Pope Francis, speaking in an incredible 500-year-old building at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in Vatican City this summer, told me and 60 other mayors that addressing climate change is a moral imperative for humanity.

That was a moving experience for city leaders. When the network of C40 cities gathered for a summit in Johannesburg early last year, I felt like we were banging at the door, trying to be heard. I’m sure many of my colleagues felt the same. This time, the Vatican deliberately focused on us, on mayors, to mobilize grassroots action.

The next week, after the protest in Portland against Shell drilling in the Arctic, I had a phone call with a young Portland “kayaktivist.” She articulately expressed the fear for her generation’s future if our generation doesn’t act on climate change. The reality is, while climate change could be even more catastrophic, it’s not too late to do something about it. If we’re aggressive about carbon reduction, we can, city by city, make a difference.

Dedicated activists like Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, have driven the climate movement, rallying people in our cities around climate-focused campaigns. C40 Cities has organized mayors around this common purpose. So how does that look in practice?

I view government’s role, my role, as ensuring climate action isn’t just about being green, but also about being equitable. Improving access to the tools our cities use to fight climate change will have a twofold benefit: reducing carbon emissions and building more equitable cities.

Shortly after my trip to the Vatican, I was invited by the White House to President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan announcement. Like the pope, President Obama was clear that climate action is a moral issue: “If you care about low-income, minority communities,” he said, “start protecting the air they breathe.” Both leaders made the connection: It’s about both planet and people.

World leaders have done us a favor, capturing popular attention and making climate change both a moral and political issue. Portland, like manyC40 cities, has used that momentum to pass a divestment policy; green bonds resolution; energy performance benchmarking for large commercial buildings; and soon a fossil fuel export policy. Our Climate Action Plan, recently updated, outlines other new, ambitious goals that emphasize access to resources and advancing equity through climate action. These actions have a real impact: In the 22 years since the plan was first adopted, Portland has reduced carbon emissions 13 percent from 1990 levels, even as population grew 26 percent and jobs 12 percent. 

As part of the C40 Chat Series, Portland, Oregon Mayor Charlie Hales was invited to present on his city's progress with divestment from Fossil Fuels. Above, Mayor Hales presents remotely to members of the C40 community on why his city is a leader in this space.

The climate action taken by Portland and other global cities matter. Recent research by C40 shows that urban policy decisions before 2020 could determine up to a third of the remaining global carbon budget that is not already “locked-in” by past decisions.

As the world faces the reality of climate change, C40 cities must keep that momentum going. Innovation and change happens at the local level; if enough cities do the right thing, we’ll have a global impact. But we can’t just be green; we must be green and equitable at the same time — acting for the planet, andour people.


Mayor Hales speaks on Portland's divestment strategy during a recent C40 Chat Series, also featuring Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, and a presentation by Tom Van Dyck, Managing Director of the SRI Wealth Management Group at RBC.

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