Environment
6:01 pm
Sun February 9, 2014

Kansas Mayor Says Sustainability Is About Community, Not Politics

Originally published on Mon February 10, 2014 1:36 pm

In Washington, the debate over what to do about climate change is split largely down party lines. But it hasn't always been that way.

Republican Sen. John McCain campaigned on the issue in his presidential runs. "Climate change is real," he said in 2007. "The Earth is warming, and it is the result of greenhouse gas emissions."

Climate change was on the country's mind that spring in part because deadly storms were ripping through the Midwest. The worst tornado came on the night of May 4, 2007, and struck Greensburg, Kan. It was the most intense tornado during a season that was the worst in 50 years.

The event caused one resident to run for office and turn the city green. His approach differs from that of some fellow Republicans; in fact, he's working with the White House on a climate change task force.

Facing Disaster

Bob Dixson vividly remembers the night the tornado hit Greensburg.

"We lost everything, my wife and I, as did everyone in town," Dixson tells NPR's Arun Rath. "Our home was sucked off the top of the foundation. ... We were in the basement and it took everything. What we had left was the clothes we had on our back."

In total, 11 people died and 95 percent of the town was destroyed. In the aftermath of the storm, some people said the town itself was one of the casualties.

Dixson didn't think so. Instead of despairing, he ran for mayor and promised to rebuild the town. He planned to attack climate change head-on and make Greensburg a safe, sustainable city.

Dixson, a Republican, won the mayoral election in a landslide. Now halfway through his second term, Dixson has delivered: Greensburg has a new hospital and a new school built using sustainable architecture. There are wind turbines and solar panels all over town. He says he had to get past the idea that being "green" was a liberal principle.

"When we drilled down closer to it ... we realized our heritage and ancestors were based on those sustainable, green principles," he says. "If you take care of the land, it will take care of you."

Dixson says the hardships Greensburg experienced helped the community band together and overcome the partisan divide on the issue. But, he says, without a strong community, all of that sustainability doesn't matter.

As far as being at odds with some other Republicans, Dixson says these decisions should be about the constituents.

"We perceive certain things when we hear 'Republican' or 'Democrat' — preconceived ideas of what Republicans or Democrats think on issues — when in fact, it should come down to what do we as citizens think on these issues," he says. "It's about us as a society surviving and the ability to endure, and that's what true sustainability is."

The Fight In Congress

President Obama has made it clear that he intends to set strict limits on power plant emissions through the Environmental Protection Agency. Republicans in Congress have made it clear that they want to find a way to stop that.

The EPA, however, is working under the Clean Air Act and therefore doesn't need Congress to authorize those new rules, according to NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley.

"But the critics in Congress will try to challenge that," Horsley says. "More importantly, the EPA authority is being challenged in the Supreme Court." The court is set to hear arguments later this month.

One of the legislators leading the fight against regulating power plants is Rep. Ed Whitfield, a Republican from Kentucky. He says climate change shouldn't give the government a pass to hit power companies with overly strict regulations.

"We have legislation that's been reported out of the Energy and Commerce Committee that basically says to EPA, 'When you set the emissions standards, you have to set a standard that has been adequately demonstrated in the marketplace,' " Whitfield tells NPR.

Whitfield's proposal would prevent the EPA from setting drastically lower emissions standards for coal-fired power plants. He says the president's plan to limit carbon emissions is rash and will hurt the economy.

"He is moving quickly to transform the way electricity can be produced in America at a time when we do not have enough renewable power to come close to meeting the requirements," he says.

Seeding Change

In addition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the president's plan includes being better prepared for disasters like floods, drought, wildfires and the spread of invasive species.

That part of the plan is already moving forward, with support from Congress. Wednesday, the White House rolled out its blueprint for so-called climate hubs.

"These will be national research centers that will focus on helping farmers and ranchers in rural communities to cope with climate change," NPR's Horsley says.

Dixson, Greensburg's mayor, is one of the local leaders on the president's task force for climate preparedness. He's hoping Greensburg's approach can be instructive to other communities across the country as they brace for more extreme weather.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The debate is settled. Climate change is a fact. And when our children's children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say, yes, we did.

(APPLAUSE)

RATH: President Obama from the State of the Union address. Of course, in politics, and it seems especially when it comes to climate change, talk is cheap. Climate change or global warming, as we used to call it, has been part of our national discussion for over 20 years. But with today's political polarization and divided government, it seems harder than ever for the government to actually do anything.

That's our cover story today: With the president and Congress at odds over how to address climate change, where does that leave the American people?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: The president has made it clear that he intends to set strict limits on power plant emissions through the Environmental Protection Agency. Republicans in Congress have made it clear that they want to find a way to stop that. But NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley says the president is already moving forward with another part of his plan without help from Congress.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: The president's plan is partly about reducing changes to the Earth's climate mainly by cutting back on greenhouse gases, but it's also about adapting to those changes we can't stop. And that means getting more resilient to floods or droughts or wildfires or invasive insects, all the sort of biblical plagues that come along with climate change.

