Since President Trump announced the U.S. would exit the Paris Climate Agreement back in June, redoubled support for the agreement has come from the local level, with mayors from around the nation pledging their cities' support for the Agreement. Here in South Carolina, where nearly 55 percent of voters opted for Trump in 2016, four prominent mayors of diverse political leanings pledged to fulfill the terms of the Paris Agreement as part of the Climate Mayors Caucus, which is composed of some 380-plus American mayors. The mayors of Charleston, Greenville, Columbia and Anderson compose their ranks.
Mayor Steve Benjamin of Columbia has in many ways led the charge on climate initiatives, both in South Carolina and nationally, as the Vice-President of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
"We've had a tagline as we’ve marketed ourselves over the past few years of being famously hot, and the reality is we are famously hot," said Benjamin, with a laugh.
Heat isn’t the only climate-related issue facing Columbia. In October 2015, severe flooding overwhelmed Columbia and the larger Midlands region, damaging and destroying thousands of homes and businesses. This experience is certainly a point of motivation for Benjamin, who spoke about the flood when he addressed the annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors over the summer.
Now, Benjamin wants his city to be leader in the effort to ward off climate change. He has some concrete plans for achieving that, including increasing Columbia’s use of solar panels, providing rain barrels to residents and creating a new "green" wastewater treatment facility. He hopes these efforts will help Columbia become exclusively reliant on renewable energy by the year 2036, an additional commitment Benjamin has made as part of the Sierra Club's Ready for 100 Campaign.
"We’re trying to lead by example, but we’ve got a whole lot more to do," Benjamin said. "There’s so much more. Again, I think we can serve as a model for other cities, particularly other cities in the American South, to show that we can not only make progressive improvements, but smart improvements that can help lead our peer cities across the country."
Like Benjamin, Mayor John Tecklenburg of Charleston has been influenced by seemingly annual natural disasters that have flooded the South Carolina coast—Joaquin in 2015, Matthew in 2016 and a narrow brush with Irma this year. However, Tecklenburg is most concerned with the flooding that’s increasingly happening separately from these storms.
"We’ve seen Charleston Harbor rise over a foot in the last century. In the last 10 years the rate of increase has quadrupled," Tecklenburg said. "The number of high tides that we call 'nuisance flooding,' when I was a kid only happened a couple times a year, and year before last happened 36 times. Last year it was 50 times. You see a little trend there? We’re seeing direct impact of global climate change, in addition to those severe weather impacts that happened over the past three years, so we’ve got no choice but to face reality and try to do everything that we can to make this a sustainable planet."
The Upstate of South Carolina hasn’t weathered the same severity of flooding as the Midlands and Lowcountry in recent years, but hurricanes are still on the mind of Terence Roberts, Mayor of the City of Anderson. He remembers well the devastation of Hurricane Hugo in 1989, and worries that his region will suffer more severe impacts in the future if something isn’t done to curb climate change now.
"That’s what I’m afraid of, is that globally these things start producing more hazards to our community, they become more frequent, and it’s real. I mean, this isn't something somebody's making up," he said.
Roberts also said he feels mayors, as local leaders, are uniquely equipped to fulfill the pledges they’ve made.
"You know there are mayors in our cities, in our cities and towns, that don’t see the politics of what we're talking about. We are a conservative state; I live in a very conservative area, but you know the whole thing that politics is local, and as far as I know I’ve never seen somebody describe a pothole as being Republican or Democrat. They just want it fixed," he said.
Tecklenburg likewise noted that local leaders had an ability to see past the politics of these issues. To him, there's no reason a conservative state shouldn't also be a renewable one.
"It makes me think about the word conservative and where it's derived from, which is 'to conserve.' And what we mayors want to do is to conserve and protect this special place that we call home, and honestly we believe that means thinking about our future and what is happening in the world with sea level rise and severe weather events," he said.
Several months have now passed since Trump’s announcement about the Paris Climate Agreement, and the U.S. has yet to officially pull out, but Mayor Benjamin said he’s determined not to let his city’s efforts to move towards renewable energy flag. He also had something to say to those who might be cynical about his city’s renewable energy objectives.
"We can all do something," he said, "and I'd encourage everyone who might be cynical to make sure that we’re starting with the man or the woman in the mirror and make sure we’re doing our own part first."