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Kansas Mayor Says Sustainability Is About Community, Not Politics

The community of Greensburg, Kan., was hit hard by an F5 tornado in 2007. The event inspired one resident to run for mayor.
Charlie Riedel
The community of Greensburg, Kan., was hit hard by an F5 tornado in 2007. The event inspired one resident to run for mayor.

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.

It's about us as a society surviving and the ability to endure, and that's what true sustainability is.

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.

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