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Kriseman talks cities’ role in climate change at Conference of World Affairs

Mark Parker

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Former Mayor Rick Kriseman at a farewell address in January. Kriseman leads a presentation on cities' role in climate change on Feb. 17 at the St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs. Photo by Mark Parker.

In 2019, Michael Bloomberg personally awarded St. Peterburg $2.5 million for its role in combating climate change; when former Mayor Rick Kriseman took office in 2014, city administration fought just to institute universal curbside recycling.

For eight years, Kriseman pushed for green initiatives he thought would increase St. Petersburg’s sustainability and decrease its carbon footprint – and with good reason. According to climatecentral.org, St. Pete ranks as the sixth-most vulnerable American city for coastal flooding, with sea-level rise putting 91,000 residents directly at risk.

As a state, Florida is home to 23 of the 25 cities most susceptible to climate change and sea-level rise. As a peninsula on a peninsula, St. Pete generally ranks behind the Miami metropolitan area as the most at-risk city in the most at-risk state. Under that harrowing backdrop, Kriseman will partake in a local and global discussion on climate change at the upcoming St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs (SPCWA). Held at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg’s Student Center, Kriseman’s presentation takes place on Thursday, Feb. 17, from 4 to 5 p.m.

“I’ve always felt it was really important for the city to be able to host events like that,” said Kriseman. “That spotlight not just the city but the issues that impact the city that are also taking place around the world.”

Kriseman’s discussion on climate change comes in the format of a fireside chat with Naheed Nenshi, the former mayor of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Moderating the presentation will be local author Peter Kageyama, whose books encompass civic pride and explore how a resident’s emotional investment in their city can promote progress.

SPCWA offers the chance to further showcase St. Pete to the world, something Kriseman said was a priority for him upon taking office over eight years ago. Kriseman felt honored to represent the Conference of Mayors at November’s U.N. Climate Change Conference, but he also recognized the importance of representing his city in an international forum.

“There’s the Mayor of St. Petersburg, and he’s on a world stage in Scotland,” said Kriseman. “That’s how we put ourselves on that stage and let people know we exist.”

Kriseman said there was a learning curve regarding environmental issues when he took office, both for him and the city. As a state representative, he held a seat on the environmental committee and the energy and utilities committee, but was not fully aware of specific challenges unique to St. Pete.

For starters, city officials had no idea how much Co2 St. Pete was emitting, an obvious impediment to gauging improvement.

“You know, it’s hard to start setting some goals and what you want to do when you don’t even know what you’re doing,” said Kriseman.

After conducting Co2 benchmarking studies, Kriseman said the focus became creating a roadmap for the city to reduce its carbon footprint and become 100% renewable. He said those studies uncovered a wealth of information on where the city stood environmentally, and exchanged speculation for hard data.

Kriseman credited the city government and the community’s commitment to the issue for moving St. Pete to the forefront of environmental responsibility.

“We didn’t have a director of sustainability and resilience when I was elected,” he said. “We weren’t doing anything related to universal curbside recycling. We were really behind in some ways, and I think we’ve worked really hard …

“ … I think that’s why we ended up having the success we had as being one of the cities picked by Bloomberg Philanthropies as an American Cities Climate Challenge Award recipient.”

Kageyama previously told the Catalyst he looked forward to discussing Kriseman’s initiative to ban plastic straws. While many derided the ban as silly or insignificant amid seemingly more pertinent problems, Kageyama believes it is a prime example of a perceivably small step that could lead to a big difference.

Kriseman said anytime you veer from the status quo there is bound to be some public pushback. He noted the Complete Streets program received similar opposition, particularly when the city reduced Martin Luther King Jr Boulevard to three lanes from four.

The program, designed to improve quality of life by making the city more walkable and bicycle-friendly, also reduced climate impacts by reducing the number of vehicles on the road, said Kriseman.

“From my perspective – just like the straw ban – what I was elected to do by the community was to do what I thought was best for our city, both short term and long term,” he explained. “Sometimes they may not always be popular, but they’re important to do, and I believe that’s what I was elected to do.”

Kriseman said he is optimistic that St. Petersburg and cities across the globe can successfully mitigate the effects of a changing climate. He added that it would make the mission much easier if all the world’s nations came together and united to solve the problem. That was the intention of the U.N. Climate Change Conference – but the ability of large governments to effectuate change is not the source of his optimism.

Kriseman’s optimism for addressing climate change stems from cities and mayors recognizing they have to do something regardless of their respective government’s stance on the issue. Kriseman noted that when the former presidential administration pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accord, over 400 American cities continued to abide by the international pact.

“They all said, ‘we don’t care if the federal government says we’re out, we’re in,’” Kriseman relayed. “We’re still in, and we’re still going to do what we need to do to make an impact.

“That’s why I have optimism – because I believe it’s on the local level. History has already shown us in the last several years that cities are stepping up all over the place to make changes and do the hard work that needs to happen to address climate change.”

For more information on the St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs, visit its website here.

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