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Tupelo, Mississippi: Cool City

Although the Bush Administration has not signed the Kyoto Protocol — a UN-sponsored treaty ratified by 176 other countries to reduce harmful carbon emissions — hundreds of American cities are voluntarily taking action on their own. More than 770 communities have joined a program known as Cool Cities. Erika Celeste visits one of the latest cities considering signing up: Tupelo, Mississippi.

Travis Hunsicker is an avid outdoorsman. He just spent time in Indonesia's rainforests and plans to hike Mount Kilimanjaro later this year. So it should come as no surprise that his favorite magazine is National Geographic Adventure. He remembers getting an issue focused on the environment. "It was a special on what people can do locally to help out with the environment, and I guess it's kind of a thing to where if you enjoy the outdoors, you also want to give back," he says. "I thought what can I do here to help out?"

The more Hunsicker thought about it, the more he became convinced that he could make a difference. And he decided to do it through the Cool Cities project. The initiative was launched in 2005 by the environmental group the Sierra Club. Its goal is to teach local officials about smart energy solutions that can reduce heat-trapping emissions, lower energy bills and protect the environment.

Hunsicker signed on to become the city lead for his hometown, Tupelo, Mississippi. The first step, he says, was to get the mayor, Ed Neelly, to sign the U.S. Mayors' Environmental Protection Agreement. Hunsicker describes the document as "an agreement to say, 'Yes we're going to do everything in our power to reduce the effect of carbon emissions in our city.'"

Mayor Neelly was very receptive to the idea. "Everybody in America is going to have to realize that we can't live like we have in the past," Neelly says, "where we [don't think about] where gasoline is going to come from and the fact that we are so dependent on people that are not in America to furnish the huge part of energy that we use." He adds that the sooner Americans are aware of the need for change, the sooner they can have an impact on the environment.

In fact, the mayor boasts, the city of Tupelo had already taken several steps to improve the environment before Travis Hunsicker presented the Cool Cities proposal. It started a recycling program, and planted thousands of trees to cleanse the air, reduce soil erosion and literally help cool the city. Neelly says the city began trading in municipal vehicles for more fuel-efficient models. "That has had a positive effect because even though the price of gasoline is up more than 50 percent in the last 6 months to a year, our fuel costs are relatively stable, because we have paid attention to conserving fuel use."

The city has already begun one of the first steps recommended by Cool Cities, and is switching out all municipal incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents — an annual electricity savings of $30 per bulb — as well as changing over all traffic lights to energy-saving LEDs.

The mayor plans to recommend that the City Council approve joining the Cool Cities project during their February meeting.

After the council members approve membership in Cool Cities, Travis Hunsicker will form a board that will consider what additional actions both individuals and the city can take to improve their environment. "I want to give people [who] maybe have always thought about doing it but never took those steps, to give them an easier opportunity to say 'Yeah, let's help out.'"

The main obstacle Hunsicker has faced when talking with city council members or industry executives in the area is the substantial up front cost of making the switch. "We tell people, 'Yes, it's good for the environment,' but what they want to hear is what kind of profit are we going to make from doing this?" In response, the young environmentalist points to a survey of Tupelo's municipal buildings, which showed that after implementing its 'green' changes, its yearly energy bill dropped by half. And changing out traffic lights is estimated to cut the city's current lighting budget by 80 percent.

Mayor Neelly says those numbers speak volumes to his constituents. "I think anytime that you can conserve natural resources — and that's what a whole lot of it is about — and at the same time improve the quality of life of your city, it's a win/win proposition." He adds, "although some of the things have a little time lapse before you recover your investment, when you add them all together, it's pretty significant over long period of time."

Other cities in the project have switched to solar powered traffic signs, increased tree planting, and replaced aging fleets of public buses with hydrogen-powered vehicles. Hunsicker says he'd like to see Tupelo do something that would directly generate more interest in conservation. He believes if the city simply adds more bike racks, it will encourage individuals to ride, something that's not only good for the environment and personal health, but could easily create a greater appreciation for the environment.

But his greatest hope is that by setting an example with Cool Cities, more cities will follow suit. "If we can do it here in Tupelo, population 3500, what could be done around the state?" he wonders. "That's my ultimate goal, to have a positive influence on other cities to do the same thing."

Seattle, Washington, was the first community to become a Cool City when the campaign began in 2005. Today it is recognized as one of the greenest cities in America.