Every five to seven years, the UN releases an assessment of key climate science. This summer, scientists dutifully announced that the chances of humans warming the earth have gone from “extremely likely” in 2014 to “unequivocal” in 2021. With all due respect to the future contributions of climate scientists, the policy discussion can safely move on from climate science to climate action.
And this action will be largely determined by the ambition of nations. As we observe this week in Glasgow, global leaders are negotiating their ambition to curb emissions through their new and updated nationally determined contributions (NDCs). But for cities, home to 56% of the global population, the national spotlight can leave their own role ambiguous.
That is a sobering prospect, especially for plucky mayors and their highly activated constituents. But there are powerful ways to leverage cities in the climate emergency. By recognizing intergovernmental realities, cities can use a kind of jujitsu to get things done with wisdom rather than raw power.
The City of Philadelphia provides a useful example. It’s the poorest large city in the U.S. and suppressed by a Pennsylvania legislature run by the opposite party. And on climate change, the same might be said of today’s fossil fuel interests as was once said of Standard Oil: they can do anything to the state legislature except refine it. So while few cities are as dependent on their state and national government as Philadelphia for an effective climate policy to foster a clean energy transition, there are still real opportunities, like:
Lobbying the right actor. Cities should mobilize state and national governments for the policies needed to drive emissions reductions because more is, and will always be, better. But cities should mobilize locally on adaptation to deal with the impacts of climate change which will only get worse over this decade. Surviving other people’s failures will define successful regions in coming years.
Embracing high carbon prices. Density is a competitive advantage in a zero-carbon world. Transit, infrastructure, shared services, and resilience are density’s offspring and they all thrive under carbon pricing policies. A great jujitsu throw would be to transform the Philadelphia Gas Works from a publicly owned catastrophic carbon liability into the world’s largest, most efficient, and lowest-cost heating and cooling utility by converting it into a ground-source heat-pump network. Capturing other people’s money in the form of carbon demand will define successful regions in coming years.
Aggressively reorganizing. Philadelphia’s greatest inventions have always been organizational: the Pennsylvania Railroad invented modern management, the Fairmount Park system invented watershed management for industrial cities, the Constitutional Convention invented the very document that organizes our country. Out-organizing other people’s survival strategies will define successful regions in coming decade.
This means that as the world concludes COP26 in Glasgow, and as nations finalize their commitments to ratchet up their climate action, cities will be planting their feet and tightening their holds to toss intransigent incumbent governments and industries out of the way of progress.