Although St. Petersburg and Calgary, Alberta, Canada are nearly 2,800 miles apart, the former mayors of the two cities faced many of the same barriers when confronting climate change: namely, program funding and resistance from state and federal governments.
The final presentation at Thursday’s St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs was something of a star-studded event. The discussion was titled Cities Confront Climate Change and featured former mayor Rick Kriseman, who spent eight years leading St. Pete. Joining Kriseman onstage, albeit virtually, was the former Mayor of Calgary, Naheed Nenshi.
Rounding out the panel was accomplished author and St. Pete resident Peter Kageyama, whose books encompass civic pride and explore how a resident’s emotional investment in their city can promote progress. Kageyama moderated the discussion between the two former mayors, and the group’s passion for the topic – and chemistry – was palpable. Kageyama announced over 700 international viewers streamed the presentation, the most through the first three days of the conference.
Kageyama began the discussion by asking both men what it was like to convince large groups of people with varying mindsets to join the fight against climate change.
“I would say up until about 2015 or so, the environment was one of those winning arguments,” said Nenshi. “Left to right, liberal or conservative, people understood the need to preserve the land, air and water going forward.”
Nenshi said that mindset changed dramatically over the last five or six years. Calgary’s economy is dependent on the oil and gas industry and has allowed the city of 1.4 million people to prosper. However, Nenshi said, the energy sector is not to blame for the increasingly divisive issue of combatting climate change.
Nenshi explained that factions in the provincial (state) and federal governments realized attacking climate change is sometimes a winning strategy when securing a specific base. He said the vast majority of people believe in the reality and danger of a changing climate, but they are also getting nervous. Residents are worried about maintaining the quality of life the energy sector has provided them and their families.
“What’s interesting in relation to the oil and gas sector – I think in Canada, certainly, but also a little bit in the U.S. – is that the industry is actually far ahead of politicians that claim to speak for that industry,” said Nenshi.
“Every oil and gas company in Canada … has actually declared a commitment to go net-zero (carbon emissions) by 2050.”
Nenshi stressed that if the issue’s champions want to ensure the world’s population has access to safe, reliable and clean energy, the best place to start is with leaders in the energy sector. He said the industry features the people with the most knowledge on the issue, and they are actively working to solve the problem.
Kriseman said St. Pete has no choice but to unite on climate change because the entire city lives through its effects every day. He pointed out flooding events occur without major storms, with several occurring annually in Shore Acres. Kriseman then pointed to a study that stated those flooding events would increase tenfold over the next 50 years.
“So, we can’t sit back and wait,” he said. “We have to take action.”
When asked to specifically name the greatest hurdle cities face when addressing climate change, Nenshi said a mayor’s answer to that question – on any subject – is always the provincial and federal government. He said constituents usually focus on their daily lives and not on larger policy matters. If it seems logical and practical, he said they tend to agree.
Nenshi described a massive flood Calgary endured in June of 2020. He said what was once a one-in-100-year event is now a once every 40 or 50-year occurrence. While there are tools to mitigate these disasters, he said, the government is reluctant to spend the money on something that may not prove its worth for decades.
“Governments don’t prioritize the stuff because it’s not immediately valuable to them,” said Nenshi. “And we’ve got to change that as climate change makes the stuff more severe and more frequent.”
Kriseman concurred and took advantage of the opportunity to air his grievances with the state legislature.
“For God’s sake, we’re the Sunshine State,” he said. “But yet, look what’s happening in the legislature right now. There’s an effort to impact solar, and whether you’re going to get paid back and how much you get paid back.”
Kriseman said his administration seized every opportunity to partner with Duke Energy, and the energy conglomerate provided the myriad of solar panels covering structures at the Pier. While Kriseman appreciates and is proud of Duke’s efforts to help residents and encourage energy efficiency, he noted the company still derives its profits from energy usage.
He would like to see “decoupling” as part of state policy. Decoupling is a regulatory mechanism that eliminates the relationship between a utilities revenues and energy consumption.
Kriseman also mentioned preemptive legislation that restricts the city’s implementation of electric vehicle policy. He said the city wanted to mandate EV infrastructure on new multifamily and office developments and said it is difficult to convince people to buy EVs without enough charging stations.
On the topic of transportation, Nenshi said public transit is not only an environmental investment but an investment in social mobility and low-income residents. His administration instituted an income-based transit pass, allowing the poorest residents unlimited rides for $5 a month.
Nenshi said usage was four or five times what the city projected.
“That’s not because the economy got bad, and it’s not because of Covid,” he said. “It’s because there was an enormous portion of our population that was completely invisible.
“People living in extreme poverty that were so isolated we didn’t even know how to reach them, and when we were able to do this, it fundamentally changed their lives.”
Kriseman said that in his travels around the country and world, people often asked him why cities should care so much about climate change in the face of opposition by state and federal governments. He answered that you have to start somewhere.
He said banning plastic straws was initially derided but now goes without mention. He said the ban was one small thing but a move in the right direction and led to residents asking what else they could do to address environmental concerns.
“If you don’t do that one small thing, you’re not going to get to the second and then the third thing,” said Kriseman. “It’s just the little things that add up, and the more of those you do, suddenly they’re not little anymore.”