Mayor: Warming issue not hot air

Rock Hill Mayor Doug Echols added to his budding green-friendly resume last week when he joined fellow South Carolina mayors in issuing a challenge to presidential candidates: Show our voters how you will confront global climate change.

"This is not about being a Democrat or Republican," Echols told reporters from around the nation on a conference call. "Bad air is going to be breathed by all of us."

Echols was joined on the call by Charleston's Joe Riley and Union's Bruce Morgan, among more than 100 Palmetto State mayors who signed an open letter to all presidential hopefuls. A group called Conservation Voters of S.C. organized the effort.

"It is our duty," the letter reads, "to add our voice to the growing chorus of scientific, business and community leaders who say the time to act on global climate change is now."

The comments marked Echols' latest foray into a movement that has plenty of supporters -- as well as it share of critics.

• Last month, Echols won support from the City Council to sign onto the U.S. Mayor's Climate Protection Agreement. Though voluntary, it asks cities to pledge to reduce pollution levels through energy-efficient policies.

• Later this month, the city will consider a host of new development guidelines aimed at protecting the Catawba River as well as local streams, creeks and wooded land. Among the provisions: incentives to reward developers for leaving more open space and requirements for more trails and greenways.

Echols said land-use policies fit into the goal of energy conservation. He also leaves open the possibility that becoming green-friendly might cost the city more money. In his view, such investments deliver a valuable payoff.

"The fact there may be cost factors are certainly offset by the value in relationship to taking care of our air," Echols told reporters. "There may be additional cost factors, but the long-term cost of doing nothing certainly outweighs (that)."

"It's the movement of our time," added Riley of Charleston. "Future generations' ability to live healthfully and with a good quality of life depends on what we do right now."

In the past, some have questioned whether Echols waits until a consensus is formed on an issue before taking a position. One example is the city's slowly evolving move toward a van-on-demand transit system. It took the City Council a year to embrace the idea, even through the county already was providing the service.

Though Councilmen Kevin Sutton and Jim Reno opposed signing the climate protection agreement, Echols appears to enjoy backing from a majority of council members to expand energy-saving efforts.

"I don't think he's going out on a limb," said Frank Traficante of Henry's Knob, a local Sierra Club group. "He is right in the mainstream of what many politicians at all levels are doing. The environment is a winning issue."

But in his efforts to organize people behind the cause, Echols has cultivated support from some unlikely sources. A local building industry representative said his colleagues need to make their operations greener, too.

"A lot of people don't like change in the building business, but it's coming," Robby Belk, president of the York County Homebuilders Association, told The Herald recently. "There's a trend all over America going that way. We need to get on top of it."

Still, in touting climate protection as a top priority, Echols is opening himself up to the possibility of criticism from a different angle: activists who say the city should back up its rhetoric with more action.

"I'm enthused by the fact they've started making a commitment. But they can do more," said Traficante, who cited energy-efficient designs on any new city buildings as one example. "They're just getting their feet wet on this right now."

The other mayors on Friday's conference call described initiatives in their towns that go further than what Rock Hill is doing.

In Union, for example, Morgan helped to arrange what he called a public-private venture that makes biodiesel fuel available for 200 city vehicles as well as residents' cars.

Under Riley, the city of Charleston replaced its traffic signals with LED lights that use 80 percent less energy. The 206-year-old City Hall now has wells that heat and cool the building geothermally. And Riley drives a hybrid car.

In Rock Hill, Echols hasn't given up his Ford sedan yet. But his comments signal a growing interest in that kind of thinking.

"This is an issue we must address at this time," he said. "It's not one we can turn our back on."