CITIES AHEAD: THE URBAN LEAGUE AGAINST RAMPANT POPULISM & CLIMATE CHANGE DENIAL

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By Pablo Sánchez Chillón [Dec. /2019] 

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[1] The aftermath of Madrid’s COP25. Great expectations, discrete results.

Words matter. During the last two weeks, Madrid have become the place to be in terms of global sustainability and Planet Earth’s future, on occasion of the opening of the UN’s Climate Summit known as COP25.

The tagline for this year’s United Nations climate talks, hold in the Spanish capital, was “Tiempo de actuar” / “Time to action” in English. The global climate meeting, born in Chile but suddenly evicted and relocated to Spain, ended up some days ago without a solid institutional agreement to curb carbon emissions, far from the expectations created.

This “Tiempo de Actuar” conference, produced after negotiations closed in disarray, a watered-down text which shows a vague and limited agreement between the World’s countries to enhance their Paris COP21 emissions reduction targets, fixing the need to put new climate pledges on the table by the time of the next major conference in Glasgow next year.

In the language of Cervantes and Quevedo, rich and bountiful in nuances, “actuar” means, as well, “to play” (on a stage) and in the aftermath of this Madrid summit, full of political gestures, ardent statements and civic performances, but poor of strong compromises, we might say, following the Italian genius Luigi Pirandello, that Madrid’s COP25 concluded as a global play with many characters in search of an author. A planetary emergency before our eyes but with no Government ready to hold the wheel of the drama.

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After Madrid’s fiasco, and addition of classical geopolitics at its best (a myriad of countries following their national goals in a multilateral summit, North vs South, not new in history), the rising voice (and diminishing support to multilateralism) of the colorful army of climate negationists and the gap between the echoes of the upcoming apocalypse of flames defended by Greta Thunberg and her constellation of green knockers and the global dependence on fossil fuels, have put the stakes so high that no country or heavy national leader dare (or know how) to lead the process towards the green future without getting trapped in terms of domestic politics.

Sure, these are bad news for the Planet, but imply, as well, a cold lesson of realpolitik for beginners that remarks how in terms of international relations, incrementalism (small additive changes instead of a few and extensively planned large jumps) is a solid driver of global change. Despite the diversity of nuances and paces and the proven mistakes of the evolutionist thinking in history, Climate Change and this global call to action around it, is already a relevant issue of the Global Agenda of Governance, and will be in the upcoming future.

 

[2] Getting rid of plastic, regarding Climate Politics too (Cities can do it)

If plastic has being undoubtedly pointed out as guilty of Mother Nature’s decline, this same plastic, in the form of micro particles spread everywhere, is subtly polluting the global performance around the climate issues, and the gaseous messages and passionate mise-en-scène developed by our politicians.

oznorMBThe arrival of this era of Plastic Politics, una Política de Plástico sped-up by the digital over-exposition and the slickness and short-term pragmatism that reaches all the angles of contemporary leadership, becomes especially acute when it comes to proclaim global commitments (the World is watching us) in social networks that don’t match with the lack of room to defend it domestically or the absence of elemental political consensus to implement it at home. Don’t let reality ruin your timeline on Instagram.

Despite the lack of governmental consensus showed in Madrid some days ago, in a meeting were the redundant joint Presidential role of the Chilean Government and their Spanish counterparts ended up by blurring the indispensable political leadership standing up behind any effective UN meeting, Cities stood out the among the rest of attendants to the COP25, where they had the opportunity to have their say regarding the Climate Change emergency and to show the way to future agreements on Climate Change and impulse specific measures to respond properly to the global call to action.

 

Cities can do it. The world’s cities are home to a slight majority of the people on Earth, but they account for 80 percent of economic production and at least 70 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change. As economic and social hubs, cities have a disproportionate role in causing, suffering from, and reversing global warming, overcoming the lack of specific resources (budget and political strengths) to make it possible with agility, smart alliances and increasing influence in global politics, as the COP25 have proved.

I have written several times about the increasing role of Cities in global politics, and how the consensus, and the agile and pragmatic methods that Mayors and the platforms (flexible and ubiquitous) that bring them together, are paving the way for a new era of Urban Power and Local Leadership. I have had my say too about the attributes and characterization of the Lobbying strategies developed by Cities and the goals of the Advocacy for urban goals, departing from specific local government experiences and proving that cities are intensely working in the fields of global influence with a reasonable and measurable success.

