Cronkite News: Phoenix council member and former U.N. climate adviser Yassamin Ansari pushes for climate action and sustainable energy

PHOENIX — Yassamin Ansari began her professional career at the United Nations, as a policy adviser advocating for climate change. Now, as a Phoenix City Council member and vice mayor, she says that true progress toward a sustainable future starts at the local level.

“We are on the front lines of climate change from extreme heat to air pollution,” said Ansari, who was elected to the city council in 2021 at age 28. “These are already issues affecting Arizonans and Phoenicians. Cities play a very important role in also being on the front lines of solutions.”

After graduating from Stanford University with a degree in international relations, Ansari worked for the United Nations as a team member advising former U.N. Secretary-General
Ban Ki-moon on the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement. In 2016, she helped plan the Climate Action 2016 Summit in Washington, D.C., under the direction of Robert Orr, special adviser to the U.N. secretary-general on climate change.

As part of her job as senior program management officer for the secretary-general’s office, Ansari planned the first U.N. Youth Climate Summit, which brought together more than 1,000 youth from 140 countries in September 2019 to develop solutions to the climate crisis. She also served as an adviser to former U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres at Mission 2020, a global effort to reduce greenhouse emissions.

Ansari’s experience brings a global view to the climate crisis, which she has said is a catastrophic threat to humanity. It’s one that directly affects Phoenix residents, whether it’s extreme heat, drought, air pollution or the threat of wildfires.

“Climate change is the most pressing issue of our generation,” Ansari said when asked why she spends so much of her time on the issue.

As a city council member representing District 7, she immediately became involved in climate issues. She was appointed chairman of an ad hoc committee on electric vehicles established by Mayor Kate Gallego. The goal of the committee was to create a plan to get 280,000 electric vehicles on Phoenix roads by 2030. The plan detailed how to make electric vehicles more affordable and accessible by building an infrastructure that could support future demand.

Last year, Ansari worked with Arizona Forward and Venture Cafe Phoenix to present Electrify Arizona, a one-day summit of local business and community experts who discussed the future of transportation electrification in Phoenix.

In November 2021, Ansari attended the United Nations climate change conference in Glasgow, Scotland, along with Gallego. Topics included how cities can address climate change, improve water conservation, mitigate heat and make electric vehicles more accessible. Ansari traveled to Egypt in November to attend the latest U.N. climate change conference, representing Phoenix on panels on sustainable growth, water conservation and heat mitigation.

Most recently, Ansari led a group of local veterans, public health and clean energy advocates to ask the Biden administration and Arizona’s congressional delegation to support stronger federal clean-car standards by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. At a press conference in February, the group said that higher standards would not only help the environment, but would increase investment in clean cars and zero-pollution electric vehicles.

Ansari has found a kindred spirit on climate action in Gallego, who is co-chair of Climate Mayors, a group of more than 470 U.S. mayors who work for progress in climate change at the state and federal level. Gallego also is North American vice chair of the C40 Steering Committee, which provides direction for 97 global cities committed to addressing the climate crisis.

Ansari was a vocal advocate for eco-friendly public transportation as soon as she took office. Two years ago, she voiced concern when Phoenix nearly put in an order for hundreds of compressed natural gas buses.

“We had not even put out an RFP (request for proposal) or considered cleaner options,” she said, adding that she was against “the idea of locking ourselves in two decades, potentially, of fossil fuel-powered buses without even being up to date with what the technology was out there.”

Her pushback ultimately contributed to approval of a grant for two electric bus contracts. The grants were obtained through the Carbon Reduction Program of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. While obtaining electric buses accomplishes part of the goal, Ansari said, “it’s imperative that the grid is decarbonized as well. We need to ensure that it’s all renewable.”

Melissa Ramos, senior manager for clean air advocacy at the American Lung Association, supported Ansari’s plan for zero-emission bus transportation at a Phoenix City Council meeting earlier this year. Ramos addressed the need for “more education for our policy makers to really understand the health effects that unhealthy emissions are having not only on the air that we breathe, but directly to our own health.”

Ansari attributes Arizona’s limited renewable energy grid to the Arizona Corporation Commission and the state Legislature. Last year, the commission voted 3-2 against new clean energy regulations that would have expedited zero-emissions goals. Ansari said she is hopeful that city and state lawmakers will decide to make changes that support more renewable energy options.

“I’m really excited that we have Katie Hobbs as governor,” Ansari said. “Now I think there’s a lot of potential for her to really step into a leadership role on climate.” Hobbs addressed the need for action during her campaign for governor, saying the “need to transition to a sustainable clean energy economy becomes increasingly urgent.”

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