In the Sunbelt, Young Climate Activists Push Cities to Cut Emissions, Whether Their Mayors Listen or Not

Nashville and Jacksonville, economic peers and competitors, offer a climate tale of two cities. Nashville has a plan; Jacksonville, not so much.

A man kneels on the top step of his porch as he looks out over the flooded streets of the San Marco historic district of Jacksonville, Florida, on September 11, 2017, after storm surge from Hurricane Irma left the area flooded. Credit: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

A man kneels on the top step of his porch as he looks out over the flooded streets of the San Marco historic district of Jacksonville, Florida, on September 11, 2017, after storm surge from Hurricane Irma left the area flooded. Credit: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

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This story is a collaboration with ADAPT, a product of WJCT Public Media in Jacksonville, Fla. WJCT is a member of ICN’s National Reporting Network-Southeast.

On the day Nashville Mayor John Cooper took office in September 2019, young climate activists with the Sunrise Movement staged a sit-in in his office lobby, demanding Tennessee’s largest city take action on climate change.

Cooper, a Democrat, agreed with the activists, and two years later, the city had a new sustainability and climate action plan, including a pledge to cut citywide carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050.

The same month the climate activists protested in Nashville, a large youth-led crowd descended on Jacksonville, Florida’s City Hall to call for climate action. But Mayor Lenny Curry, a Republican, didn’t make an appearance at the event or speak with the organizers.

Compared with Nashville—a city the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce considers an economic peer and competitor—Jacksonville is doing relatively little to reduce its carbon footprint and does not have a climate action plan, although many believe the city is starting to move in the right direction and should look to examples like Nashville for the way forward. 

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In Nashville, Cooper’s climate focus aligns with the concerns of college-educated young adults, who, polling shows, are the most concerned about climate change, including an increasing number of young conservatives. 

Mary Beth Ikard, Nashville’s director of sustainability and resilience said Cooper’s agenda has been driven by “a sense of urgency about global climate change and the role that cities can play in driving down greenhouse gas emissions.” He is among more than 470 U.S. mayors in the Climate Mayors network, a group committed to the Paris Agreement, which seeks to curb the most life-threatening impacts of global warming by reducing heat-trapping gases. The mayors’ tactics include tree planting, solar-powered government buildings, electric school buses and using increasing amounts of renewable energy to power their communities.

In the past couple of years, Nashville has strengthened green building standards for city-owned buildings and established a goal of powering them with 100 percent renewable energy by 2041. It has also moved toward a fleet of zero-emission municipal vehicles and updated energy codes designed to reduce energy use by 30 percent.

“These things create green jobs,” Nashville City Councilman Freddie O’Connell said. When  Nashville’s local government reaches the point where it builds its first net-zero building, he said. “When suddenly we are not paying utility bills. This pays out in so many ways, not the least of which is health and climate.”

Nashville has also entered into an agreement with its wholesale power provider, the Tennessee Valley Authority, for the city to get 100 megawatts of local solar power. It’s a commitment that Ikard said will cost the city about $200,000 a year starting in 2023 and that will get it one third of the way toward its 20-year goal. 

Nashville has its own public utility. But it gets all its power from the federally owned TVA. Largely because of extensive nuclear and hydropower capacity, about 60 percent of TVA’s electricity is carbon free.

But while Nashville’s carbon-free energy mix is relatively high, a study commissioned last fall by a group of Nashville academics and business people warned that the city’s economy could take a hit unless the TVA moves even more quickly to adopt renewables. A growing number of companies are adopting their own clean energy commitments, the study points out, and cities that cannot meet them could become less attractive.

“We’ve only seen companies getting more outspoken about how they factor in sustainability to their economic development plans, year over year,” said James Hewett, a co-author of the Nashville report and vice president at the pro-clean energy consulting firm David Gardiner and Associates. 

For example, Microsoft ranked sustainability as the No. 2 factor when it decided to expand into Atlanta this year. Sustainability is also one of Amazon’s top priorities in developing its Arlington, Virginia, headquarters.

And there could be pressure on Nashville and other cities from D.C. too. Michael Vandenbergh, a Vanderbilt University law professor and environmental law scholar who was among the Nashville leaders to commission the economics study, said the federal government has signaled that under President Joe Biden, it will be pursuing decarbonization policies. 

“So cities and companies are at risk if they have higher carbon emissions than competitors, as policies favor lower emissions,” Vandenbergh said. 

When the study was released last fall, it got some pushback from the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce. For businesses looking to set up shop in Nashville, environmental sustainability is generally not a high priority, said Chamber President Ralph Schulz during an Urban Land Institute forum. Still, he described the report as “useful” because it will “help us take a longer view than we would typically take.”