The COP25 aftermath urge us to pay incremental attention to the global performance of the subtle and oriented Urban Diplomacy developed by Cities, explaining how the mix of influence, reputation and collective efforts of mayors, advisors, private companies and individuals are pushing for the opening of an international Urban Agenda and a new framework for global governance, in which Cities have a principal role, especially on issues like Climate Change, where nations and Presidents –maybe under the pressure to make big jumps- are substantially failing to progress.

There is no doubt that the World is becoming more open and connected than ever. In that context, Cities, traditionally mere followers of the dictates of national governments in terms of foreign affairs, are assuming a dynamic role as proactive actors in the global arena by using Global influence, Lobby techniques and ‘Soft Diplomacy’ tools to gain weight and resonance in the global conversation and decision making scenarios and Madrid have shown it again.

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Although the states and national actors retain much of the traditional power and resources for shaping the global agenda of governance (budget, armies and political legitimacy), Cities, regardless of their size are working alone or joining new collaborative platforms of influence with their counterparts, linking the domestic agendas of governance with the universal challenges of massive urbanization, sustainability, economic growth and security, opening the door for the reinforcement of an international Urban Agenda and promoting the rise of new international urban-based ‘currencies’ as sustainability, innovation, reputation, livability, creativity and other valuable intangible assets.

Against the rudeness and elite-reserved performance of classical Diplomacy skills, Cities are getting on very well in developing the charms of soft and subtle Diplomacy, a natural field for the exercise of global influence of urban entities and their stakeholders and influencers. In climate change specific terms, and as a recent report have displayed, the role of cities in accelerating climate action is seen as pivotal both at the national and international levels – creating an opportunity to help meet country targets and safeguard the prosperity of residents.

This new time for the choral Urban Diplomacy demands strong professional commitment for Cities and their structures, a new leadership and global skills for mayors and their advisory teams, the help of a growing number of connected urban stakeholders and the smart use of the new digital tools and social networks and influencing as ‘weapons of mass diffusion’ of the merits and virtues of Cities and their strategies.

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Let’s check some recent experiences of that extraordinary moment that shows that against the lack of official recognition of that reality, urban political leaders from around the planet are teaming up together like never before.

In Madrid, on occasion of the COP25, mayors from around the globe appeared jointly to make changes happen, but some of them (specially a former mayor) got the global attention.

With more than 10.000 cities engaged, the Global Covenant of Mayors (GCOM) released some days ago their annual report showing that collectively they could reduce emissions by 2.3 billion tonnes by 2030. The coalition is made up of several connected networks, including the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group and other organisations that promote sustainability in local government.

Former Mayor of New York City and GCOM co-chair Mike Bloomberg, who recently joined the field of Democratic candidates running for US president in 2020, has been in Madrid remarking the crucial role cities have to play in the fight against global warming. Bloomberg, a devoted philanthropist regarding urban matters and local development have had time enough to criticize the incumbent US president Donald Trump, a sort of global apostle of populist climate negationism, with a rising community of tough pupils spreading the word everywhere.

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“No one is more capable of acting on climate than mayors,” Bloomberg said at an event Tuesday to announce the frontrunners of the Global Climate City Challenge “We want the world to know that Americans are continuing to act on climate change, even with a climate denier in the White House.

Less is more.

[3] The League of Urban Power against National Populism and Climate negationism.

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Have you ever been to Prague, Warsaw, Budapest and Bratislava?

Yes, they are among the most notorious and attractive destinations for tourists in Europe, and they will keep the scepter for decades.

But what is really new today is that, beyond their monuments, restaurants and cafes and their thriving way of life, these four beautiful capitals are building up the ultimate bastion against populism in Central Europe, by showing how a brand new understanding of Global Governance, fueled up by new actors (non-states), solid agreements and trans-national urban alliances is paving the way for a new era of Urban Power, coming into life in the beginning of this second decade of the XXI century.

As the Financial Times have published, today, the mayors of Prague, Warsaw, Budapest and Bratislava have signed a “Pact of Free Cities”, vowing to work together in defence of a pro-EU urban electorate standing against populism impersonated by he socially conservative national governments and in favour of green policies. Their goal   of the so-called “Visegrad Four” (national government countries of Hungary, Chech Republic, Poland and Slovakia) that have been coordinating against Brussels on issues including immigration, climate change and the rule of law, often by appealing to the classic repertoire of menaces, enemies and simple solutions to complex problems that define the rise of populism

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The Visegrad Four Presidents are now facing, overnight, a new kind of opposition from within their homeland: the mayors of their own capitals, ready to combat, by proposing “city-tailored solutions” the inertial forces of national populism and its burden of frames, poisoned recipes and one-size fits all solutions to territorial problems.

