Muriel Bowser wants to establish a green bank in Washington, D.C. to help fund clean energy projects. Manuela Carmena is creating a plan in Madrid to make walking and cycling easier, encourage electric vehicles and develop renewable energy. Yuriko Koike led a campaign in Tokyo and throughout Japan to ditch suits for casual dress at work and reduce dependency on air conditioning.
These women are all part of Women4Climate—a new alliance of 15 women mayors from major cities who are determined to act against climate change, whether or not their federal governments join them.
Women4Climate mayors represent nearly 100 million people. Their cities produce a total of more than $4 trillion in GDP. Their alliance—which includes mayors from Rome, Stockholm, Sydney, Durban and elsewhere—is part of the C40 Climate Leadership Group, a worldwide network of more than 90 megacities devoted to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and climate risks.
Women4Climate bears watching because it represents two forces–women leaders and city governments–that could determine whether the world can slow global temperatures from rising. That’s especially true as the Trump Administration flirts with leaving the historic Paris Agreement, a pact signed by 192 states and the European Union.
“Though they remain under-represented in leadership roles around the world, women are leading the fight against climate change,” argues Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, head of C40 and Women4Climate, citing Christiana Figueres and other top Paris Agreement negotiators as good examples. “If we want to stop climate change and make our cities stronger, more resilient and more equal, women must have not only a seat at the table. They must sit at the head.”
Cities don’t have to entirely lose ground even if some national governments move away from a green agenda. Women4Climate mayors plan to study best practices from each other to implement in their own cities, from flood prevention techniques to building standards that improve energy efficiency. (If Bowser’s green bank legislation passes, Washington will be the first U.S. city to have a bank to finance green initiatives, a move others could follow.) Mayors can also influence purchases for city government and give companies incentive to offer climate-friendly products and services.
One perhaps unexpected priority for Women4Climate is mentorship. The mayors, joined by senior women leaders in business and non-profits, will support and advise young women who are climate leaders in C40 cities. Mentees will include entrepreneurs focused on green and urban technology, climate activists, academics, city officials, and citizens with projects to engage their communities.
To be able to recognize and reward the most promising innovations, Women4Climate and C40 will also commission research to better understand the effects of climate change on women in cities. Current research already indicates that climate change harms women more than men. In developing countries, women are more likely to be at home if a disaster strikes and less likely to hear about evacuation or other emergency orders, or to be able to follow them while caring for children or seniors.
Caracas, Venezuela—represented by Women4Climate member Mayor Helen Fernandez—is one of those places. About 40 percent of households are led by single women. Many are poor. Given the economic and political crisis unfolding in Venezuela, with massive pro-democracy demonstrations against President Nicolás Maduro, the mayor—a Maduro opponent—has plenty else to worry about than climate. But even she feels she can’t set climate concerns aside forever.
“There is a saying,” she told Ms. in late March. “‘Do not let the urgent kill the important.'” Her priority is economic recovery, but Fernandez also believes Venezuela’s future “lies in the preservation of our main assets—our natural resources and our human capital.” Against a backdrop of critical food shortages in Venezuela, she’s looking for ways that nations can lower greenhouse gas emissions without compromising food production.
The notion of Paris and other cities taking the lead gives hope to some climate advocates. Still, skeptics might argue, doesn’t real action have to come from the federal level?
Maybe not. Cities can be powerful because they are where most people live—and they also produce up to 70 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, with vehicles as a top culprit. Vicki Arroyo, director of the Georgetown Climate Center, sees cities starting to pay closer attention to transit possibilities that entice people out of their cars. Local leaders are devising “street programs that provide for bicycle lanes, pedestrian walkways, and land use decisions that concentrate development along those kinds of corridors.”
Though some officials were relying on Obama’s Clean Power Plan as a stimulus to help reduce emissions, Trump’s executive order abandoning the plan “has really energized cities and states who were already leading,” Arroyo says. Other factors that may add to the momentum are a growing market for clean energy and the support of corporations, such as Exxon Mobil, for the U.S. to stay in the Paris Agreement.
You’d be excused for feeling that change can come mostly from accords negotiated by diplomats. But Bowser says that in her meetings with other mayors about climate, it’s clear what individual women in any city can do: run for office.
“What comes up in all of these conversations is how few women leaders there are around the table,” she says. “These aren’t just national issues the Congress and the President have to confront. If we want to continue to have an impact on climate change, we have to have people who care about it in mayors’ offices and state legislatures. We know that too few women hold those seats. Even among women leaders, we need to remind everybody that climate change and the impacts on the Earth are women’s issues, even more than is frequently discussed.”
Beyond launching political campaigns, women need to keep questioning leaders and stand up for the right to clean air and water, Hidalgo urges. “We must refuse to be silenced.”