03/05/2013 04:12 pm ET Updated May 05, 2013

The Greatest American (Climate) Heroes

Quick, without thinking about it, answer this question: What's the most important thing that's happened in America on climate change over the past year? The tragedy of Superstorm Sandy? President Obama's State of the Union address? Sixty percent of America in the grip of a devastating drought? All fair answers. But here's mine: The leadership of American cities.

You'd be forgiven, if you thought that the only city that really mattered in the fight against climate change was Washington, DC. Often that's the story we hear: Even as more and more Americans call for climate action, political gridlock in Washington continues. But this same-old-story misses a major development: American cities, long on the front lines of extreme weather and climate change, aren't waiting for Washington any longer.

Seeing cities move ahead is big news. Beginning in 2009, for the first time in world history more humans live in urban centers than in rural areas. Proving we can create resilient cities that are prepared for extreme weather and powered by renewable energy offers a blueprint for success in the face of growing climate changes.

Over the past year, I've had a great seat to watch this quiet climate revolution. Twelve months ago, WWF launched the Earth Hour City Challenge to encourage cities to prepare for extreme weather and reducing their carbon footprint. The Challenge has run in six countries (United States, Sweden, Italy, Norway, Canada and India). Nowhere has it been a bigger hit than here in America. Nearly 2,000 American cities were nominated for the Challenge and twenty nine local governments met the rigorous criteria. One will be selected as America's Earth Hour Capital and another will be chosen, by people like you, as the People's Choice. The finalist cities for the People's Choice award in the US are San Francisco, Cincinnati and Chicago.

This first year of the Earth Hour City Challenge has been inspiring. It has reminded me that there is so much progress happening around the world, offering a glimpse of a safer, prosperous future that's within our grasp. So why are many American cities able to succeed where most US states and the federal government have so far feared to tread? Here are three reasons:

More practical than political

Running a city is hard, often thankless work. Making sure that the lights stay on, the trash is collected and roads remain passable during storms requires a practical, common-sense approach. Perhaps for this reason, studies show that people trust their local government more than Washington. From a city's perspective, extreme weather and climate change are causing and will cause real-world problems, like: increased stormwater runoff overwhelming sewers and culverts, more extreme heat days that increase hospital visits for the young and old, rising sea levels and storm surges that flood coastal infrastructure. In this context, the shrill Washington debates around cap-and-trade and protecting oil company subsidies fade to background noise. These cities are facing real world problems and they need to move now toward practical solutions.

Chicago's ambitious climate action plan is a model that other cities are beginning to follow. The Windy City is improving the resilience of its transit system to extreme heat and urban flooding. Chicago also holds the top spot among U.S. cities in the installation of green roofs and has the largest urban solar electricity generation plan. "The work we are doing builds economic strength and environmental health today and ensures Chicago's quality of life over the long term," said Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

More space to innovate

With climate change seen as a practical rather than political problem, cities can take advantage of their powers to innovate. In Ohio and 5 other US states, cities have the power to choose their own electricity provider. (Shouldn't all cities have that power?) By aggregating the city's power demand, Cincinnati has negotiated a new contract that supplies 100% renewable energy at prices lower than conventional, dirty electricity! The average resident saves $133 per year and the city is reduces climate pollution equivalent to taking over 100,000 cars off the road. "Our electric aggregation deal allows all of our citizens to receive 100% renewable energy," said Cincinnati Mayor Mark L. Mallory. "Cincinnati has become a national leader in green energy and we are going to continue to lead by example."

Breaking down the silos

Climate change is often talked about as an "environmental issue" that should be dealt with by environmental experts. Cities know better. San Francisco is mainstreaming its climate response by requiring all city departments to produce climate action plans. The city will soon launch a new campaign called Climate Resilient SF to bring the public and businesses into the solution. "Our City's progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 14.5% below 1990 levels shows that it's possible to have a growing, dynamic economy and lower our carbon footprint at the same time," said San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee.

Of course, in order to spread these models across the country and move fast enough to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, Senators, Members of Congress and a President in one particular American city need to quickly step up their game or face the wrath of voters.

While you're waiting for the chance to hold our timid Washington leaders accountable, vote for a real climate hero and catch a glimpse of an amazing future just waiting for us to choose it.