And this week, his Agriculture secretary announced a creation of seven climate hubs around the country. These will be national research centers that will focus on helping farmers and ranchers and others in rural communities to cope with climate change.

RATH: Of course, we've heard Republicans are not on board with most of the president's plan, most notably his intention to impose stricter regulations on power plant emissions. So are we headed toward a political showdown on this issue?

HORSLEY: Well, it doesn't look as if Congress itself is going to tackle climate change. So one of the big tools in the president's toolbox now is the EPA. And that agency has been working on rules that would limit carbon pollution from power plants, especially coal-fired plants. They're responsible for about 40 percent of the greenhouse gases in this country. So there will be a fight over those rules, which the president wants to see finalized next year.

The EPA is acting under the Clean Air Act, so it doesn't take affirmative action by the Congress to authorize this. But the critics in Congress will try to challenge that. Perhaps more importantly, the EPA authority's being challenged in the Supreme Court, and the high court is set to hear arguments later this month.

RATH: NPR's White House correspondent Scott Horsley. Thanks, Scott.

HORSLEY: My pleasure.

RATH: One of the congressmen leading the fight against regulating power plants is Ed Whitfield, Republican representative from Kentucky. He says just because climate change is real shouldn't mean the government can hit power companies with overly strict regulations.

REPRESENTATIVE ED WHITFIELD: We have legislation that's been reported out of the Energy and Commerce Committee that basically says to EPA when you set the emission standards, you have to set a standard that has been adequately demonstrated in the marketplace.

RATH: His proposal would prevent the EPA from setting drastically lower emission standards for coal-fired power plants. He says the president's plan to limit carbon emissions is rash and will hurt the economy.

WHITFIELD: He is moving quickly to transform the way electricity can be produced in America at a time when we do not have enough renewable power to come close to meeting the requirements.

RATH: That's Congressman Ed Whitfield of Kentucky.

In Washington, the debate over what to do about climate change is split largely down party lines. But it hasn't always been that way. Senator John McCain actually campaigned on the issue in his presidential runs. Here he is in 2007.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: Climate change is real. The Earth is warming, and it is a result of greenhouse gas emissions.

RATH: Climate change was on the country's mind that spring because deadly storms were ripping through the Midwest.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS REPORTS)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: ...a tornado emergency...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: ...a large and dangerous tornado by the National Weather Service...

RATH: The worst tornado came on the night of May 4, 2007. It was the most intense storm of a season that itself was the worst in 50 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS REPORT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: A tornado emergency now in effect for Greensburg in Kiowa County.

MAYOR BOB DIXSON: Oh, tornado to the east. Huge tornado. Look at that.

RATH: Bob Dixson is a longtime resident of Greensburg, Kansas. He remembers that night vividly.

DIXSON: On May 4, 2007, at 9:40 at night, we lost everything, my wife and I, as did everyone in town. Our home was sucked off the top of the foundation. And there was no walls, there was no floor. We were in the basement, and it just took everything. What we had left was the clothes we had on our back. It's those little intrinsic things that you lose like family recipes, like heirlooms.

RATH: Eleven people died, and 95 percent of the town was destroyed. In the aftermath of the storm, some people said the town itself was one of the casualties. Bob Dixson didn't think so. He ran for mayor, promising to rebuild the town. Now, Dixson is a Republican, but his approach: attack climate change head-on. His plan: rebuilt Greensburg green to make it a safe, sustainable city. He won the election in a landslide.

Now halfway through his second term, Dixson has delivered. Greenburg has a new hospital and a new school built using sustainable architecture. There are wind turbines and solar panels all over town.

DIXSON: Well, right off the bat - and I'm going to be very candid with you and especially with me - whenever I hear the term green, all I could think of was the liberal left wing, new age movement that we in rural America felt was just not appropriate. But when we drilled down closer to it and looked at everything, we realize that our heritage and our ancestors was based on those sustainable green principles. Our grandparents and our parents always taught us if you take care of the land, it will take care of you.

RATH: People obviously would want to know looking at Greensburg why you've been able to have this be less of a partisan debate. Is it as simple as the fact that you've experienced that extreme weather that was so devastating?

DIXSON: Well, it banded us together. You can build the greenest community in the world. You can eliminate as much carbon emissions as you want. But if you don't have the people to inhabit that community and a vibrant economy that they can live and work and feed their families, you're not a sustainable community.

RATH: Did you feel like these policies put you at odds with national Republicans - with, say, Republicans in Congress?

DIXSON: We perceive certain things when we hear Republican or Democrat - preconceived ideas of what Republicans and Democrats think on issues - when, in fact, it should come down to what do we as citizens think about these issues, not what we're being told, but what we've investigated and how they can be implemented at the lowest level possible, which is our local level. It's about us as a society surviving and the ability to endure, and that's what true sustainability is.

RATH: Bob Dixson is the Republican mayor of Greensburg, Kansas. He's also one of the local leaders on the president's Task Force for Climate Preparedness. The U.N. panel on climate change warns storms will continue to get more severe and more frequent. Mayor Dixson is hoping Greenburg's approach can be instructive to other communities across the county as they brace for more extreme weather. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.