This is the first in Dr. Rosenthal’s three-part series on “Cities and Our Future: Governance in the Anthropocene.”
When President Trump proclaimed that the United States would withdraw from the Paris climate accord, he claimed to represent the “citizens of Pittsburgh not Paris.” Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto was quick to respond, tweeting “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.”
This exchange illustrates one of the most pressing challenges of the Anthropocene: who will govern the complex global forces unleashed by the interactions between humans and the environment. Mayor Peduto’s tweet points to a key question: can cities (and mayors) in fact provide the leadership required in this new era? For the Anthropocene—defined as our current geologic epoch in which humankiund has emerged as a significant force shaping the future of the planet – raises fundamental questions about environmental governance.
In this first of three posts I explore the local officials’ incentives to act (or to shirk responsibility) on urban environmental management. The next post will consider cities in the context of state and federal governance, and the final post will propose a revival of an ethic of “municipal housekeeping.”
Political Incentives of City Officials
The political incentives for local government leaders are on one level fairly straight-forward, yet on another level extremely complicated. City leaders can make environmental progress while saving money through energy efficient practices, delivering day-to-day fundamental services such as safe drinking water and reliable wastewater reclamation, or satisfying citizen demands for recycling and bike paths. Constituents hold city officials directly accountable for these municipal service expectations and will reward elected officials who deliver the goods. The politics are consensual, of limited controversy, and favored by the large majority.
But there are more complex public policy challenges without easy answers. City officials cannot duck the confluence of urban growth, inadequate infrastructure investment, and the impact of severe weather events resulting from increased climate variability. City mayors must confront costly economic and infrastructural challenges in their communities. Municipal first-responders must be prepared in the event of extreme weather events. Solutions to these challenges are not easy.
Take for example the cycles of severe drought and extreme heat which are magnified in urban areas and fall unevenly on those who live in poverty. The Centers for Disease Control report extreme heat exposure caused more than 7,800 deaths in the U.S. from 1999 through 2009. One in four deaths from weather-related events is caused by extreme heat. “Urban heat islands” of concrete and asphalt increase temperatures by 10°F or more than surrounding rural areas and hold that heat longer. Tall buildings reduce potentially cooling air flows, and most urban environments may lack trees and other vegetation to shade and cool the area. The 1995 heat wave, which struck Chicago, Illinois, resulted in more than 500 deaths in a four-day period, with the victims being disproportionately elderly, black, and poor (Klinenberg 2002).
Another infrastructure challenge affecting many communities is the management of stormwater. Urban development increases runoff from rainfall and snowmelt by removing vegetation, compacting soils, grading the land surface, disrupting natural drainage basins, and increasing impervious surface. The volume and frequency of floods increase, and buildings constructed in flood-prone areas are exposed to greater flood hazards as a result of new development.
The Union of Concerned Scientists notes that as average temperatures have risen, more rain has fallen during the heaviest downpours. Very heavy precipitation events — defined as the heaviest one percent– now drop 67 percent more precipitation in the Northeast, 31 percent more in the Midwest, and 15 percent more in the Great Plains, compared to 50 years ago. Stormwater run-off can quickly overwhelm other municipal infrastructure including sewer pipes, roads, and bridges. Like the impacts of extreme heat and drought, flooding has a disparate impact on persons living in poverty as was demonstrated so dramatically with Hurricane Katrina.
As these examples suggest, the problems of the urban environment are not simply about delivering services efficiently and effectively, but often take on redistributive elements, regulatory challenges with important equity dimensions, and big ticket investment choices which are often highly politically contested. While some policies involved with climate protection represent day-to-day city programs such as sanitation, transportation and land use, and building codes, increasingly the issues associated with climate variability and sustainability tackle problems that do not recognize jurisdictional boundaries and bring into conflict competing goals of economic growth, environmental protection, and social equity. Ironically, the very things that cities celebrate as successes – new development, more people, new business investment, bigger budgets – are inextricably entwined with the consumption of more fossil fuels and are the source of increased environmental impacts that must be managed and mitigated.
