OP-ED: Why Our City Leaders are at the Climate Negotiations in Paris


By Nancy Skinner


Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf has joined 10 US Mayors at the 2015 U.N. Climate Change Summit, which is currently underway in Paris. An organization called ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability (which is located in Downtown Oakland) has developed the “Local Climate Leaders Circle,” which is made up of Mayor Schaaf and the mayors of 9 cities throughout the United States. In addition to its presence in Oakland, ICLEI has 10 international offices, working with over 2000 cities worldwide to support local leaders focused on community development that is healthy for people, the environment, and the economy.

You might be wondering why should Mayors be at the Paris talks, what do cities have to do with climate change? Interestingly cities have a lot to do with climate change. Cities are where the majority of our planet’s residents live so as the planet heats up and sea levels rise cities will be especially stressed. Cities are also the economic engines with most of that economic activity powered from burning fossil fuels which in turn is the source of most of the carbon emissions causing climate change. In fact cities are responsible for about 70% of global carbon emissions.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf spoke at a panel discussion at the Convention on Climate Change in Paris lat week.
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf spoke at a panel discussion at the Convention on Climate Change in Paris lat week.


Here on the eastside of the San Francisco Bay, some of Oakland’s most important economic activity is located right at sea level. Think of the impact that sea level rise can have on the Port which loads and discharges more than 99 percent of the containerized goods moving through Northern California, or on the Oakland Airport with its runways skirting the Bay.


And what about impacts to our West Oakland neighborhoods that sit right along the Bay, or the residences that surround Lake Merritt. According to West Oakland activist Margaret Gordon, who has long been at the forefront of advocating for air quality improvements and environmental justice, “the Oakland neighborhoods most at risk from climate change are low income, and have poor and crumbling infrastructure like for our sewage systems and the wooden poles that hold up our powerlines, and we don’t have an evacuation plan if there is major flooding.”


Mayor Schaaf and the other Mayors are telling world leaders that the time for action is now, and that communities like Oakland and Richmond are depending on them. The Mayors are also sharing their own experience, each of them represent cities that having taken action to do their share to stop the threat of disastrous climate change.


“Oakland is especially vulnerable to climate change; it will impact the Port of Oakland, our key economic generator, and many neighborhoods,” said Mayor Libby Schaaf. “It was an honor to represent Oakland at the Summit in Paris – representing the biggest global response to climate change to date – to promote what we are doing locally and because it’s important for world leaders to hear the real concerns of communities that will be profoundly impacted.”


The Oakland City Council first adopted a commitment to address climate change in 2001, approving a citywide Energy and Climate Action Plan in 2012 detailing policies to improve energy efficiency in buildings, promote solar and renewable energy and increase transit. With climate protection and air quality in mind Oakland now uses renewable diesel fuel for many of its vehicle and has electrified the Port so ships don’t have to rely on belching gas engines while they are docked. The City of Richmond also has a climate action plan with a target and timeline for greenhouse gas emissions reduction.


As climate leaders the Mayors of Oakland and Richmond are in good company. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is now the United Nations Special Envoy for Cities and Climate Change, “These 10 cities deserve great credit for acting quickly to confront climate change,” said former Mayor Bloomberg, “By drawing attention to the work cities around the world are doing – and helping them speed their progress – the Leaders Circle can help set the stage for a successful climate change summit here in Paris.”


Let’s hope world leaders are listening so that Oakland, Richmond and our local communities don’t have to do it alone.


Author note: former Assemblymember Nancy Skinner co-founded ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability in 1990. She served as Executive Director of the US Office from 1994 to 2004 and international director of ICLEI’s Cities for Climate Protection program, She attended and brought Mayors to 10 of the past climate negotiations. The cities of Oakland and Richmond have both been ICLEI members. Nancy served in the California Assembly from 2008-2014, representing Oakland, Berkeley, Albany, El Cerrito, Kensington, Richmond, Pinole, and San Pablo.


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