Live From Mexico City:How Can You Change the System When You Are Only Given 1 ½ Minutes?
Mayors from around the world as well as policy officials from the EU and the U.S. government and the U.N. have been gathering here for the UCLG meeting in a lead-up to COP16. We were fortunate enough to catch a panel on where cities fit into the global fight against climate change yesterday.
While passions certainly ran high, it’s clear that there was also a great deal of consensus about how to organize and focus issues of sustainability and mitigating climate change in the world’s largest cities. As Rita Jo Lewis, special representative for global intergovernmental affairs at the State Department, quoted her boss Hilary Clinton, “mayors must make something happen every day.” The mayors of Stuttgart, Montreal and the former mayor of Mexico City, echoed this need for action, but in different ways.
Wolfgang Schuster, mayor of the German city of Stuttgart, emphasized that cities are “trying to address 21st century problems with system of government from 19th century”, pointing to institutions like the EU (recently strengthened by the Lisbon Treaty) as major players in climate change mitigation, because “a single state will not be solve issues like Climate Change alone”. It was interesting to see this approach contrasted with that of Alejandro Encinas, a former mayor of Mexico City, who seemed to think hyper-local was the way to go. (And by hyper-local, we mean participatory budgeting hyper local). He did make the rather important point that a city like Mexico City with almost 20 million inhabitants will face vastly more complicated issues than, say Stuttgart (600,000) or Montreal (1,8 million). Nevertheless, his complete rejection of federal and international efforts was interesting given that that is exactly what this conference is trying to achieve.
Gerald Tremblay, mayor of Montreal, on the other hand, talked about how the investments that Montreal made in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s have really paid off and resulted in a very diversified city economy that rests on aerospace, life sciences, IT, movies and even biofood systems. It seems like their citywide efforts to mitigate climate change are a direct result of the benefits they are reaping from those earlier investments.
David Morrison, executive secretary of the UNCDF, contributed that at the conversational level, our sense of urgency has to increase, and rapidly. Part of the issue in his eyes is that local governments aren’t particularly effective in getting out their message, particularly when it comes to new media and that cities really need to figure out how to engage their advocacy groups in a meaningful way (which we at SSC obviously wholeheartedly agree with). One suggestion he made was that local governments need something similar to a war room, where the hot button issues are worked down systematically and effectively. Is this realistic? No. Provocative, innovative, a radical solution to age old issues? Yes.
Then, Rita Jo Lewis quickly talked about some of the issues the Obama administration was dealing with, specifically how her departments outreach efforts had to refocus from change itself to simply getting a conversation about change going. The final panelist was Pedro Miranda, head of Siemens One, who talked about how a global company like Siemens is involved in cities and climate change. The private sector voice was particularly important because it moved away from some of the ‘intangibles’ and more towards what is being done now, what the solutions on the ground are and where the successes and failures are.
Now here is where it gets interesting. After all the panelists had talked, the moderator asked them to evaluate the claim that “cities are not the problem, they are the solution”. Mayor Tremblay got rather emotional about the politics at the United Nations, questioning the effectiveness of a body that “took decades to even recognize cities as a legitimate power at the table. Even now that they are recognized, they only get a minute and half to voice their concerns. It’s not just cities; biodiversity got all of 12 minutes at another pre-COP conference, in Bonn, Germany. If cities are the solution, where is their seat at the table? Cities contributed $100 billion to the UN development goals, that money is gone. Cities could have solved poverty with that money in this time”.
Morrison, the resident UN guy, responded by calling on cities to push harder. “Can you change the system in a minute and a half? No. But cities need to realize that lobbying the UN is not much different from lobbying on the Hill, you need a multi-year action plan that puts the needle where you want it to be. That means working the back halls, the lunch rooms, becoming more sophisticated in your lobbying.” He did not, of course, mention that municipalities hardly have the resources to staff their own fire departments, let alone hire expensive lobbyists with clever media strategies.
Nevertheless, this panel brought up a number of interesting issues, above all that as much as cities can and have been taking leadership, they cannot do it alone. All parts of society need to push harder, the local levels that Mr Encinas so clearly favoured, as well as the federal and international systems already in place. Mr Miranda made a good point in his closing remarks: “There are three major trends that humanity will have to face in the next twenty years: Climate Change, urbanisation and demographic change. Cities are in a unique position to shape the conversation here.” Let’s hope they don’t squander their opportunity.
Sustainable Cities Collective