Climate changed urbanism?

Harriet Bulkeley, Laura Tozer and Emma Lecavalier


Over the past two decades, climate change has escaped the conventional spatial moorings of global environmental issues to become understood not only as a matter of the international arena but also one that has a particularly urban nature. Whilst other such challenges - from species loss to ocean pollution - remain resolutely global in the imaginaries they generate and in the form of their politics, climate change has come to be understood as fundamentally connected to global urbanism. In return, those seeking to articulate the ways in which cities are now necessarily global frequently point to their collective contributions to the changing atmosphere and to the levelling effect of its impacts. Urbanism is now global by virtue of its role in producing and inhabiting a climate changed world. As global urbanism comes to be deeply tied into questions of climate change and its future, in this chapter, we seek to explore how and why we have come to understand climate change in relation to the urban and at the same time to question the ways in which climate has come to change the nature of urbanism. We argue that the portrayal of climate change as a deeply urban issue has been the result of decades of effective political work to position cities as strategically (and economically) important in the governing of climate responses. At the same time, bringing climate into the city has begun to shift the terrain of the urban present and its futures.Yet the extent to which such shifts have been fundamental in reconstituting global urbanism is moot. We argue that evidence for transformative approaches to climate changed cities are as yet few and far between but suggest that they must form a cornerstone for the future of global urbanism.

Urbanising climate change

Cities have come to occupy a central place in the political imaginary of climate change. This relates both to their material entanglement with the global atmosphere and the political work that has taken place over the past three decades to position cities not only as part of the climate problem but also its solution (Bulkeley and Betsill, 2013).Whilst calculations vary and figures are heavily contested, it is thought that cities currently contribute between 60% and 70% of energy- related greenhouse gas emissions to the global atmosphere and that the vast majority of future emissions of this kind will arise from the growth of cities in the non-OECD world (IEA, 2016). At the same time, cities are seen to lie in the path of the climate storm: large coastal populations and property assets are at risk from coastal flooding whilst others are seen to be vulnerable to the effects of extreme heat and water shortage (Revi et al., 2014). Whilst the discourse of climate change as a global commons problem in need of a collective international response has persisted, the powerful mobilisation of a narrative that has positioned climate change as a fundamentally urban problem by a host of cities and the transnational organisations that seek to represent them has questioned the naturalisation of the global climate problem as necessarily one of international politics. Coupled with images of climate-related urban disasters - from Hurricane Katrina to Hurricane Sandy, the Cape Town drought to the Parisian heatwave - the rendition of the globally urban nature of the climate change problem has now been widely accepted within both scientific and policy circles. If, for example, it took more than a decade for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to explicitly mention cities as a part of the climate challenge, by the time of its special report focusing on how to sustain a global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees, cities were identified “as one of four critical global systems that can accelerate and upscale climate action”(Bazaz et al., 2018: 6). Such has been the momentum behind the urbanisation of climate change that in 2018, the IPCC held a meeting dedicated to the urban contribution to the climate change challenge, with the objective of bringing together research, policy, and practitioner communities to carve out an agenda for the next decade of climate science (Bai et al., 2018). With a significant investment of both resources and political capital, CitiesIPCC was unique not only for its focus on the urban agenda and for bringing together diverse knowledge communities from beyond the academy but also as the first meeting ever held to establish the climate research agenda. Marking a significant step-change in the way in which climate change has come to be urbanised over the past three decades, it is a testament to the weight now placed on cities as central means through which climate responses can take place.

Indeed, it has been this framing of cities not only as fundamental to the climate problem but also as essential to its solution that has been critical to the urbanisation of climate change. Over three decades, the framing of the potential for an urban response to climate change has shifted. During the 1990s, the focus was on the actions that municipal authorities could undertake on a voluntary basis to demonstrate their commitment to a global cause - a frame within which cities were mostly regarded in terms of their public authorities and relevant action seen in terms of the kinds of action that could generate both momentum internationally for the cause and additional benefits in terms of financial savings locally. The landmark Kyoto Protocol, after a few false starts as US intransigence made its political future appear uncertain, ushered in a new decade of urbanising climate change as the issue came to be regarded as one of both political and economic strategic importance. The first few years of the new century saw a number of new organisations formed precisely in order to mobilise climate change as a matter of strategic urbanism, from the work ofThe Climate Group, established to generate interest amongst businesses and subnational governments in the benefits of climate action, to the C40, a transnational network established with the express purpose of bringing together global cities to form a ‘climate leadership group’ and the explicit engagement of a host of philanthropic bodies, development banks, and global organisations in promoting, supporting, and delivering an urbanised climate agenda.

Such manifestations of climate change as an urban issue were not simply urban in general but urbanised in particular ways that played into and through existing discourses about what it might mean to be a ‘global’ city on the one hand and along neoliberal lines on the other. For Marvin and Hodson, in an era of “resource constraints and climate change, national security, infrastructure ‘protection’ and economic competitiveness are being overlaid with concerns around energy security, constraints on water resources, the growth of diseases, increased flood risks and multiple aspects of demographic shifts” in such a manner that the reproduction of the (municipal) state came to be understood as a matter of ensuring ‘urban ecological security’ (Hodson and Marvin, 2009:195). Consequently, they suggest, the positioning of global cities as an essential part of the solution to climate change can be read as part of advancing the interests of and futures for particular urban centres and specific communities within them, often at the expense of‘ordinary’ cities. Likewise, in her work, Wakefield (Wakefield, 2018: 5) has shown how the mobilisation of discourses concerning the need for resilience in the face of climate change has generated an “imaginary of ubiquitous crisis”, which in turn “is ushering in a new set of management techniques to further‘secure’ the city and its populations” (see also Braun, 2014; Wakefield and Braun, 2014). Similarly, in their work on climate disaster preparedness in Cancun, Mexico, Manuel- Navarrete et al. (2011) found the persistence of development visions focused on mass tourism coupled with neoliberal discourses of adaptation and resilience served to further entrench urban inequalities. What these studies reveal is the variety of conditions under which climate action in cities can forge synergies between neoliberal economic thinking and global urbanism.

It is clear then that the urbanisation of climate change is neither politically neutral nor without ethical consequence. Positioning cities as climate heroes with added benefits - capable of saving the planet whilst also saving themselves - has served to do particular political work in rendering climate change a problem amenable to solutions which are compatible with neoliberal thinking about the nature of the state, economy, and individual. At the same time, focusing on some of these more prominent discourses is to neglect the multiplicity of ways in which climate has come to be framed as an urban problem with the potential for resolution. Climate change is being rendered urban through diverse actor configurations in ways that seek to generate a more progressive form of politics. Transition towns are one example of such action taking place through a transnational platform, where climate is made urban precisely in order to reconfigure global economic orders and to engender a sense of community, and there are quite literally thousands of other interventions taking place globally in which are also seeking alternative ways of advancing alternative urbanised climate agendas (Hoffmann, 2011; Bouteligier, 2013; Lee, 2013). In practice, urban experimentation forges dynamic connections across social, technical, and political systems, pluralising agency and shifting relationalities within and beyond the spatial bounds of the urban system. Consequently, this heterotopic world of urban climate change experiments helps us understand global urbanism by highlighting the many ways that interventions in cities influence interconnected systems with global reach, in turn usurping traditional spatial boundaries by dissolving distinctions between global systems and urban ones.

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