The Politics of Urban Climate Change

By Sara Hughes (University of Toronto) 

Cities are becoming an important focal point for climate change policy: they are responsible for a large portion of energy-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and have shown tremendous leadership in committing to GHG emissions reductions, even as many national governments fail to do so. Indeed, Scientific American recently claimed that, “Climate Change Will be Solved in Cities – Or Not at All” and more than one thousand city leaders attended the recent international climate change negotiations in Paris. But, despite the growth in policy attention to climate change in cities, we have a relatively poor understanding of the political dynamics that underpin urban climate change solutions.

My aim is to draw attention to what I call the “political entry points” that emerge as cities take up climate change policy, and specifically policies that are designed to reduce GHG emissions. These political entry points provide opportunities for theoretically informed, interdisciplinary urban politics research that also contributes to the practice of governing climate change in cities.

In highlighting some of the important but understudied political dynamics of urban climate change policy, I hope to accomplish two things. First, I hope to persuade more urban scholars – defined broadly – to take up these issues in their own research by highlighting the ways in which urban climate change policy engages and overlaps with many long-standing concerns in urban governance and politics scholarship. Second, I hope to contribute to a more nuanced discussion of the role cities play in the broader landscape of climate change policy. While the policy leadership of cities has been a spark of hope in an otherwise rather dismal landscape, they face a unique set of political challenges that must be navigated effectively if we are to achieve significant reductions in GHG emissions.

The first political entry point in urban climate change policy is the mayoral champion. Mayors are often the face of urban climate change policies and programs and can serve as important champions for the actions required to reduce their city’s GHG emissions. This raises questions about the role of leadership in urban policymaking, the factors that influence the ability of mayors to implement their policy agendas, and the influence of political institutions (such as executive power structures) on mayoral policy priorities.

The second and third political entry points arise from the need for inter-sectoral and inter-jurisdictional coordination in order to meet GHG reduction goals. Accomplishing policy tasks such as increasing public transportation infrastructure and ridership, reducing energy use in large commercial buildings, and introducing more renewable energy supplies to the city’s portfolio is likely to require coordination and cooperation among departments, and between the city and other actors at multiple levels. This raises questions about the administrative and coordination mechanisms being used to accomplish these tasks, the ability of city governments to mobilize such a diverse array of resources, the distribution and exercise of power in urban governance arrangements, and the role of inter-municipal or regional scale governing bodies in solving collective action problems like reducing GHG emissions.

The fourth political entry point arises as a result of the tensions between long-term outcomes and short-term preferences inherent in policies designed to reduce GHG emissions. Inter-temporal decision making and tradeoffs in cities are not well understood, and climate change policy provides a unique avenue for gaining greater insight into how and when cities prioritize the long-term payoffs of reducing GHG emissions.

Finally, reducing GHG emissions, on the whole, costs money. This leads to the fifth political entry point: new revenue streams must be identified, or existing revenue redirected, in order to fund the programs and investments needed to reduce GHG emissions. These revenue demands raise important questions about how new public programs are funded, who bears the cost, and whether funding strategies and opportunities are likely to shape the policy outcomes.

Taken together, this initial set of research opportunities presented by urban climate change policy presents an important opportunity to gain new insight into long-standing questions and support the efforts of municipal leaders to address one of the world’s most pressing collective challenges.

Read the Journal Article that this is based on here.

Suggested Reading

Arup. 2014. “Climate Action in Megacities: C40 Cities Baseline and Opportunities Volume 2.0.” London, UK. http://c40.org/blog_posts/CAM2.

Bulkeley, Harriet. 2010. “Cities and the Governing of Climate Change.” Annual Review of Environment and Resources 35 (1): 229–53. doi:10.1146/annurev-environ-072809-101747.

Bulkeley, Harriet, and Michele M. Betsill. 2013. “Revisiting the Urban Politics of Climate Change.” Environmental Politics 22 (1): 136–54. doi:10.1080/09644016.2013.755797.

Hughes, Sara. 2015. “A Meta-Analysis of Urban Climate Change Adaptation Planning in the U.S.” Urban Climate. Accessed September 30. doi:10.1016/j.uclim.2015.06.003.

Marcotullio, Peter J., Sara Hughes, Andrea Sarzynski, Stephanie Pincetl, Landy Sanchez Peña, Patricia Romero-Lankao, Daniel Runfola, and Karen C. Seto. 2014. “Urbanization and the Carbon Cycle: Contributions from Social Science.” Earth’s Future 2 (10): 2014EF000257. doi:10.1002/2014EF000257.


Sara Hughes is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto. Her research focuses on urban politics, the institutions of local government, urban environmental policy, and the politics of local climate change response. Current projects examine the implementation of climate change policy in large cities; transitions in urban waste management; the determinants of policy attention in local governments; and building capacity for adaptation in cities.  In 2013 Sara was named a Clarence N. Stone Scholar by the urban politics section of the American Political Science Association.

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