March 16, 2017, Adrian, Michigan – George Heartwell, former Mayor of Grand Rapids, Michigan, spent the day March 15 at the Weber Center speaking to Lenawee County leaders and residents about ways to build a sustainable community in light of the ramifications of global climate change.
In a program for Lenawee County leaders, Mr. Heartwell talked about how Grand Rapids moved from a community dealing with wastewater overflows and localized lead poisoning issues to a sustainable city. In addition to ditching the city’s strategic plan in favor of a sustainability plan, he said, every department moved from a single bottom line measurement of success to a triple bottom line that takes into account economic impact, environmental impact and social impact.
Creating aggressive goals is also critical, he told the group of 40 Lenawee leaders. He spelled out some of the many ways the city has become more energy efficient, offering inspiration for local communities to follow suit.
In the evening, which was open to the public, Mr. Heartwell spoke to a crowd of about 45 residents on the topic of “Climate Change, Cities and the New Reality.”
Mr. Heartwell emphasized that global climate change is “the most urgent and pressing problem facing humankind today.” Mayors and other local community leaders worldwide play a special role in mitigating climate change, he noted. While national and state leaders focus on more abstract areas, such as their party’s ideology, mayors must deal with more down-to-earth issues: helping their communities through heat waves, crop loss, and the effects of extreme storms.
“The president doesn’t have to figure out how to stretch an already-tight municipal budget to fund infrastructure improvements to manage extreme rainfalls, but that’s what mayors do,” he said.
When he took office in 2004, Mr. Heartwell said, he was the 123rd mayor to sign the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement. Currently, the agreement has 1,060 signatories. “One thousand sixty mayors have gone on record as saying that they’ll put their best efforts into addressing the threat of climate change.”
Some of the actions taken by mayors include investing in renewable energy, reducing demand for energy by introducing efficiency measures in buildings and service delivery processes, planting trees and expanding park land, protecting sensitive wetlands, and building streets out of permeable materials to absorb the rain.
“We’re doing things large and small in order to reduce our carbon footprint, reduce our production in our cities of greenhouse gasses that lead to warmer global temperatures,” he said.
In recent years, mayors also became aware of the need to adapt to situations already brought about by climate change. “There are still enormous impacts to climate that will affect us for decades, likely generations, to come,” Mr. Heartwell noted. Communities need to make adaptations to these conditions.
Mr. Heartwell represented Grand Rapids as one of five U.S. cities and five European cities that were invited by the International Organization of Cities to develop a model for climate adaptation and resiliency for cities. He was also invited to be part of a White House taskforce to work on community resilience to climate change. The taskforce presented President Barack Obama with 75 strategies for resilient communities facing climate change.
“We concluded that many of the initiatives that worked for adaptation were the very things that were needed in the long run for mitigating climate change,” Mr. Heartwell explained. President Obama in turn issued executive orders in response to those recommendations.
The election of President Trump has brought some reason for discouragement, Mr. Heartwell said, noting the president’s denial of climate change is reflected in his appointments to head vital organizations such as the Environmental Protection Agency. Still, he remains hopeful.
“One of the uncontainable forces that has been unleashed during the Obama administration is the power of local government to act in the best interests of its citizens,” he said. “No mayor is going to cave to the federal government if she feels that her citizens are at risk.”
He also takes hope from the initiatives of businesses. “American manufacturing is too far down the road on design and in plant retrofit to turn back now – design and retrofit that’s been done in keeping with the best science that’s available on climate change,” he said. “Business sees too much opportunity today for innovation and for entrepreneurship in clean energy technologies to be deterred.”
Finally, he said, the “juggernaut of American resistance has been unleashed. Masses of people who cherish the natural environment and want to ensure that generations to come will enjoy its beauty and its bounty as they have are ready to take to the streets. … This passion, this urgency and this focus, will not soon be put back into a bottle.”
What’s important, he added, is that everyone makes decisions that minimize climate impacts, whether it’s choosing to plant a garden, use public transportation or to recycle. He also encouraged everyone to raise the issue of climate change whenever possible, to educate others about climate issues, and to become politically active.
“All of us need to make it a part of our lifestyle,” he said.