Global by nature, they are resisting nationalist policies that don't solve their big problems.
One of the most notable reactions to President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accords wasn’t the global opprobrium from governments around the world, but the decision of big-city mayors (as well as governors and CEOs) to insist that they would continue to implement the Paris goals.
“I remain committed to meeting the goals of the Paris Climate agreement,” Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed noted moments after the President finished speaking. He was joined by Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who both made clear their support. “It’s a sad state of affairs when localities have to do what the federal government should be doing,” de Blasio said. Within minutes of finishing the Rose Garden address, Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel tweeted, “As the Trump administration pulls back, Chicago will push forward & reduce our fair share of carbon emissions in line with the #ParisAccord.”
Further west, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti also pledged that their cities would honor the UN-backed deal. “We must lead where the White House refuses to,” Biskupski said. “This is an urgent challenge, and it’s much bigger than one person,” Garcetti noted. “L.A. will lead by committing to the goals of the accord — and will work closely with cities across America and the world to do the same.”
This commitment to uphold the agreement through city-to-city cooperation is striking. For the Paris accord is an agreement among nations. The core of the deal consists of national targets for greenhouse gas emissions, which were agreed to by national governments. Of the nearly 200 signatories to the accord, none is a city or province or corporation. But the response of America’s major cities suggests the arrival of an important moment in the evolution of urban autonomy. What the past week has revealed is that now, when national governments fail on the global stage, cities and other actors are ready to step up. And climate change is only one of the issues on which cities are bypassing their federal governments to craft their own international policy agreements.
The new assertiveness is not merely knee-jerk opposition to the president from a handful of liberal islands that voted against him in November. The steps already taken by mayors and governors are too substantive — bureaucratically procedural, even — to be written off as simply trying to score political points. Multipoint, multipage executive orders have already been signed. In Pittsburgh, for example, the city’s Chief Resiliency Officer has been empowered to take additional steps that further the Paris agreement’s goal of limiting the global temperature increase to 1.5 percent Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The order goes on to detail commitments to cut water consumption and transportation emissions, and to reach 100 percent renewable electricity consumption for municipal operations by 2030, among other plans. In New York City, all city agencies must now create a citywide plan by the end of September spelling out how best to uphold the goals of the Paris agreement. The executive order also instructs the city’s sustainability office to take the lead in partnering with other cities on additional plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
And these are not isolated actions. Earlier this week, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg delivered to the United Nations a “We Are Still In” statementin which more than 1,000 states, cities and companies committed to quantify their push to cut emissions to the combined value of that promised by the United States in the Paris Accords.
As with most traditional foreign policies, the impetus for cities to collaborate internationally on climate change is driven by self-interest. Urban areas are significant sources of greenhouse gas emissions and pollution, and for similar reasons. Traffic congestion can look pretty much the same and can churn out the same carbon dioxide, in any big city. Inefficient heating and cooling of buildings increases urban reliance on electric power, much of which is generated by burning coal and other fossil fuels. In all, cities account for more than 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.
Moreover, the changes brought about by a warming world will hit cities in similar ways. Ninety percent of cities were built on coastal land. So, when it comes to adapting to rising tides and to increasing coastal flooding, Mumbai has as much to learn from Miami, Shanghai from New York, and New Orleans from Osaka, as any of these cities stands to gain from looking to their national capitals for help. Probably more so.
Large cities also trap heat at higher rates than rural areas as concrete and asphalt replace vegetation. Since 1950, for example, about 60 percent of the world’s urban population experienced warming that was twice as large as the global mean temperature increase, according to a new study of nearly 1,700 cities published in Nature Climate Change. When these local “heat island” effects are taken into account, the total economic cost of climate change to cities this century could be more than two-and-a-half times higher than when looking at global climate change data alone. “For the worst-off city,” they write, “losses could reach up to 10.9 percent of GDP by 2100.”
With this in mind, organizations such as the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, which is currently chaired by Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, have sprung up to work on solving common problems among major cities. In fact, “C40” has become a bit of a misnomer; the organization now has 90 affiliated cities, representing one in 12 people worldwide.
