Why We Matter
October 25, 2010 5:27 PM
They planted a magnolia tree in Stockholm in our honor. That's what the city of Stockholm does to express its appreciation. Everyone who spoke at the first European Green Capital Cities conference in Sweden last week had a magnolia planted in recognition of their contribution. So, trees were planted for Madison, Minneapolis, Bayfield and Tallahassee as well as a dozen or more European cities.
Ten American cities who are considered leaders internationally in green policies were invited to the conference and only four were asked to give presentations, so I was proud to represent our city in that select group. There were maybe a dozen Americans in all at this conference attended by 300 European mayors, national and regional officials, representatives of the European Union and some academics and activists. The U.S. mayors' trip expenses were covered by the American embassy in Sweden.
I shared a stage with Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, Bayfield's Mayor Larry MacDonald and Tallahassee's John Marks. We all came prepared to talk about what our cities were doing to reduce our contributions to climate change gasses, but the moderator went in a different direction. He asked why it was that Americans seemed to have so much less of a sense of urgency about climate change than they do in Europe.
It was a question that followed us wherever we went at the conference, at formal presentations but also at coffee breaks and over late dinners. The sense I got was that America is not disliked at all, but it isn't necessarily well understood either. There is a strong sense in Sweden and other European cities I've visited that America is a strong force for good in the world, so they wonder why we aren't doing a lot more to combat the biggest long-term threat to the world's prosperity and health, which is climate change.
The Europeans believe that if America doesn't act neither will China or India. So, we're still viewed as the most powerful nation in the world by far. America is respected but also a little bit feared. We're viewed as a mostly benign force but one that also doesn't necessarily appreciate its influence on the rest of the world.
The most encouraging thing I took from the experience came after the conference as I ended my one day of solo exploration of Stockholm. I was wandering the Old Town when I ran into a couple of people I had met at the conference, a member of the European Union cabinet and a Swedish doctoral student who also had American citizenship thanks to being born in the U.S. We found a place to share a beer and we had an interesting conversation. When we were about to leave I asked the student where she was likely to make her permanent home after she was done studying and working in Malmo, Sweden's third largest city.
She didn't hesitate. She planned to live and work in the U.S. I asked her why, and she said it was because she felt that while Sweden was lovely, there was more opportunity to make greater contributions in America. She wants to help steer our very large ship in a better direction. I came home with some good ideas for Madison (Stockholm plans to be carbon neutral by 2025 and fossil free by 2050 for example), but nothing made me happier to be an American.