A Reason for Optimism? Global Knowledge Networks for Climate Change

Capital Cities Exhibit at Uni of Canberra

The student exhibit at the University of Canberra focused on the four planned national capitals of Australia, Canada, Brazil, and the US. This collage of photos highlights works that explored relationships between human, physical, and natural capital in each city. (Click to enlarge)

By Dana Dolan.  

Canberra, the national capital of Australia, turned 100 years old in 2013, and its year-long Centennial Celebration included a fascinating art exhibit. Through models, sculptures, and posters, students explored the meanings and impacts of four purposely planned capital cities: Canberra, Brasilia, Ottawa and my own metropolitan home of Washington, DC.

As I walked through the exhibit, my thoughts cycled between the particular and the general. Each architect-artist had a message to communicate about a single city, while the exhibit as a whole encouraged connections and comparisons between them. A number of pieces drew links between the human, physical, and natural capital in each city, shifting my attention from place-based comparisons to the cumulative effects of planning challenges and decisions.

Cities, Globalization, and Climate Change

Globalization raises important policy questions about whether, and if so how, urbanization should be encouraged as a benefit to society. Various economies of scale accrue to denser human settlements. The eco-city movement and other promising experiments are positioning urban areas as innovation labs for addressing climate change causes and effects. Yet cities are also major contributors to global greenhouse gases, with ecological footprints that spread far beyond their urban boundaries.

Cities took an early leadership position on reducing the greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming (climate change mitigation) through initiatives such as the Mayor’s Agreement on Climate Change. Since then, City Climate Action Plans have proliferated with assistance from global knowledge sharing networks such as ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability. The cumulative impact of these efforts is uncertain, however, since greenhouse gas reductions have turned out to be difficult to measure. Future local government efforts may be limited since initial efforts targeted projects that had clear co-benefits to municipalities, and were often funded by subsidies from higher levels of government.

Cities are uniquely vulnerable to the negative impacts of climate change, making them central sites for climate change adaptation efforts. Many coastal cities such as those in the Delta Alliance are already dealing with sea-level rise, a slow-moving crisis that impacts land use and natural resource availability. The negative impacts of sea-level rise are felt acutely when combined with extreme weather events, which are predicted to occur more frequently in a warming world. This combination can create unprecedented burdens on disaster response organizations and displace large populations, sometimes permanently. For example, the population of New Orleans remains depressed after Katrina. In other cities, population may be augmented by climate refugees from rural areas. Bangladesh or small island nations like Tuvalu are often cited as examples of this dynamic.

Sustainable Knowledge Networks

It is no surprise that cities are increasingly vocal actors in global policy discourses, in light of the trends described above. Formal global alliances between cities have been instrumental in building awareness of climate change, sharing strategies for reducing greenhouse gases, and promoting action to protect the people, infrastructure, and natural capital that make cities the economic hotspots that they are. One highly visible example is the Clinton Climate Initiative’s C40 Cities program, which focuses on connecting the 40 cities with the largest populations across the globe.

Within these knowledge networks, direct comparisons often provide the foundation for collaboration. Sustainability-inspired measures and rankings can highlight innovative leaders, which then provide models and incentivize beneficial competition among cities and prompt laggards to step up their efforts. While these activities can provide motivation for learning, innovative approaches are needed to facilitate, and accelerate, technical exchange and policy learning.

The Unique Position of Capital Cities

The four capital cities spotlighted in this exhibit are members of the Capitals Alliance, a knowledge exchange network built on the belief that the symbolic and political importance of planned capitals creates unique problems as well as opportunities to learn from each other. The alliances’ interests are broad in scope, while participation appears to be limited to city and regional planning departments. Given the challenges of climate change and the ongoing struggle to reach international agreements for addressing climate change, there may be promise in an alternative type of knowledge network: one that connects national capitals, focuses specifically on climate change, and addresses issues that cross institutional boundaries at multiple governance levels, from local to global.

As capitals, each of these planned cities was thoughtfully designed to symbolize the history, values, and aspirations of their constituents and territories, and as national capitals they occupy a unique position in the globalization of ideas. They are centers of political power and decision making facing new and difficult challenges at a local level, brought about by the negative impacts of a globalized world. This relationship between capital cities and globalization goes in the other direction as well. National decisions can have major impacts on interconnected global trends like the increased mobility of products and services, capital and investments, people and knowledge. In the face of the many serious challenges that are typically highlighted under the umbrella of cities and globalization, the emergence of climate change knowledge networks suggests there are reasons to be optimistic as well.

Suggested reading:

  • Bulkeley, Harriet, and Michele M. Betsill. 2013. “Revisiting the Urban Politics of Climate Change.” Environmental Politics 22 (1): 136–154.
  • Evans, J P. 2011. “Resilience , Ecology and Adaptation in the Experimental City.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 36 (2): 223–237.
  • Grimm, Nancy B., Stanley H. Faeth, Nancy E. Golubiewski, Charles L. Redman, Jianguo Wu, Xuemei Bai, and John M. Briggs. 2008. “Global Change and the Ecology of Cities.” Science 319 (5864) (February 8): 756–760.
  • Rees, William, and Mathis Wackernagel. 2012. “Urban Ecological Footprints: Why Cities Cannot Be Sustainable–and Why They Are a Key to Sustainability.” In The Urban Sociology Reader, edited by Jan Lin and Christopher Mele, 157-165.

Dana Archer Dolan is a PhD Candidate at Mason’s School of Public Policy. Her research focuses on the evolution of governance networks in complex, cross-boundary social-ecological systems, using qualitative case studies of climate change adaptation. For more information, see her website at http://danadolan.gmu.edu