Why you should care
Because who wants to live on a sh*tty planet?
Jim Brainard bikes to his office in City Hall, talks about adopting European-style streets and piazzas — and is the six-term Republican mayor of Carmel, a town of just 86,000 in blood-red Indiana. Brainard has ushered in hundreds of miles of bike trails and a city bike-share program, invested in a geothermal sewer plan that turns leftover refuse into fertilizer, and signed executive orders requiring city fleet purchases to be hybrid or alternative fuel vehicles. While major cities on the East and West Coasts have taken such measures, the vast majority of Americans live in places that look a lot more like this suburb in a heartland state — towns that have been a bit slower to adopt green-friendly reforms.
But Brainard says his vision is rooted in Republican tradition — current political climate notwithstanding. Flashback to Teddy Roosevelt, who set aside most of the land for U.S. National Parks, or Richard Nixon, who created the Environmental Protection Agency. Ronald Reagan signed the Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer. Ahead of the GOP Convention next week, which he plans to attend, Brainard discussed why his brand of environmentalism — which has included work on climate change task forces for the White House and the U.S. Conference of Mayors — could be the new look of conservatism.
OZY: What is the future of environmentalism under the Republican Party — and what might that look like if Donald Trump were president?
Jim Brainard: First, I hope any president, Mr. Trump included, would listen to the scientific community and recognize we need to take action. Second, the president should recognize there are huge business opportunities in producing the sort of products that will reduce air pollution and carbon emissions.
Even the Germans, in World War II, were making fuels out of biowaste. Unfortunately, fossil fuels have been so cheap and easy to get to. We’ve taken the easy path without thinking about the long term. When describing the tenets of being Republican, and of conservatism, a lot of it is about being willing to take personal responsibility for your actions and your choices. There seems to have been a willingness to forgo that and not take responsibility for the way our use of fossil fuels will affect future generations.
OZY: Who are environmentalist Republicans like yourself going to, to get their message heard and meaningful change passed? And who are the standard-bearers of that message?
J.B.: The people you go to, to amplify the message, are the people who live in this country. So we go to the media. We take the message directly to the people who vote on both sides of the aisle — Lindsey Graham of South Carolina made it clear he’s an environmentalist. Unfortunately, his presidential campaign didn’t go well. There are a lot of mayors, Republican and Democrat, who are already thinking about these things. Mick Cornett, the mayor of Oklahoma City, is a Republican in oil country, and he’s concerned about the environment.
Slower speeds are safer, and yet they still move more traffic. So we’re opening our 100th roundabout this year.
OZY: How do the type of environmental investments you’ve made in Carmel fit with the conservative idea of fiscal responsibility?
J.B.: Somebody has to make the windmills, come up with new technology, the hydro-plants. We may make things in China and other places, but the technology is developed here. Let’s make new products the rest of the world wants.
So many times, the civil engineers answer congestion by saying, “Let’s just add more lanes.” But what we’re really doing is building a bigger parking lot for cars stuck in traffic. What we’re doing differently — what we learned from Europe — is that we can move four to five times as much traffic through a roundabout, and it can be beautiful. With each roundabout, we save about 2 million gallons of gasoline each year from cars not having to stall. More important, it’s about safety: We’ve seen a 90 percent reduction in fatalities, an 80 percent reduction in injury accidents and a 40 percent reduction in total accidents. Slower speeds are safer, and yet they still move more traffic. So we’re opening our 100th roundabout this year.
OZY: Other legislators have been tossed out of office for believing in climate change. How have you avoided that sort of backlash?
J.B.: When you go through these elections, you don’t forget — they’re painful. But we communicate well with the public. It’s a Republican area, but we’ve got a high educational attainment among our adults. They’ve been trained not to make emotional decisions. I think with the population I’m fortunate to have, we don’t look at things in an “R” or “D” way. As us mayors like to say, there’s no Republican or Democratic way to pick up the trash. People really aren’t concerned with what political party I’m in, they’re concerned about quality of life. I haven’t yet met a Republican or Democrat who wants to drink dirty water or breathe dirty air.