That’s why, on December, 16, 2019, the mayors of Budapest, Prague, Warsaw and Bratislava met in the Hungarian capital to sign the so-called “Pact of Free Cities”, ready to promote Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia’s capitals shared liberal values and vowing to work together in defence of a pro-EU urban electorate standing against socially conservative national governments and in favor of green policies. More Urban Power to stand against Populism striving for hegemony cannot win over cities.

Moreover, as DW explains, as their countries have been at odds with the EU and in danger of losing its support, the mayors said their cities should not be made to suffer for policies that were not their responsibility, urging the EU to make funds more directly available to communities by bypassing central governments arguing that cities could spend the money more effectively and address, properly, the current urban challenges in a World (and Europe) which is turning around cities more than ever in History.

Sure, the power of Cities and urban stakeholders in the areas of climate change and innovation is increasingly relevant, making the old adage of ‘Think globally, act locally’ especially accurate to the moment. But the defiant tone of four renowned capitals sounds quite fresh in Europe, and opens the door for a global debate around the limits of politic representation, the understanding of common good beyond the State-centered vision, and the nature and extent and problem solving skills of Urban Power (mayors, cities and their ecosystems) in a moment in which the global agenda is being nurtured with resounding voices calling for supra-national agreements and syndicated policies against Climate Change, Inequality and Populism (despite the bearable sorrow caused by the discrete closing of the Madrid’s COP25 official meetings some days ago and the arguable and polarized message of all the Gretas of the world).

However, this Urban Power challenge posed by “Pact of Free Cities”, it is not new in our days, showing that the voices and influence of Cities and their representatives, especially those committed to global aims and messages, are to be listened and attended in the futures as a thermometer of the degree of the resistence and counter-balance forces of urban population against political tides born and raised in rural areas.

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Accepting that Cities are proactive participants in World politics and global governance implies a substantial change in terms of municipal leadership and regarding the performance of mayors and city leaders, who are more willing than ever to linking their municipal mandates to global agendas of diplomats and international organizations. In the process, some mayors are becoming a sort of rising stars of global politics, being exposed to a growing attention of outer media, while frequently dealing with coldness and distrust from local electors.

For instance, the agreement of the  mayors of Prague, Warsaw, Budapest and Bratislava echoes the joint letter published by Anne Hidalgo and Sadiq Khan (Mayors of Paris and London) in 2017 in Le Parisien and the Financial Times (four days after the UK opted to quit the EU in the Brexit’s referendum) calling on the two “global cities” to “work more closely together than ever” despite Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. Hidalgo and Khan, who passionately campaigned to keep the UK in the EU, argued that cities will have an increasingly prominent role to play on vital issues such as the economy and the fight against climate change, pledging to present a united front against these shared challenges.

 

Last, but not least, the Pact of Free Cities recalls the 2017 agreement of dozens of U.S. mayors to sign their own climate accord vowing to do their part in cutting the nation’s greenhouse emissions, some days after the President Donald Trump’s decision to leave the Paris Climate accord designed to curb it.

 

[4] Cities, first: towards a Global Governance based on the distribution of power, the use of new tools and the role of new urban actors.

The episode of the four Visegrad mayors asking Brussels to help them bypass their national governments and channel funds directly to their cities, rather than having them disbursed at a national level shows, as well, how we are entering a brand new scenario for Global Governance, where Cities count.

Madrid’s COP25 have shown that the rising global awareness (2019) regarding the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) and the role of cities in their implementation, have put the urban agenda in the center of the discussion, remarking the role of municipalities in achieving sustainable development by significantly transforming the way we build and manage our urban spaces.

According to the UN current position, making cities more sustainable means creating career and business opportunities, safe and affordable housing, and building resilient societies and economies. It involves investment in public transport, creating green public spaces, and improving urban planning and management in participatory and inclusive ways. So, Cities matter.

But beyond the current urban hypes and regular topics about how cities compete and grow, in a World in which international, national and domestic arenas are increasingly blended together, it is time to pay specific attention to the way in which cities are designing their international agenda and to how Mayors, Counsellors, public servants, companies, entrepreneurs and other urban stakeholders are performing a true diplomatic role on behalf of a common urban interest.