Economic Transformation

Responses to climate change tend to fall into two categories: resilience and mitigation. 

Resilience strategies help people stay cool when the temperature rises, dry when Jacksonville’s St. Johns River floods and recover faster after hurricanes. Mitigation is about slowing climate change to avoid the worst impacts. That means reducing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, often by switching to electric vehicles and producing energy from solar or wind instead of coal or gas. To mitigate climate change, advocates are arguing for a fundamental transformation to a clean energy economy.

So far, Jacksonville has primarily been focused on resilience—adapting to rising seas by buying out some homes in floodplains, for one.

But unless the city also takes significant mitigation action, it could face an economic spiral: Jacksonville could fail to attract up-and-coming businesses at the same time that existing residents and businesses flee to escape the river’s increasingly frequent floods and the region’s increasingly hot summers. Eventually, the city would be left with a shrinking tax base to pay for the actions that are needed to deal with the causes and increasingly dire effects of a warming climate.

A lack of climate goals doesn’t appear to be stopping businesses or young professionals from coming to Jacksonville, at least not yet. This month, Dun & Bradstreet, a Fortune 500 company, announced that it would be moving its corporate headquarters to the River City. Last month, Zillow and Yelp named Jacksonville the top city for “digital nomads”—people who work remotely and are free to travel and live where they please.

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Still, there are concerns among the climate-conscious in Jacksonville’s business community.

“I think a lot of the business community, especially the young professionals, they’re looking for cities that have climate action goals,” said Christina Kelcourse, executive director of the North Florida Green Chamber of Commerce. “They’re looking for cities that have sustainable practices.”

In the absence of leadership from the city, some local businesses are taking matters into their own hands. Baptist Health, Jacksonville’s largest employer, with more than 10,000 people on staff, has formed a group of facility directors and engineers that tracks energy consumption and looks for ways to use less. 

Florida Blue, another of the city’s largest employers, has reduced energy usage at its Jacksonville campus by about 30 percent over the past decade, and plans to announce details of a partnership with JEA, Jacksonville’s public utility, that will allow the company to reduce its carbon footprint by about 40 percent enterprise-wide.

Jacksonville’s Climate Future

Mayor Lenny Curry, who is not among Florida’s roughly three dozen Climate Mayors, deferred to JEA when asked for an interview for this story. 

For its part, JEA has begun to reduce its reliance on coal and oil, recently decommissioning two coal power plants (which, according to JEA, cut the utility’s carbon emissions in half). And although last year JEA got just 1 percent of its energy from renewable sources like solar, its goal is to make up to 30 percent of the energy it provides carbon neutral by the end of this decade. 

“What signal it will send is that we are very conscious of this and we are dedicating our resources and efforts to moving forward in that area,” said Wayne Young, vice president of environmental services at JEA. 

But to make up for the loss of coal and oil, the utility is relying heavily on another fossil fuel—natural gas—which accounted for 63 percent of JEA’s energy production last year.

While natural gas produces about half the carbon dioxide of coal when burned, its main ingredient, methane, is considered a climate “super pollutant.” Methane is 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide at warming the atmosphere over a 20-year period, and it frequently leaks from drilling sites and pipelines. Unlike carbon dioxide, which stays in the atmosphere for centuries, methane breaks down quickly and most is gone after a decade, so methane reductions can rapidly reduce the rate of global warming in the near-term, according to a new United Nations report that recommends urgent action.

JEA’s 30 percent carbon-neutral goal by the year 2030 earned it an F grade for climate goals in a recent report from the Sierra Club.

But JEA says it’s on track to increase solar power generation by 250 megawatts over the next decade, bringing up the utility’s share of renewable energy from 1 percent to 6 percent. Once the nuclear Plant Vogtle goes online, it will give the utility access to another 200 megawatts of low-carbon energy. Still, even with these additions to its energy mix, JEA will be nowhere near meeting President Joe Biden’s plan for a carbon-free power sector by 2035

Stil, Young said JEA’s new “integrated resource plan,” which will outline where electric power will come from in the future, includes consideration of a net-zero emissions goal. He expects the JEA board of directors to approve the plan by the end of the year.

While it’s clear that Jacksonville is behind the curve,  there has been a momentum shift, with the release of a Resiliency Committee’s final report and the upcoming hiring of the city’s first chief resilience officer. 

One advantage of being near the back of the pack, according to Sarah Boren, Florida director of the U.S. Green Building Council, is that Jacksonville can learn from the successes and failures of others—like Nashville.

“The good news is that there’s a lot of cities and very smart people who have done the work ahead of us. So it’s not like we have to recreate the wheel,” she said.