Alaska Mayor Works on Climate-Change Issues

A year ago, Mayor Mark Begich of Anchorage, Alaska, was skeptical about Robert Redford's Sundance Summit on climate change. But he went. And this year, he's hoping to get other mayors involved.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR News, it's DAY TO DAY. Now a story about a mayor and a movie star. The movie star is one of Hollywood's most famous liberals - Robert Redford. He's an environmental activist. He's been trying to get local officials to tackle global climate change.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

The mayor is Mark Begich from the mostly conservative city of Anchorage, Alaska. A year ago the movie star invited Mayor Begich and other mayors from around the country to Sundance, Utah.

NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports on what happened next.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: Mark Begich said it took arm-twisting from his wife to get him to go to Sundance.

Mayor MARK BEGICH (Anchorage, Alaska): I actually came last year as a very strong skeptic. The whole issue of climate change.

SHOGREN: Begich says he was dubious that people were responsible for climate change, and even if they were he couldn't imagine that the mayor of a small city in the north could do anything about a big problem like global warming. But after one day at the conference he was convinced.

Mayor BEGICH: That was enough for me to get the scientific evidence. That was pretty overwhelming to me.

SHOGREN: He went back to Anchorage and started working on ways to reduce the emissions of the greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. This week, Robert Redford held the second climate change summit for mayors in Sundance, and Begich was one of the mayors giving presentations about how to fight global warming at the local level.

Mayor BEGICH: You know, I'm back here as a presenter and a believer and one that's going to, you know, pass the word as much as possible. Mayors have a huge capacity to make impact on this collectively, because we move rapidly.

We do not wait for many, many studies. We don't sit around and twiddle our thumbs for the partisan politics. We deal with it, because every decision we make we'll hear about it within an hour at the grocery store.

SHOGREN: Redford says he decided to hold the summits because he was frustrated by inaction on climate change in Washington. And Redford says Begich's story gives him hope.

Mr. ROBERT REDFORD (Actor, Environmentalist): To see him move from a skeptical place to an accepting place and to a positive place where he takes leadership action. That means that we're going to have genuine leadership for the future with solutions in place. I'm very optimistic.

SHOGREN: The organizers of the conference say that so far they're working with 400 mayors who represent about a quarter of the U.S. population. The communities that reported on their efforts last year cut greenhouse gas emissions by 23 million tons and saved $600 million doing it. One of Begich's projects deals with the problem of methane emissions from the city landfill. Methane's a very potent greenhouse gas.

Mayor BEGICH: We're now going to recapture it and we're going to put it into energy. Energy to heat and power up 2,500 homes in our community.

SHOGREN: And he's got lots of other projects in the works to produce energy without emitting greenhouse gases.

Mayor BEGICH: We're doing a wind farm project right now, because we have huge winds. We have 22-foot tides within our inlet. We're now looking at the potential of tidal wave energy.

SHOGREN: But Begich says climate change, still isn't an easy sell with his conservative constituency.

Mayor BEGICH: Alaska is probably one of your reddest states on the map.

SHOGREN: Even though he's a Democrat, Begich won reelection last year. But he's still concerned about what people in Anchorage think about their mayor spending so much time with Robert Redford.

Mayor BEGICH: When I went on a talk show with him - a TV talk show which is watched in Anchorage - we were side by side and I can guarantee you there will be some people say see there he is sitting around with a Hollywood hardcore environmentalist liberal. And I will guarantee it makes some of my constituency nervous. They're not sure.

SHOGREN: Begich is a little nervous too. But he says Redford's star power has helped attract mayors to an issue they otherwise might have ignored. Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.

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