Washington DC Mayor Muriel Bowser
(Photo courtesy of C40 Cities)

As mayor of Washington, D.C., Muriel Bowser shares a city with the president of the United States. But when it comes to views on climate change, the two have little in common.

Indeed, as President Donald Trump rolls back policies to curb climate change, Mayor Bowser is actively pushing them forward. Since her election in 2015, she has spearheaded a host of programs, many designed to meet the District of Columbia’s goal of drawing 50 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2032. At the moment, she’s focused on completing the Clean Energy DC energy and climate action plan — and championing cities’ efforts to implement the Paris Agreement.

“Right now, it will be cities in the U.S. that lead our country’s fight against climate change,” says Mayor Bowser, who was previously a D.C. Council member. “Fortunately, cities are in a great position to fight climate change and protect the environment because  we are able to innovate quickly and put in place policies that can have a huge impact on millions of people.”

In this third interview in our series Women Mayors Talk Climate Change, Mayor Bowser talks with us about coping with more frequent heatwaves and storms, supporting a more sustainable city and the central role women must play in moving solutions to climate change forward.

What are the two greatest environmental challenges facing your city?

D.C. is focused on a lot of environmental issues, but right now two of our highest priorities are fighting climate change and ensuring we clean up the Anacostia River.

The effects of climate change are already here. We are already seeing an increase in the number of dangerously hot days and more intense storms. And we know that, without taking action, the effects will continue to get worse. Over the past 2 years, we have doubled down on our commitment to fighting climate change. We launched Climate Ready DC, entered into one of the largest municipal onsite solar projects in the U.S., and completed the largest wind power purchase agreement of its kind ever entered into by an American city. Going forward, our commitment to wind and solar will not yield.

Mayor Muriel Bowser at the Anacostia River
(Photo courtesy of the Executive Office of Mayor Bowser)

The Anacostia River is one of our city’s most valuable resources and one of our greatest environmental challenges. Throughout D.C.’s history, the river has served as both a distinctive landmark as well as a symbol of environmental degradation. By turning a river that has long served as a dividing line and a symbol of environmental decline into a fishable and swimmable community gathering place, we can make a strong statement about D.C.’s commitment to the environment, while also bringing together residents from across the district.

Statistics show climate change hurts women and children disproportionately. Why is that, and how does it play out in your city?

Around the world, women are disproportionately affected by climate change for a variety of reasons, including income inequality and differences in gender roles. One of the biggest threats that climate change poses for D.C. is an increase in dangerous heat, which can also worsen air quality and cause power outages. Unfortunately, heat and poor air quality can have the greatest consequences for the very old and the very young.

In D.C., we are taking steps to protect all Washingtonians, particularly our most vulnerable residents, by preparing our neighborhoods for climate change and using solar and wind energy in new ways to increase sustainability and lower energy bills.

As mayor, how are you addressing these vital environmental and climate challenges?

For the most part, and especially right now, leadership on climate issues is going to happen locally — which is why I joined more than 80 mayors around the U.S. in committing to adopt, honor and uphold the goals of the Paris Agreement.

There is a lot to do, and my administration is working to do as much as we possibly can, using all the tools we have available. Last summer, I signed a landmark update to our Renewable Portfolio Standard, which now requires that 50 percent of our electricity come from renewable sources by 2032. This year, I introduced legislation to create one of the world’s first city-based green banks [for financing clean energy projects]. And in May, my administration announced Solar Works DC, a new low-income solar installation and job-training program. This program will prepare residents for careers in solar industries, while increasing solar capacity in D.C. and reducing energy costs for low-income homeowners.

In addition, we are putting plans in place to ensure that as our city grows our focus on the environment remains strong. We are currently in the process of updating and strengthening Sustainable DC, our overarching plan to make Washington, D.C., the greenest, healthiest, and most livable city in the U.S. in just one generation. In the fall of 2016, we finalized Climate Ready DC, our climate adaptation plan, which will ensure that our buildings, infrastructure and residents are resilient in the face of a changing climate. And, right now, we are finalizing our innovative comprehensive energy and climate action plan, Clean Energy DC.

Was there an incident or moment in your life that drove you to focus on climate and environment? 

I have been concerned about the health of our planet for as long as I can remember, but D.C.’s 2012 derecho was a particularly eye-opening experience. In the midst of a record-breaking heatwave, this powerful thunderstorm knocked out power across the region, and in some places the outage lasted for as long as a week. The prolonged power outages combined with the extreme heat laid bare the real effects of climate change.

More recently, when the U.S. withdrew from the Paris Agreement, I was reminded that right now it will be cities in the U.S. that lead our country’s fight against climate change. Fortunately, cities are in a great position to fight climate change and protect the environment because  we are able to innovate quickly and put in place policies that can have a huge impact on millions of people. Then, we are able to share what we’re doing with other cities, and, collectively, that work can have a really positive impact on our planet.

What role can local business — and women entrepreneurs in particular — play in addressing your city’s environmental challenges?

Currently, we are seeing an explosion in district-based entrepreneurship. We have hundreds of businesses participating in our local Made in DC program, and these are businesses that are invested in making positive change in Washington, D.C. They make jobs for residents, they add to the vibrancy of our neighborhoods, and they are committed to building a greener, more sustainable city. In fact, over 70 businesses and organizations have received District Sustainability awards, which honor entrepreneurs and other individuals who are addressing D.C.’s environmental challenges. These awards are given out for everything from powering your business with solar power to helping community members compost.

As we work to build a greener D.C., we will continue to celebrate the sustainability efforts of our local businesses while supporting programs and policies that give more residents the opportunity to establish and expand D.C.-based businesses. Of course, supporting women entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs in underserved neighborhoods is an important part of this effort.

What do women leaders like you bring to the table that’s different and important? And what is your greatest ambition for the C40 Women4Climate initiative?

Women make up half the population, and, as individuals and as women, we have our own unique perspectives as well as certain shared experiences. So, whether we are talking about the environment, healthcare, education — any issue — it is critical that the voices of women and girls from around the world are heard and that women are able to influence policy.

Women leaders play a central role in advancing solutions to climate change, and those solutions are crafted with the recognition that women are especially vulnerable to climate change. My hope is that through the C40 Women4Climate initiative, we can continue to amplify the voices and ideas of the women who are leading right now, while inspiring the next generation of women leaders to get involved.