Can Mayors Save the World From Climate Change?

When international leaders met last month at the United Nations to discuss climate change, and when millions of young protesters took to the streets, the focus was on sweeping global action. But for much of the world, the response to climate change looks more like small-town leaders laboring to persuade a skeptical public about complex science and expensive decisions.

In few places is the challenge of adapting to climate change more immediate than in Australia, where 80 percent of the population lives within a few dozen miles of a coastline susceptible to rising seas and more punishing storms, and where the arid interior bakes under record temperatures.

Before Mr. Williamson’s, mayor of Mackay, election in 2016, the council mostly acted on its own. The parks and gardens department cleared invasive plants on the shoreline, thickened vegetation and put in fences and paths to control foot traffic, all to protect against the effects of climate change. The backlash was severe. With saplings blocking the view of many homeowners, mysterious tree slashings hit night after night.

In 2017, officials tallied more than 30 separate acts of tree clearing.

In the area now providing clear views of the soft blue sea, the council will plant twice as many trees as those that were cut down and put up a large billboard. “Native vegetation provides long-term protection to our coasts and communities,” the sign will say, matching those blocking the view in other areas that were vandalized. “Help us.”