Nonetheless, hundreds of U.S. mayors of communities large and small have expressed their commitment to leadership on efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to and alleviate local impacts on the environment. As Burnsville, Minnesota, Mayor Elizabeth Kautz, a USCM Past President has stated, “Mayors won’t quit. We care about the environment and energy efficiency. Mayors will make a difference. Mayors will come together to get this done. We must protect the planet.”
Cities in the Metropolitan Context
Cities matter to defining our future, simply because that is where more and more of us live. In the U.S., the 2010 Census reported almost 81 percent of the U.S. population lived in urban areas, up from 79 percent in 2000. The Census Bureau includes towns with as few as 2500 people in its definition of “urban”, so not all areas live up to our stereotypic image of a city. Perhaps a more accurate conception of growing urbanization is captured in the metropolitan statistical areas and the Census Bureau’s identification of 486 “urbanized areas” of 50,000 or more people, accounting for 71 percent of the U.S. population. Thirty individual cities across the U.S. are home to more citizens than the least populated states (Wyoming and Vermont), and the eight largest metropolitan areas have populations larger than 30 of the states. Increasing urbanization within multi-jurisdictional metropolitan areas presents new challenges for governance. For example, as Sunbelt cities like Oklahoma City attempt to wean themselves from car-centric transportation modes and create solutions to regional traffic congestion, whole new governing structures and interlocal relationships must emerge to facilitate cooperation and build regional transit capacity.
Political scientists Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley (2013) argue that these urban conglomerations are successfully asserting leadership and using collaboration to overcome competitive zero-sum politics to create new economic policies. But can cities find common ground to do the same on environmental issues? The conglomeration of formally independent jurisdictions in our largest metropolitan areas paradoxically means both that those individual cities cannot successfully act on their own, and that opportunities for them to avoid action abound. This complexity in intergovernmental relations mirrors the complexity of the environmental challenge. Global forces do not follow national borders let alone city boundaries.
While each metro area has a unique makeup, an example illustrates the complexity of the challenge. The Greater St. Louis metropolitan area, 20th largest in terms of population at 2.9 million, encompasses not only the original City of St. Louis but all or parts of eight Illinois counties, ten Missouri counties, and upwards of 100 municipalities in St. Louis County, itself a separate governing structure over the area immediately west of St. Louis City. Today the City of St. Louis includes an estimated population of 311,404, compared with more than a million residents in St. Louis County. Many of the suburbs grew in population as highly segregated communities resulting from a history of school segregation, housing discrimination, and racially-driven policies governing interstate highways and infrastructure development. The Mississippi River, once the natural boundary between Missouri and Illinois, is crisscrossed in a variety of ways and represents a shared resource. Individual jurisdictions have multiple opportunities to shirk responsibility for environmental management, and promoting regional collaboration is exceedingly difficult given the history of the region.
Taking Up the Challenge
The U.S. Conference of Mayors has spearheaded local government climate protection efforts since 2005 and has strongly opposed President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord. Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, who chairs the USCM environment committee, asserted “We see the withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord as an abdication of American leadership and America’s mayors will certainly fill that void … This is a local issue that mayors must come together on and we will not shirk our responsibilities.”
Some analysts see the divide between the President and mayors solely in partisan political terms. Most academic studies of which cities have been on the forefront of urban environmental management identify partisan affiliation as a significant variable. Cities with more Democratic voters are more likely to publicly commit to climate protection initiatives. But partisanship is not the sole determinant or the most impactful. Other factors include education levels in a community, form of local government, bureaucratic capacity, and mayoral leadership.
In addition, I argue in research on this topic that local officials may face more homogeneous constituencies than elected officials at the state and national level (Rosenthal et al 2015). The like-mindedness of their citizens means local elected officials may see their incentives for action outweigh the challenges of intergovernmental cooperation and the pressures to follow partisan talking points.
As Carmel, Indiana Mayor Jim Brainard, USCM’s Energy Independence and Climate Protection Task Force Co-Chair, points out, bipartisan collaboration is possible. “Eighty percent of Carmel votes Republican, but I have yet to meet a citizen who wants to drink dirty water, breathe dirty air, and doesn’t want to leave the earth in better condition for their children and grandchildren.”
Let’s hope he is right.
Part 2: Green Cities, Red States