'Climate Mayors' In WNC's 'Trump Country' Advocate For Environment

Jul 21, 2017

“Adopt, honor, and uphold”—this is what some 359 mayors from across the U.S. have pledged to do for their municipalities. It’s a commitment made by so-called “Climate Mayors” to advocate policies in keeping with the Paris climate agreement. It calls for the creation of a twenty-first century clean energy economy, reduced greenhouse emissions, investments in renewable energy and electric vehicles. BPR’s Davin Eldridge visited with two such mayors in a deeply red part of Western North Carolina…

For any of the cities or towns throughout the U.S. that have a Climate Mayor sworn to “adopt, honor, and uphold” these commitments—President Trump contends they’re getting a “bad deal”.  But it seems it just isn’t that simple for some communities in Trump country.

One of America’s so-called “Climate Mayors” is Bob Scott, of Franklin.  

“I tried to sign on, but, I got a message back that so many mayors were trying to sign on they had crashed, would I come back later? And I did, and there I was,” laughs Scott. “The whole thing is rather exciting.”

Franklin is a moderately red town located in deeply red Macon County.  Population, just under 4,000. It’s a mostly blue collar, working-class kind of town. Football, hamburgers, church on Sunday.  It’s also the county seat.  

“Joining with fellow mayors across the nation to try to do something about this climate change denial—I just felt obligated to do it, and did,” Scott said. “We don’t have to my knowledge any heavy industry or smokestacks here in Franklin—or anywhere else in Macon County—but there is still plenty we can do to be part of the solution.”

Trump won this state by roughly 177,000 votes—about half of which came from the state’s western region. It’s here that dozens of small, traditionally conservative towns dot the state’s mostly-rural Appalachian landscape; and it’s here where Macon County, population roughly 35,000, is located—where more than two-thirds of its residents chose Trump as their president in the last election. Yet the only two municipalities in all of the county—Franklin, and the town of Highlands—ended up with their very own Climate Mayors.

“It’s in one way, to me, kind of a moral decision that I made,” that’s the other Climate Mayor, Patrick Taylor, of Highlands.  Like Scott, Taylor’s newfound capacity is largely a role of advocacy. With small budgets, no real heavy industry to speak of, there is little either mayor could do differently to get their town more ‘green’, aside from upgrading infrastructure in this fashion as they go. This is the more cost-effective solution. “Most of our residents aren’t opposed to keeping our town clean. Who would be? Now, can we change all the streetlights to LED at once? No. That would be very expensive. But overtime, we can eventually get there. I’ll make sure of it as a Climate Mayor. It’s kind of refreshing to know that in this particular case, this is kind of a grassroots movement.”

The Town of Highlands has just under a thousand residents, and most of them are well-to-do. Tennis courts, gourmet candy stores, country clubs. There are five 18-hole golf courses.

And although Franklin has a mixed economy, while Highlands is mostly high-end service based, they both share one vital interest—a robust tourism industry—one that depends heavily on the scenic beauty of the mountains.  Now, if you ask either mayor, they’ll tell you there are plenty of folks in their community skeptical of environmental policy.

One such skeptic is 77-year-old retired history teacher Hal Chapman.

“I think most people are environmental friendly,” says Chapman. “I think most people are greatly concerned about the environment. But what we’re concerned about when we come to this passing laws, personally I think it’s another power grab by the government. Whereas most people, if you leave them alone, they’ll do what’s right anyhow.”

That sentiment doesn’t seem as widespread today in Macon County as it was last year according to mayor Taylor.  He points out the need to preserve the environment is very real for the local labor force, even if most of it leans conservative.

“It’s a real challenge. We are a resort community. We are stewards of this pristine, unique natural environment. At the same time we’re very isolated. We have people that need to make a living, and make this a viable community, and at the same time there’s always that pressure to preserve what we have. Our citizens sometimes don’t agree, think we haven’t done enough, or some think we do too much.”

Contrary to Trump's position, area employers maintain that if any new environmental policies were to be adopted, there would be no real impact on them. And although none of them produce heavy carbon emissions, theyhave adopted their own conservation policies, claiming it’s in the best interest of their companies.

Macon County’s largest employer is Old Edwards Inn, an upscale resort in Highlands that puts nearly 500 people to work. Nearly a decade ago, the company adopted an ambitious environmental policy, which has earned the Inn numerous awards over the years.

Down the mountain, Franklin Tubular Products, or FTP, stays busy around the clock, manufacturing metal pipes and valves to heavy industries around the world. It's a factory owned by a U.K.-based holdings firm, evidence of globalism at work in Appalachia. John Edgemon is its Plant Manager, and he says companies like his are all-for responsible environmental policy.

“Our goal is to be environmentally conscious. We want to ratchet up our environ awareness. Since I’ve been here, we’ve turned around this business.”

Edgemon says the reason FTP is on board with local conservation efforts is simple: cities such as Franklin attract young working class families, and companies such as FTP frequently have to recruit new workers to their ranks as they expand. Taking a cue from area tourism, these industries see the benefit of ‘going green’. However, while Edgemon is supportive of the Climate Mayors, he does tend to agree with Trump’s position on the Paris agreement. He says it didn’t allow for fair trade, and holds the country of his plant to higher standards than those of his competitors, like China or India, despite their much larger emissions violations.

“When I look at it, I look at it as ‘is it fair’?" says Edgemon. "If the goal is to reduce carbon emissions, which I totally agree we need to do, then we ought to act globally.” 

BPR spoke with several other industrial entities in Macon County, and all of them maintain environmental policy wouldn't hinder their work, despite most of them having a work force understanding of Trump's policy on the Paris agreement.

For Franklin mayor Bob Scott, the draw the mountains provide for tourism will always be reason enough to be a ‘climate mayor’.

“When you look at what we’ve got, we cannot afford to jeopardize it by deny that there’s climate change,” he said.

With both of Macon County’s mayors on board, North Carolina has a total of twelve Climate Mayors.