We are living the golden age of ‘urban’ seduction, as cities, urban challenges and not few concerns about growing population and limited resources for municipalities have become a popular topic for public discourse, managerial talk and political debate.

In the process, cities have become the scenarios of the global economy, acting as magnets for the new hyper-connected communities of Digizens  and playing a singular role as hubs of innovation and source of universal flows of information and data produced by people, things and the interaction between urban actors. Not in vane, many key voices in urban studies like Peter Hall have steadily argued how the story of humanity is a story of cities, subtitling the impact that cities are having on an increasingly globalized world.

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In the context of the renaissance of the position of urban entities as dynamic places for social innovation, hybrid coexistence between real and digital layers that intersect and house for new challenges regarding governance and new leadership, Cities perform the role of true new Data Republics, expanding their policy reach to all levels of global governance, from the most localized spheres of municipal and domestic affairs to globalized issues such as climate change, security, new democracy or economic exchange.

In addition to this, cities are endorsing and promoting the rise of new international urban-based ‘currencies’ as sustainability, innovation, reputation, livability, talent and other valuable intangible assets, launching municipal offices and local leaders to play a major role in the international arena and opening the door for the arrival of a new era of single or multi-lateral urban international relations, which is made of a mix of the steady commitments of devoted mayors, the oriented activity of several networks of cities, the global interaction of multiple digital stakeholders and urban advocates and the diffuse activity of a bunch of respected new social media influencers, ready to cooperate with municipal causes on the basis of diverse agreements and compensations.

Moreover, the rise of new urban based communities connected to global networks of influence and interaction, the funding activity and technical support provided by multilateral organizations as the World Bank (with programs such as the Municipal Development Program, “Cities in Transition” Strategy or the Sustainable Cities Initiative), the European Union (Horizon 2020 Programs) or the United Nations  (setting up a urban dedicated agency, United Nation’s Human Settlements Program – UN-Habitat), the myriad of events organized around urban matters gathering a legion of experts on urban issues (Smart City Expo Barcelona, Metropolis World Congress, for example) and the arrival of new tools as Big Data for understanding how cities deal in a smart way with the domestic agendas in a hyper-connected World, are paving the way for a renaissance of the interest on the science of cities, enhanced by a new intelligent approach to urban governance and local leadership.

x3Beyond the traditional commitment adopted by cities regarding the opening of new markets, the promotion of economic opportunities and the attraction of tourists, talent and capitals that goes back to the commercial missions assumed by State-Cities like classic Athens, first, and Florence and Venice in the Renaissance time, as urban centers gain greater economic power and population and local matters are regularly discussed in global meetings by national governments, an increasing number of cities, led by a group of global metropolis (as NY, London, Tokio, London, Paris, Milano, Vancouver or Copenhangen) have understood the importance of being proactive in the international arena, joining the debates that will have a profound impact on the political, economic, and social stability of their day by day.

Likewise, the new engagement and intensified interaction between cities, their leaders and the legion of urban influencers moving freely in social networks and digital context is coining a new standard of global exchange on urban issues and shared concerns which is made of trust, respect and (win to win) shared experiences, calling up many municipalities and their mayors to the international stage of policy making and discussion. This new time for the Urban Diplomacy is also creating new platforms of stable collaboration between distant urban stakeholders and not few formal international alliances of urban counterparts that are eroding the traditional role of foreign representation assumed by national governments.

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Last, but not least, a distinguished team of mayors have joined –albeit with different degrees of success- the golden league of global ambassadors of their cities, expending time, resources and political capital in their international skirmish, making regular appearances in international media outlets and events while keeping an eye on their domestic stuff.

Far from the classical role given to mayors giving enthusiastic welcome to celebrities or their performance as leaders of large business delegations to promote export opportunities and emphasize the advantages of their cities for foreign investment, a new global urban leadership is emerging everywhere, for which the sophisticated mix of personal good manners, professional focus, influence and contacts definitely matters. While local agendas are being linked to the global ones, the role and skills of mayors in our days is about to change, opening the door to the participation of city leaders in policymaking at the international level and providing them with the power influence formerly reserved for Presidents, Ministers and diplomatic officials at the state level.