What may be less obvious is that when it comes to city-to-city coordination, climate change is not an outlier issue. To the contrary. On inequality, immigration, health, security, governance, human rights and a host of other critical issues, cities are increasingly bypassing national governments and looking to each other for solutions.
Simply put, urbanization is the most dynamic and consequential force of the 21st century. There are now more than 500 cities worldwide with a population of more than one million. But that statistic does not capture the staggering pace at which cities are growing. In 1950, roughly one-third of the world lived in urban areas. Today, just over half does. By 2050, two-thirds of humanity will live and work in urban areas. Right now, a Chicago-sized city is being added to the world’s urban population roughly every two weeks.
It is now also easier for cities to look to each other for solutions. National governments, which have lagged in recognizing the rising economic and cultural might of cities, are no longer the lone gatekeepers to cross-border diplomacy. Direct city-to-city coordination has become faster, more affordable, and more meaningful. Globalization and technology have removed barriers and shrunk distances. In fact, whole new structures and institutions to facilitate city-to-city diplomacy are emerging and maturing. Michele Acuto of University College London has found that the number of formal networks of coordination available to cities, networks such as C40, have quadrupled since the 1980s.
Like corporations and national governments, cities now have a vested interest in what their counterparts elsewhere are doing. The question of our time is not whether cities will defend and promote their values and interests globally. They already do. Instead, the question is whether local leaders will do so pretty much as it has been done before, in a piecemeal, transactional manner, or whether they will instead develop meaningful, coordinated global strategies.
Developing such a strategy would start with an inventory of the city’s assets and major actors. First, there is the city’s civic structure, made up of the municipal governments, think tanks, philanthropies, and ethnic groups. Second is the commercial web of businesses, corporations, and business services. Next is the educational establishment, with great universities at the top and effective K-12 schooling at the bottom. Finally, there is the cultural cornucopia ranging from museums and symphonies through to sports, recreation and fine restaurants that make a city a magnet for visitors and new residents alike. These four pillars already work well together in many major cities, but usually only within city limits. Too often each pillar confronts the larger world on its own, pursuing its own interests while neglecting the interests of the city in general. This is a lost opportunity.
Instead, cities need an institutional structure that in some ways mirror the foreign policy apparatus at the national level. They will need effective and efficient collaboration through regular meetings between leaders of the urban pillars, to coordinate and leverage their strengths on the global stage. They must have a global vision, supported by institutional infrastructure, at the top. City leaders, especially the mayor, must understand the city’s place in the global economy. And the mayor needs to be supported by a foreign office in City Hall, to lead the city-wide strategy.
Cities also need an honest broker or convener to lead the global conversation. Most cities have vibrant world affairs councils or think tanks able to be such a convener. Institutions such as the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, the Council on Global Affairs in Chicago, Chatham House in London, or IFRI in Paris fit this description. They must also have much more efficient structures for city institutions to support this policy. This means closer collaboration between the institutions promoting the city globally — whether they deal with trade, foreign direct investment, tourism, sister-city relationships, foreign students, or civic branding. Too often, these institutions work on their own, heedless of what other agencies are doing, jealous of their turf. Coherence demands that they be brought under one roof.
And cities need a presence abroad. This means not only regular global travel by the mayor and other officials but offices—mini-embassies—in the cities and countries where the city has its greatest interests. Cities such as Sao Paolo, London and Toronto have experimented with these mini-embassies. Spending taxpayer money on them remains controversial: a public-private partnership may be a possible solution. Finally, an effective city foreign policy for cities requires political support and participation. Most city councils remain parochial, convinced that all politics is local. Today, politics is global, too, and city politicians must widen their view beyond the city limits—and beyond the oceans.
None of these necessary steps will be easy. And the last step may be the hardest — to convince average citizens that they have a stake in their city’s global standing and active global engagement. These citizens must see and feel this foreign policy’s benefits in their everyday lives. If this policy embraces only a narrow cadre of leadership or a few affluent neighborhoods, it will fail.