Mayors of American cities are overwhelmingly concerned about climate change and how it will affect their city, but they are much more divided on whether to restrict the use of fossil fuels in home appliances and lawn tools such as gas stoves and leaf blowers, according to a survey of mayors conducted by the Boston University Initiative on Cities that was released last week.
“Mayors in general are enthusiastic about taking local climate action, but ... even this enthusiastic group is much more eager (and likely) to do things that come with fewer hard tradeoffs, minimally disrupt the status quo, and/or impose fewer restrictions on their residents,” David Glick, a co-author of the survey and an associate professor of political science at Boston University, told Yahoo News in an email.
A team of researchers conducted interviews with 118 mayors from 38 states during the summer of 2022. They say the mayors were a “representative sample” of mayors and cities larger than 75,000 residents — of which there are 501 in the United States — in characteristics including size, racial and ethnic diversity, regional distribution and housing prices.
The mayors are almost unanimous in their acceptance of the science of climate change: 90% of respondents said the increasing average global temperature is mostly “due to the effects of pollution from human activities,” while just 10% said it is mostly caused by “natural changes in the environment.”
Some mayors who are elected in nonpartisan elections have unknown party affiliation, but of those with known party affiliation who participated in the survey, 75 are Democrats and 17 are Republicans. Of the Democrats, 95% attributed climate change to human activity, as did 71% of the Republicans.
But when it comes to using the powers of their office to reduce the pollution causing global warming, more divisions emerge. Of the eight ways of reducing emissions offered by the survey, the four that involved actually limiting consumer choices performed notably worse than the four that didn’t.
Replacing municipal vehicles with more fuel-efficient versions was the most popular choice, strongly supported by 74% of respondents, and “somewhat” supported by 22%, with only 4% opposed. Large majorities also at least somewhat supported using their city’s funds to subsidize private home energy upgrades, requiring that new construction be designed to accommodate solar panels, and “community choice aggregation” — essentially directing local energy purchasing power toward cleaner sources. Even the least popular of those options — using their city’s funds to subsidize private home energy upgrades — was supported somewhat or strongly by 71% of mayors.
The other four choices were less well-liked. Most mayors, 60%, do not want to touch the hot button of restricting gas stoves in private homes, while 27% support it somewhat and just 10% support it strongly. Some cities, such as Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York City, have banned gas hookups in new buildings, but none have so far banned the sale of gas stoves to residents of existing buildings. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul has proposed banning the sale of gas appliances for residential use in 2030, and a commissioner on the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recently floated the possibility of a federal ban on new gas stove sales, but he was quickly overruled by the commission's chairman and the White House, which said no such policy is under consideration after the idea drew strong condemnation from some congressional Republicans. Instead, the CPSC is expected to propose regulations that would limit the indoor air pollution from gas stoves, such as venting requirements.
Another idea that polled poorly was making driving more expensive through fees for street parking or for driving in congested areas. Such schemes, sometimes called congestion pricing, have been adopted in a few European cities, and New York state is in the midst of finalizing a plan for congestion pricing in New York City. By discouraging driving, congestion pricing can reduce carbon emissions, conventional air pollution and traffic. Only one-fifth of mayors strongly support charging for road use or parking, while 26% somewhat support it and 53% are opposed.
Two other approaches to limiting climate pollution that are being explored by some state and local governments were more popular, though still notably less than the voluntary measures and subsidies for homeowners to improve energy efficiency. Pluralities oppose restrictions on gas-powered lawn tools such as leaf blowers (45%) and restrictions on gas or oil heat in new construction (44%), with most of the remainder only somewhat supportive.
Mayors also were asked which of their policy tools are the most effective at combating climate change and, ironically, they readily conceded that the most effective tools are those they are the least eager to use. Fifty-five percent of respondents said their influence over building codes — which includes the ability to ban gas hookups in new construction — is their most powerful tool, whereas only 11% said their ability to subsidize certain behaviors (like making home energy efficiency upgrades) and just 9% chose using the city’s buying power (like switching the city’s auto fleet to more efficient vehicles).
The main reason seems to be the challenging politics of restricting or discouraging individual choices rather than merely encouraging greener options. One mayor said they “like carrots more than sticks.” Another mayor said they “wanted to ban leaf blowers” but “did not have the support,” and a third predicted restrictions on gas and oil would “go over like a lead bullet” and they “would be hung” if they tried to eliminate gas-powered lawn tools.
“They believe, as a group, that the things they are most supportive of doing may not be the ones that use their most powerful policy tools,” Glick concluded.
“While mayors recognize the potential impact of regulatory powers such as building codes, they are much more supportive of other types of local climate actions,” the team of researchers who conducted the survey wrote in their report on the findings. “Specifically, they are especially supportive of purchasing or encouraging new technologies. In contrast, they are significantly more reticent to restrict resident behaviors, or the use of older technology, via their regulatory powers.”
When it comes to why they support taking climate action, mayors overwhelmingly cited their desire to do their part in dealing with the global problem, with the next most popular reasons being reducing local air pollution, followed by saving money on energy in the long run and boosting economic competitiveness. Although a lower proportion of Republican mayors than Democratic mayors support action to address climate change, among those who do, their reasons did not differ significantly.
The effects of climate change that most worried mayors varied by region. In the West, the top concern was drought, feared by 80%, followed by wildfires at 78% and air pollution at 71%. In the Northeast, the top risk cited was extreme heat (79%), then air pollution and flooding (both 71%). In the Midwest, mayors worried most about flooding (76%), extreme heat (62%), and air pollution (48%). In the South, flooding is feared by 68%, followed by drought (54%) and extreme heat (49%).