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Wilkes Center hosts climate change panel between Sister City leaders

Addressing climate change on the local level with two international leaders was the focus of a recent panel discussion between Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall and Matsumoto Mayor Yoshinao Gaun.

The discussion, hosted at the S.J. Quinney College of Law on July 23 by the Wilkes Center for Climate Science & Policy at the University of Utah and the Salt Lake City Department of Economic Development, was part of a weekend of events celebrating the 65th anniversary of the Sister City relationship between Matsumoto, Japan, and Salt Lake City. 

Founded in the 1950s by President Dwight Eisenhower, Sister Cities International was formed with the goal of fostering global peace and stability by creating connections between people in different parts of the world. The conversation between the two mayors is an example of how Sister City relationships can provide opportunities for communities from different parts of the world to support each other in finding solutions to the problems they share.

“Rather than taking on this work of addressing climate change as individual cities, we can work together as Salt Lake City and Matsumoto city,” said Gaun through a translator during the panel. 

As Salt Lake City experienced three consecutive days of temperatures over 100 degrees, Mendenhall noted it was a fitting time to discuss the efforts cities were making to address climate change. 

“Perhaps there couldn’t be a better day for us to gather here and discuss what great work Salt Lake City is doing and how we can learn more from our Sister City, Matsumoto,” she said. “Because our nation does not have any national climate strategy with specific goals, unlike Japan, which does, our actions at the local level are mighty.” 

Each mayor shared challenges and successes they are experiencing as they work to address climate policy in their community. Transportation solutions were a key piece of that discussion. Guan noted that the size of each country impacted what options would make the most sense.

“I feel like in Japan it should be much easier to have a structure where people do not need to use their personal automobiles,” Gaun said. 

Because Matsumoto has narrower streets, the community needs smaller buses, Gaun said. They also need transportation solutions that serve the growing number of senior citizens in their community who cannot always travel to a bus stop. Guan said the city is implementing an on-demand system where seniors can request a ride to pick them up at their house. The program is similar in concept to UTA on Demand, which runs in select areas of Salt Lake, Toole and Davis counties, including the westside of Salt Lake City. 

During his Salt Lake City visit, Gaun tested out another transportation solution that can be used to address the issue of public transit routes not going where people need to travel to— electric scooters. 

“The scooters are not a technology you have in Matsumoto yet,” said Mendenhall during the panel. “One of the first exchanges we decided on this morning was that Salt Lake City would share our contract information and some of the process we went through to allow these scooters to operate in Salt Lake City.” 

Mendenhall’s hope is that city officials in Matsumoto will be able to implement scooters more smoothly if they choose to adopt that technology. 

“I like Mayor Gaun’s sense of adventure,” Mendenhall said. “He landed late in the day yesterday from a very long flight and jumped on a scooter. That is the kind of leadership cities need to solve transportation and other problems.” 

Another exchange both mayors are eager to participate in is to connect school children in each of their cities in hopes they will discuss ways to mitigate climate change. According to Mendenhall, the youth of Salt Lake are a crucial driving force in making positive changes in the city. Gaun has also observed this in his community.

“I believe in our city as well that climate change is more heavily received by the children and the youth who will live in these communities for the next 50 to 70 years,” he said.