Cities and Climate Change: causes of concern or options for optimism?

‘When you study the politics of climate change, it is very easy to become cynical and distraught, but we have to remember that there is hope. Beneath the layers of inaction and delay, there is an energy and vitality humming away, and being privy to that is more than enough cause for hope.’

'Leading streets and residential suburbs from Port Melbourne, Southbank to Melbourne city CBD’. Image by Taras Vyshnya, sourced via Shutterstock, stock photo ID 1066728428.

2018 SEI Honours Research Fellow, Patrick Cain reflects on his Honours research which examined the role of cities in the international response to climate change.

When we began to consider the topics of our research, and to truly begin the process of writing a fourth year honours thesis, my cohort went in many different directions. Some were drawn to political theory; others to exploring the dynamics of terrorism, or other forms of political violence; while others considered the nature of political persuasion through social media. For me, the obvious topic to examine was the role of cities in the international response to climate change.

City governments are certainly highly visible advocates for more substantial commitments to international climate action. Mayors around the world have taken advantage of their position, claiming a mantle as the authorities most perceptive and closest to the concerns of their constituents, particularly to issues traditionally considered beyond their ability to solve or manage, such as climate change and global epidemics. Given the ongoing difficulties in answering these global questions, let alone convincing enough countries of the scope of the problem to be solved, cities are increasingly taking centre stage. Through organisations such as the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability) and the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Network, city governments are declaring themselves key global actors; in an age of hyper-connectedness, cities are breaking loose from their geographical chains. The coming of the urban age is put most clearly and potently by former mayor of New York City, billionaire and philanthropist Michael Bloomberg – “When nations talk, cities act.” My thesis sought to put this maxim to the test. This research project sought to understand the actual impact that these local authorities could take, located in our very own Australian context. In particular, focus were Sydney and Melbourne, two key centres of the Australian economy that are active international gateways to the rest of the world, notable for their environmental activism and their prominent membership of international networks. Over the course of my year of research, I was attempting to understand the actual capacity for these urban actors to make a difference in Australia’s contorted and complicated political-environmental nexus.

Australian climate politics is contentious, to say the least. Climate and energy politics and policies have been key determinants in the downfall of numerous recent prime ministerships. Establishing a coherent and ambitious policy program has remained difficult, even as year after year the detrimental effects of a changing climate are readily apparent. This is where Australian cities enter the equation. The course of my research involved an examination of the policies concerned with sustainability and climate change adopted by the cities of Sydney and Melbourne. These spanned from large scale, long term planning documents such as the highly praised ‘Sustainable Sydney 2030’ plan to individual strategies each designed to respond to a particular facet of the climate question, such as the city of Melbourne’s Renewable Energy Program (MREP), a unique long term group purchasing arrangement to enable an approved solar farm to begin construction, by enlisting other stakeholders to commit to this same process themselves, creating a blueprint for other groups to follow in the process.

Examining the context surrounding the adoption of these policies, through the minutes of council meetings as these strategies were enshrined in both cities, I was able to find a group of interviewees who were willing to respond to my questions about the process of establishing innovative climate strategies within a political system where the chips may be stacked against them. Talking to council officers and councillors themselves, both past and present, I was able to develop a more nuanced image of the Australian local government in a rapidly changing world. Sketching the diverse climate policies adopted by the cities of Sydney and Melbourne highlighted a number of strategies that Australian city governments have used in order to move beyond their structural restrictions. This included trading on their social and economic capital to engage with other actors, such as international organisations and other local governments, in order to widen their scope of action to satisfy some of their ambitions for climate action.

Further, actors at both cities frequently centred climate change as a pragmatic issue, to be echoed and responded to through every policy adopted by both cities. Councillors at both cities remarked on the disempowerment of the vitriol marking the national narrative surrounding climate change at the local level. There is certainly some truth to the notion that Australian cities are animating responses to climate change that take it far beyond their geographical and structural boundaries. When you study the politics of climate change, it is very easy to become cynical and distraught, but we have to remember that there is hope. Beneath the layers of inaction and delay, there is an energy and vitality humming away, and being privy to that is more than enough cause for hope.

Undertaking a thesis is a daunting and exhilarating task. Over twelve months, there are tears and laughter, joy and sadness, surprise, excitement, tiredness, stress. When it comes to studying and acting on the challenge of climate change, the lesson I’ve learned is that optimism and hope are essential companions if we want to move forward. For all of their contradictions, and despite the inequalities they sometimes represent, cities can be natural beacons of optimism and progress; more than anything, a healthy and successful city brings together people from all walks of life, who have the capacity to see themselves as part of a greater whole. The next step will be to harness that energy, to continue to expand our solutions wherever they may emerge. That future shines brightly indeed.

Patrick Cain is a 2018 SEI Honours Research Fellow, with a Bachelor of International and Global Studies, with majors in Government and International Relations and French Studies. He undertook honours in the Department of Government and International Relations, and his research explored the capacity of cities to act as policy entrepreneurs, shifting the discursive landscape surrounding climate change and sustainable development.