In the weeks leading up to President Donald Trump’s announcement that he was going to pull the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement, he was met by severe opposition from American mayors who publicly announced on that same day that they will honor the accord at the local level, making themselves de facto signatories to an international treaty.
Since June 1, more than 350 mayors across the US have signed up to be a part of the Climate Mayors coalition to uphold the Paris Climate Agreement, saying in a statement that “…if the President wants to break the promises made to our allies enshrined in the historic Paris Agreement, we’ll build and strengthen relationships around the world to protect the planet from devastating climate risks.”
Among those was Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who has been speaking out on the matter since winning re-election in April.
While Pasadena is no stranger to adopting its own policies in the face of US noncooperation with international treaties, not on the list is Pasadena Mayor Terry Tornek.
“I get stuff every week, literally, I get a letter or petition or something on some laudable national policy…,” Tornek said in a phone interview. “I can literally spend full time on that stuff, but that’s not what local officials are elected to do, I don’t think. It’s sort of misinterpreted as not being supportive of environmentally important issues.”
At a City Council meeting in June, according to the news website Pasadena Now, Tornek announced his position on the matter, saying, “It’s difficult for us to engage in long discussions on national policy, because there would be no end to it. … I think the time and effort that the city spends on the Zero Waste Project, and other things, speaks for itself.”
Pasadena has a reputation of being a “green city,” with initiatives like the Zero Waste Plan, a framework that aims to divert waste from landfills and reduce it at the source through product redesign and the elimination of wasteful practices, among other things, according to the strategic plan. In 2010, Pasadena exceeded the state of California’s 50 percent diversion goal by 23 percent. Not to mention that Pasadena is home to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Caltech, the latter of which opened the Resnick Sustainability Institute in 2012 to create technology that could help solve global energy and climate challenges.
With all this and more under Pasadena’s belt, Tornek’s stance may have come as a surprise.
“My position hasn’t changed,” Tornek said in the same phone interview. “Pasadena has a long-standing practice and well-defined goals in every area of environmental policy, whether it’s green energy or solid wastes or Complete Streets. I mean very specific, quantifiable goals…I think that is way more important and way more pertinent than to begin to engage in sort of joining hands in support of international protocol that we were never signatories to. It seems like misplaced attention.”
The Climate Mayors statement contained an outline of how they planned to keep the agreement, which included increasing investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency, buying and creating a higher demand for electric cars and trucks, increasing efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions and taking stands on environmental justice.
“I don’t condemn the mayors for wanting to speak out on this, but I really don’t want to take a position on a national treaty,” Tornek said. “I mean [the contents of the Climate Mayors’ statement are] such a superficial enterprise with no real measurable output that it’s really just intended as a slap to the president for withdrawing from well-founded environmental policies.”
Former Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard seems to feel a bit differently.
“I know Pasadena will continue to pursue its sustainability program,” Bogaard said in a phone interview, “and I think that should be talked about so that the public understands that there is a local commitment to addressing climate change along with the other cities and states in the United States.”
His statement is not out of character for him. In 2006 Bogaard signed a proclamation endorsing the United Nations Urban Environmental Accords and the Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement, which concluded with Bogaard urging mayors from around the nation to do the same.
According to the city of Pasadena website, the US Conference of Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement wanted American cities to commit to reducing global warming pollution levels to 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012 in conjunction with the Kyoto Protocol. While the focus was directed toward reducing climate change, the goals of the agreement were compatible with the Urban Environmental Accords.
However, he added, “I think Mayor Tornek is committed to Pasadena’s Green City Action Plan and is prepared to continue to support that as we go forward.”
Approved in 1992, the Kyoto Protocol was the first time nations agreed to enforce reductions of greenhouse gas emissions, and it recognized that human activity contributed to climate change. The protocol was also legally binding. It was finalized in 1997 in Kyoto, Japan, and went into effect in 2005. The treaty was ratified by 140 countries, excluding the United States.
“I remember back on the City Council,” California Assemblyman and former Pasadena Mayor Chris Holden said, “we were looking at policies that were being talked about at that time — the Kyoto Agreement, I think at that point we were pulling out of that — but there was a recognition in Pasadena that we needed to make sure that we started a process looking at renewable types of energy. So we started doing things in the ’90s and early 2000s that were recognizing that we had to step up our effort, and it’s only grown exponentially since then.”
Holden represents Assembly District 41, which includes Pasadena, and serves on the Assembly’s Utility and Energy Committee.
“I continue to support initiatives that are setting a high standard, not only for California in clearing the air and addressing climate change, but setting high standards for the entire world,” he said.
The Paris Climate Agreement, which was adopted by 195 countries by consensus in 2015 to address climate change and went into effect last November during Obama’s presidency, set a goal to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. It is a nonbinding agreement that allowed each country to set its own milestones and doesn’t have any penalties if a country fails to meet them; they just have to explain why their milestones were not met.
Tornek said Pasadena is so far ahead of what the Climate Mayors group is proposing that he feels it would be a step backward for the city to endorse the coalition. He added that California legislation mandates go beyond what is contemplated in the Paris Climate Agreement.
“People kind of inflate the significance of these national policies because they’re pissed off at the president and what he is doing. I just don’t want to join in on that discussion,” he said.
Former Pasadena Mayor Bill Paparian feels similarly to Tornek in that the city should not get involved in international treaties.
“I think matters of international relations, these kinds of issues, are best left to be resolved at the national level and I don’t think we should be delving into these kinds of things at the local level,” Paparian said in a phone interview. “If I was mayor right now, I wouldn’t be part of trying to take a contrary position to what the president did with the Paris Climate Accord. I think we have taken a leadership role with regards to environmental issues.”
Despite Holden’s stance, he also agrees that actions speak louder than words and said the key is whether Pasadena is continuing to be innovative in the policies that its officials implement.
“I think that’s how they have to be evaluated,” Holden said. “Not so much whether or not they go beyond that and take what could conceivably be more symbolic positions, although they could be very valuable symbolic positions. As long as they’re doing the right thing within their power, their jurisdiction, to stay moving in the right direction in terms of looking at growing their portfolio of clean energy sources, I think that’s what is most important.”