SEATTLE — When Greg Nickels became Seattle's mayor in 2002, global warming was hardly at the top of the municipal agenda.
New York's World Trade Center had been attacked, and officials had to figure out how to protect their own city from terrorism. Boeing was laying off 30,000 machinists, so there was the declining regional economy to deal with. Surely the federal government would worry about climate change.
Then came the winter of 2004, when the Cascade Mountains snowpack was so disastrously low that ski resorts -- facing their worst year on record -- laid off most of their employees. The same snow, when it melts, is what generates much of the Northwest's electricity.
"It was serious. It was truly serious," Nickels said. "It became clear to me that global warming was not something off in the future, not far away, but something that was here and now."
With the U.S. still not a signatory to the international Kyoto climate change accord, Nickels began talking to other mayors about halting carbon emissions in the cities -- where the majority of Americans live, drive cars, operate factories, turn on lights and use power.
On Friday, as outgoing president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, he announced that 1,000 mayors across the country had signed on to a pact to meet the Kyoto protocol targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. They also will urge the federal government and the states to cut emissions by 7% from 1990 levels by 2012.
"I [had] assumed that our federal government was working hard to make sure we were protecting our future. I was wrong," Nickels said in overseeing the signature of Republican Scott Smith, mayor of Mesa, Ariz. The pair were joined by more than a dozen other U.S. mayors.
Thanks to lobbying by the mayors conference, the federal government this year authorized $2.7 billion in block grants to states, municipalities and native tribes for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects. The group also successfully lobbied to get those types of grants placed in the federal climate change legislation recently introduced by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and John F. Kerry (D-Mass.)
"The 100 top metropolitan areas represent 75% of the [gross domestic product] of this country. This is where the economy is. This is where the energy is. And this is where the solutions need to come," Nickels said.
Seattle was able to reduce its 1990 carbon footprint by 8% in 2005, largely through voluntary emissions reductions by households and businesses. Many of those switched from fuel oil to natural gas.
Seattle City Light, which produces much of its electricity through non-gas-emitting hydropower, sold its interest in a coal-fired power plant, stopped buying power from a natural gas-fired plant and purchased greenhouse gas "credits" to offset the remainder of its carbon production.
Los Angeles reached the 7% Kyoto target in 2008, four years ahead of schedule, in part through an aggressive program in energy efficiency that included light bulb and street light replacements, mandatory green building standards, and a transition to alternative fuel on buses, trash trucks and other city vehicles.
The city has quadrupled its renewable energy portfolio, and a "clean truck" program implemented at the Port of Los Angeles has reduced diesel emissions there by 70% over the past two years.
"We didn't just sign on. I can tell you, we've been working hard to meet those goals," Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said.
A city-by-city report released Friday showed that Boston has increased its solar capacity by 300%; Philadelphia has adopted a plan to retrofit 100,000 homes with energy-saving features over the next seven years; and Cleveland has set a standard of converting to 25% renewable electricity.
Smith, the Mesa mayor, had balked at the call to lobby Congress and the administration to support a cap-and-trade system for mandatory limits on carbon emissions. But he decided the mayors' initiative was "the right thing to do."
"I am signing up because this is too important an issue for us to stand on the sideline," he said. "This is not a group without diversity, it's not a group that agrees on everything, but it is a group that is completely united and committed to this one issue."