and offshore wind, and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh recently spoke at a Beijing summit of cities pledging to cut emissions. But though both the city and state have set goals for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recently ruled that the Commonwealth’s targets are legal, there is yet no official path for how to get there.
San Diego shows a way. For years, debates on energy goals came to a standstill over toothless voluntary targets, according to environmental attorney Nicole Capretz. But in 2013, interim San Diego mayor Todd Gloria declared that the city, second only to Los Angeles in solar power capacity, should be a leader on climate change. He asked Capretz to draft a comprehensive climate action plan. Capretz said that the plan had to be enforceable.
The next elected mayor was Faulconer. The coast-loving boater and cyclist shared enough of Capretz’s dream to lobby the business community in ways unimaginable in Washington, D.C., where the US Chamber of Commerce vigorously opposes President Obama’s landmark pollution and greenhouse gas regulations.
In San Diego, the chamber’s president, former mayor Jerry Sanders, said Faulconer urged members to embrace the plan, while giving businesses the flexibility to make adjustments, and to take advantage of the city’s clean tech industry and science expertise.
“Otherwise, we can have federal or state government tell us what to do,” Sanders said. “We chose to embrace this now.”
Faulconer has the soft-spoken manner of Massachusetts’ moderate Republican Governor Charlie Baker. Both say they cannot vote for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. But on energy, Baker’s commitment to renewables remains unclear. He could learn from Faulconer, who said, “There is no substitute for leadership. Get all the players in the room and don’t let ‘em leave.”
Capretz, who remains a leading climate activist, said, “We still don’t see eye-to-eye on everything, but it turned out to be better to have a Republican mayor sell this to industry and the business community. It eliminated a lot of negativity.”
No negativity can be found in the office of Cody Hooven, the city’s sustainability manager. She is getting calls from all over the world about the renewable plan, including solar and wind powerhouse Germany. “They’re all asking, ‘How are you doing that?’” Hooven said. “We’re saying, why not try for 100 percent? If we don’t try, we’ll never get there.”
It is a question worth asking in Massachusetts. San Diego has thrown down a gauntlet. It is easy to say you will cut emissions. It is another to say how you’ll get there.
Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.