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Urban Breakthrough
Cities Increasingly Asserting Themselves on Global Governance Stage

Photo Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

A woman protests US President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate accord on June 1, 2017, in New York. Hundreds of city leaders reacted to Trump’s decision with defiance, saying they would continue to honor the pledges made in the deal. (Photo Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)


"I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” President Donald Trump declared at the White House in Washington, DC, on June 1, 2017, after announcing he would pull the United States out of the Paris climate change agreement. Within minutes, Pittsburgh’s mayor, Bill Peduto, was responding to the president on Twitter.

“The United States joins Syria, Nicaragua & Russia in deciding not to participate with world’s Paris Agreement. It’s now up to cities to lead,” Peduto tweeted. “As the Mayor of Pittsburgh, I can assure you that we will follow the guidelines of the Paris Agreement for our people, our economy & future.”

Friction among state and substate actors is nothing new. But climate change is one issue where the role of urban leaders is growing in importance, according to Ian Klaus, a former senior adviser for global cities at the US Department of State and deputy US negotiator for Habitat III, the 2016 UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development.

In a phone interview with the Stanley Foundation in June, Klaus said the decision of hundreds of American city leaders to diverge from the president’s official stance on the Paris Agreement was a “remarkable moment in diplomacy.” But it also highlighted the necessity of other multilateral players, such as civil society and nonstate actors, to help cities implement climate action. Scores of university and business leaders also have declared their support for the Paris Agreement, along with networks such as the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group and the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy, and organizations such as Bloomberg Philanthropies have pledged financial assistance.

Even with the support of civil society, nonstate actors, and other substate leaders such as governors, however, Klaus said that it will be a “great challenge” for US cities to implement the Paris Agreement.

Institutional Holes

“In terms of expertise, cities need to understand the politics of the United Nations, especially if they’re going to step in and say they’re going to try to honor the Paris Agreement to the degree they can, and interact often through an arbiter at the United Nations,” Klaus said. “That’s very complicated because they’re also running their own cities and have limited budgets. So from the city standpoint there’s a question of how and when they engage and doing that effectively and efficiently in a way that serves their cities well.”

(Photo courtesy of C40)Mayors of major cities, including Paris, Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, Amman, Milan, and Los Angeles, ride Ecobici shared bikes through the streets of Mexico City in November 2016 during the C40 Mayors Summit. The C40 network of 91 cities is committed to urgent action on climate change. City leaders increasingly are finding common ground on a variety of issues. (Photo courtesy of C40)


“Take the United Nations or the IMF [International Monetary Fund], or the World Bank, or the OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development]—there’s a question of whether the diplomats and the bureaucrats and the technocrats in those organizations understand urban issues. So in that space, which isn’t necessarily a process, but rather a shared language, I think there’s a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done,” Klaus said.

Klaus said the world’s multilateral governance structures such as the United Nations, OECD, World Bank, and IMF were built to work at the nation-state level.

“If you want to, as these organizations do, solve some of the challenges that we’re all facing, it’s paramount that they figure out how to work on the city level. There are all sorts of challenges that can be addressed at the city level, but our international institutions are geared to operate more with capitals.”

That isn’t to say, however, that these institutions should stop dealing with nation-states. “The Westphalian system and the nation-state aren’t over, nor should we want them to be,” Klaus said. “They’re the bedrock of an international order that’s allowed for a period of peace and stability that is nearly unprecedented. But you have to recognize that if you care about anything from human rights to health to economic opportunity, more people are in cities and more people will be in cities than ever before.”

A Closer Relationship

According to the 2016 World Cities Report from UN Habitat, by the year 2030, more than 60 percent of the world’s population will be living in urban environments.

“Some of the key global macro trends are making cities and the voice of mayors and city hall more important than ever before,” Klaus said. “As an example, if you are in the innovation economy and you’re thinking about ridesharing or apartment sharing, state governments, provincial governments, and city governments often are the regulatory keys. And so we have a shift in a lot of issues, from climate to the nature of economic growth, that I think is making cities also more important. You have this convergence of population, demographics with other trends in the economy, and security and climate.”

The relationship that citizens have with their cities also often diverges from their view of national government, Klaus said, and differs “all over the world.”

“I do think that there are some interesting advantages between municipalities and their citizens and/or residents that nation-states increasingly have a harder time with,” Klaus said. “If you go back to Jane Jacobs and [her book] The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she talks about how in megacities, or very large cities, you need to have wards or smaller districts, and the fundamental notion that scale allows a certain type of expertise, a certain type of nuance, and a certain level of depth in relationships to govern. And that gets really hard at 330 million people or 500 million people or 1.3 billion people if you’re a national capital trying to have the nuance, have the sensitivity, and have the personal relationships.”

“And so I think, especially with some new forms of technology, citizens can have a much closer relationship with their city hall and with their civic leaders than they can with their national leaders. That’s an advantage; it allows people in municipal government to build trust, for instance. It allows citizens to verify whether or not what their mayors or other city leaders are saying is actually happening.”

(Carlos Jasso/Reuters)Green lights illuminate the Angel of Independence monument in Mexico City in support in the Paris climate accord on June 1, 2017, after US President Donald Trump announced his decision that the United States will withdraw from the accord. Leaders of a number of global cities lit up their monuments in green that day to show their continued support for the Paris accord. (Carlos Jasso/Reuters)


The Role of Partners

Klaus said the challenges that cities are facing often have a global origin but require action on the local level. So working with partners on the world stage can be of great assistance.

“I’m told from the mayors I know that mayors definitely have a sense of being in a special club in terms of the pressures that they’re under because they simultaneously have to operate within their national hierarchal structures, they’re facing global challenges, they’re facing local politics, and are really trying to make their cities work,” Klaus said. “It’s not necessarily heavily politicized; they’re trying to keep the cities functioning and inclusive and safe. And so I think they can share a vision that isn’t too political, and then when you get beyond the politics, you’re having conversations about policy. And that’s why they work together so much, because they’re looking for policy solutions and policy innovations that work. Also, mayors are often quite blunt, which I think makes them unique in international gatherings and certainly lets them stand out and draws them to each other.”

But when working on the global stage, city leaders need buy-in from citizens, as well as civil society and nonstate actors, Klaus cautioned.

“If you think civil society in part represents our cities, it’s even more important than ever to make sure they have a presence in the room and that their expertise is brought to bear through policy papers, statements, being present in the hall, and having informal discussions with negotiators,” Klaus said.

It’s Not Just Cities

Klaus anticipates that substate diplomacy will only grow in the coming years. In fact, US cities aren’t the only ones increasingly engaging with foreign nation-states. After President Trump announced the US departure from the Paris Agreement, California Governor Jerry Brown announced the formation of the US Climate Alliance, journeyed to China for multilateral discussions, and announced a 2018 global climate summit in San Francisco. Also, the New York Times reported that Canada has begun engaging with US cities on climate action.

“I think we’re increasingly seeing that cities and states and counties, and provinces in other countries, can take action. And, obviously, because of the pressure they are under from their own citizens, because of the moral calling to deal with an issue such as climate change, I think we’ll see more action than ever for sure,” Klaus said. “It’s a tremendous moment.”


— Francie Williamson, The Stanley Foundation
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