Santa Monica Environmental Programs Division
Special to the Mirror
Environmental leadership comes in all shapes and sizes and from every corner of society. However, it is safe to say that since the inception of the federal Environmental Protection Agency in the 1970s, government has played a central role in shaping environmental policies for the nation, and people expect it to continue serving in that capacity.
Federal leadership makes good sense too because national standards give the business community and state and local government the power to adapt a one-size-fits-all approach to markets and environmental management. For example, the federal government set standards for energy efficiency and water and air quality that produced astonishing results. Yet many states and cities find federal leadership wanting. California has consistently moved forward where it found federal standards too low or absent altogether. Cities have often gone further still, demonstrating that even maverick states like California are not doing enough.
Cities, it turns out, are a great source of environmental innovation in the U.S. Last year a coalition of mayors, led by Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, initiated the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement. It has now been signed by 224 mayors, including former Santa Monica Mayor Pam O’Connor, representing 43.9 million Americans. The agreement commits the cities to the Kyoto Protocol, an international climate change agreement that the U.S. has failed to sign.
This is an unprecedented move, and will hopefully set the stage for further cooperation. However, cities, even collectively, are not capable of taking our country into the 21st century alone. Managing the environment is of strategic importance for the future of the U.S., and it cannot be managed with thousands of separate policies.
Ironically, the change that experts say is necessary to counter big issues like climate change may only happen with city leaders from across the U.S. because they are willing to do the work that state and federal politicians and agencies will not. What this reality says about the future of our country is not entirely clear. However, if what experts are telling us is true, American cities are going to experience profound shocks to the current way they do business over the next fifty years. Cities are already feeling it in increased costs for natural resources like water, natural gas, coal, oil, timber, air quality and open space. Cities are also sensitive to the growing costs of the basic commodities generated from the above resources like plastics, metals, paper, lumber, diesel, gasoline, cement, asphalt and electricity – these commodities are the basic building blocks of local economies. Further, cities face stressed and aging public infrastructure, housing shortages, poverty, violence and the list goes on.
Santa Monica, like hundreds of other cities, is taking matters into its own hands to ensure a stable future. Santa Monica was recently recognized as being one of the top five most sustainable cities in the U.S., and in the last ten years Santa Monica can point to many significant successes – successes that other cities can emulate. Like many other cities across the U.S., Santa Monica leadership understands the importance of balancing the economy and the environment to protect our way of life for future generations. To get us there, Santa Monica has a roadmap in the Sustainable City Plan, and the plan has measurable targets that are being carefully tracked for progress. Any city can adopt a similar plan so that we can all move in the same direction together. Imagine what we could achieve with a national plan.