WASHINGTON -– Last November, President Barack Obama formed a task force of state and local elected officials to advise his administration how local communities are dealing with climate change. Of the 26 members, just four are Republicans. One of them is James Brainard.
Brainard has been the mayor of Carmel, Indiana, since 1996. In his five terms, he's made emissions a priority -- along with generally trying to make his Indianapolis suburb a better place for its 84,000 residents.
Since the Environmental Protection Agency's announcement of new standards for carbon emissions from power plants on Monday, most Republicans quoted in the news have offered only criticism. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) called the rules "nuts."
But Brainard said the storyline on climate change is different in America's cities and towns. "People realize we've made a mess of our climate and our environment," he told the Huffington Post on Tuesday. "We need to clean it up. It's very simple."
Over the last 20 years, Carmel has emphasized making its downtown more walkable, which Brainard said has been done through public-private partnerships. "The more you sprawl out, the more driving you have, the worse your quality of life," he said. "By creating a walkable, pedestrian-friendly center, we get a lot of people out of cars and driving shorter distances."
The city has also led the way in installing traffic roundabouts, which cut down on automobile idling, reduce emissions, and decrease gasoline use while also preventing accidents. Carmel has converted its automobile fleet to hybrids and alternative fuels, and is looking at doing the same with its police cars. The city also has built 125 miles of bike trails.
The mayor is the co-chair of the Energy Independence and Climate Protection Task Force of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and was one of more than 1,000 mayors to commit to meeting the global agreement under the Kyoto Protocol that the U.S. government declined to sign.
Brainard talked to HuffPost about the EPA's new rules, the president's climate task force, and the future of environmental action in the Republican Party.
Since everyone's talking about the EPA rules, what do you think?
Well, it's certainly a way to lower carbon emissions. I think the president and his administration are looking for every way possible to make progress without having to go to Congress. And this is certainly one way they can do it.
I think the public health aspect of it is huge. Indiana relies mainly on coal. It's always provided a very stable, inexpensive source of electricity, but now that natural gas is available in large quantities, it would actually be a cost-savings. And lung diseases and heart disease caused by dirty air -- without even getting into the climate debate, that's very important.
It's starting to get to the point where the states that don't clean up the air are going to be at a great disadvantage for economic development. People have a choice where they put their business facilities, where they choose to work and spend their lives. And if they know they have a great chance of dying younger and their children having asthma and other lung diseases, they're not going to come to those states. We need to make those changes.
Indiana is a coal-heavy, Rust Belt state. Do you think people in Indiana will push back on the EPA rules, or will they see this as an opportunity?
Indiana is a very progressive state in many ways. I think that people there, as in most places, are going to want clean air.
What's it like to be one of the only Republicans on the president's climate task force?
I think it's important to remember -- there's so much partisanship right now on this issue, [but] Republicans have a tremendous history of environmentalism. It was Teddy Roosevelt who set aside millions of acres of park lands for a national park system. Remember Nixon? The EPA was formed during his presidency. The Migratory Bird Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act -- there was a whole host of bills that his administration promoted, that he signed, that went through Congress while he was president and Jerry Ford was president, which really put the entire environmental structure that we have today in place.
You even had Margaret Thatcher in the mid-'80s, with her science background at Oxford, saying that global warming was going to be one of the big issues in the next few decades. And she's not to be confused with a liberal most of the time. She also said we have to be careful about it being a good excuse to make government bigger, to be fair. But as a scientific issue, she certainly acknowledged it.
You know, if we didn't know who the Democrats and the Republicans were [on the task force], we wouldn’t from the meetings. Everyone is really focused on policy. How do we fix the mess we've made with as little impact to the economy? How do we do it in a way that will actually create jobs and not lose jobs? The Ds and Rs are all talking about the same thing. It's refreshing to say the least. That's because of the old saying -– there's no Democrat or Republican way to fill a pothole. Mayors and governors, to a certain extent, are used to working on a bipartisan basis every day, because they have to in their cities.
When you look at Washington and the political fights over climate here, is it totally disconnected from your experience as a mayor?
Totally different from my experience as a mayor! [In Washington] we have an industry of political consultants whose jobs -- and very well-paying jobs -- are dependent upon partisanship and keeping everybody mad at everybody. Not to mention the media that are in the same business. Compromise doesn't make good headlines on TV talk shows, and compromise doesn't make political headlines either during elections. We have a real problem in this country with that. But I don’t think we do at a local level. Cities are working in this country. I think that was a realization the president came to. [He wanted] to talk to the local leaders that are making a difference every day in terms of how much carbon is put out, how our environment is cleaned up, and decided to put the task force together.
Here in Washington, Republican leadership continues to say that climate change is not a problem, and therefore they never offer any alternative solutions. Do you think that's becoming a problem for the party, this reluctance to offer a conservative solution?
I hope that Republicans will recognize their tremendous history of environmental activism, and to be quite honest, leadership, up until the current debate. We do have this history. I think it's important to point out to some of these folks that the root of the word conservative is "conserve." We need to conserve our resources. We need to conserve the earth. We need to clean up the mess that we've made. Who doesn’t want to breathe clean air? Who wants to see radical weather changes?
How would you evaluate President Obama's work on climate change so far?
Certainly I think his administration is trying to make some changes. I wish some of the announcements we've seen lately had come sooner. But I think we're making progress, and it's good to see.