City leaders said that only the federal government has the tools and clout to address greenhouse gases often blamed for warming the planet, while mayors focus on issues of "local warming" such as providing a reliable water supply or protecting citizens during dangerous weather events such as the 1995 Chicago heat wave that was blamed for over 700 deaths.
"We are fixing pot holes, dealing with transit issues," Seattle mayor Michael McGinn said while attending the U.S. Conference of Mayors' winter meeting. "But this can be a top tier issue for the president."
On the night of his reelection, Obama said fighting climate change would be a priority in his second term. He has since repeated the point, but without giving policy specifics.
And for now officials are doing their work quietly.
The White House asked that a discussion about climate change at the mayors' meeting on Thursday take place behind closed doors, frustrating some participants, even as hot button topics from immigration to gun control got public airings.
"This should be discussed openly," said Jim Brainard, the Republican mayor of Carmel, Indiana, who co-chaired the climate panel.
White House liaison for climate change Heather Zichal led the discussion, but declined to comment on why the meeting was closed.
"At the end of the day, it was a productive conversation," she said, noting that the White House was eager to hear from cities on reducing emissions of greenhouse gas.
Los Angeles, for example, plans to slash carbon emissions from government sources 35 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, a more ambitious target than even the state has set.
Among other measures, Chicago is spending billions of dollars to boost public transit and help public buildings save energy.
Mayors say they are proud of such steps and understand Obama's reluctance to take on a politically charged issue, but only Washington can achieve the overall greenhouse gas cuts that many say are needed.
"We are looking for leadership from the president in detailing to the American people the magnitude of this issue," McGinn said after the meeting with about two dozen peers.
DASHED CLIMATE HOPES
The Obama administration pinned its hopes on Congress to enact a comprehensive energy and climate bill that would have set a national price on carbon dioxide emissions during the president's first term.
That effort failed in bitter partisan wrangling, forcing the administration to rethink its strategy and reach for existing regulations as a way to mitigate climate warming emissions.
"I absolutely would anticipate that we will continue to use existing authority to make progress in this area," Zichal said after her meeting with mayors.
But efforts by states and cities will also be crucial to "move the needle" on reducing emissions, she said, noting that she heard new ideas about city climate initiatives that create jobs and reduce pollution.
Mayors contend that those efforts often need federal funding. They are counting on help from Washington to upgrade storm water systems, for example, and otherwise brace for the practical fallout from more extreme weather.
Although Greg Fischer, mayor of Louisville, Kentucky, said not all his constituents embrace the idea of man-made climate change, more frequent severe weather is "a far-reaching issue that touches almost every area of the city."
Scientists caution that no single weather event can be blamed on climate change. But the force of Hurricane Sandy, which devastated parts of New York and New Jersey in October, and a withering drought in the Midwest, are seen as harbingers.
"There is a lot of call for the president to use his 'bully pulpit' and explain the consequences here," said Brainard.
(Reporting By Patrick Rucker and Valerie Volcovici, editing by Ros Krasny and Andre Grenon)