Lots of mayors (of small, medium and mega- cities) are personally engaged with the international arena, playing a subtle role of ambassadors for their cities while accomplishing a personal agenda of global/local self-promotion, receiving sometimes in exchange, a fierce opposition and cold judgments from a big part of the electors of their district. The mismatch between the global commitments in Climate Change, for instance, and the policies to be adopted and pursued on a national and domestic scenario, is fueling up, increasingly, the voices of populism and negationism behind the motto “Our Country, first”.

 

[5] Star-like mayors and Urban Diplomats are knocking at the door of global politics.

Against the traditional ‘state-centric world’ in which national actors operate, we are facing the rise of a diverse ‘multicentric’ scenario in which cities and other unusual international actors operate the brand new multilayered diplomatic environment, expending time, money and reputation on the adventure of going global while remaining anchored to the domestic matters.

The new cartography of power is also marked by urbanization and the rise of cities as active hubs in global networks, with big implications for the economy and for how innovation happens, how ideas spread, and how governance is being transformed and power challenged everywhere. Some cities now rival states and regions in their wealth, population and global influence, racing for acquiring awards, merits, attention and international recognition and endorsement (and sometimes financial resources as well).

Cities are mastering in the use of Soft-Power, a concept coined by Joseph S. Nye (Dean of the Harvard Kennedy School and former assistant secretary of the US Department of Defense) in his work ‘Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power’ published in 1990 and refined in ‘In the Soft Power: The Means To Success in World Politics’ published (2004).

Urban Soft-Power, as an evolution of the towards the urban environment and interests, focuses on influence, cultural exchanges and reputation of cities in a global context. In our hyper-connected world, place for the global competition among cities, the Urban Soft Power has taken its place at the core of urban policy-making and governance. This Soft-Power refers to the influence, cohesion and appeal (image, brand, reputation) that a city holds in its regular global performance. These values remain the key element of the competitiveness and interact with the called hard power, for example economy and technology.

The Embassy of Intangible goods, as city reputation, and its power to attract and influence are the new fuel for the global performance of cities and a part of their strategy for economic development. That’s why Urban Soft Power involves influencing other cities and regions, through attraction, persuasion and co-option. This subtle power, based upon the culture, values and other city’ attractions is not merely a new name for traditional diplomacy but a natural field for the conduction of international affairs in hands of Cities, whose vocation, size, flexibility and capabilities for global interaction, have turned as key performers for that latter evolution of Urban Diplomacy standards.

As rankings and classifications for Cities increase in number and metrics, from the “The World’s Sexiest Cities” (October 2019) to the unconfortable “10 unfriendliest Cities”  list, the so-called “World’s Most Influential Cities” (2018) by the Business Insider magazine or the World Forum’ “Most Powerful Cities in the World” list (January 2019), the reality is teaching us that the classic measurement of urban performance is being enriched by the addition of new indicators and attributes (as the number of based start-ups, Innovation indexes etc) changing the theoretical framework used to compare cities and their global performance.

Anyway, the recent experience of international urban interaction shows for example, that size (formerly used as a solid kpi) is not key in terms of global performance, shifting the Influence (based on a soft-diplomacy focus), well-oriented Storytelling tools and Person-to-person Embassy are becoming the key factors for cities engaged in a global arena to win over their competitors.

In the era of unprecedented global access to information and digital empowerment of individuals and groups, the growing role of urban entities is being enhanced by the consolidation of the Internet culture (mainly open, collaborative and curious) which has expanded the opportunities to cultivate networks in the international urban political arena, opening the scene of the Public Diplomacy to the rising competences of a myriad of Non State Actors (NSA), like corporations, diasporas, refugees, celebrities, think tanks and, of course, cities and its ‘ambassadors’, essentially in the fields of influence and action-oriented People-to People Diplomacy.

As Cities are increasingly claiming terrain and responsibility for areas of competence and performance that were once considered as the sole preserve of the nation-states, and some of the global challenges for the upcoming years are tightly linked to the governance of urban entities, a new multilayered global diplomatic environment is coming into life, giving voice to single or networked cities willing to assume compromises and responsibilities beyond their traditional role as mere spectators of the international theater of policymaking.

On the other hand, this new multilayered scenario for global policymaking on urban matters, enlarged by the digital context of the Internet and social media cartography, opens the door for the occasional and collaborative action of Person-to-Person Diplomacy operated by an heterodox front of private actors (companies, advocates, digital influencers and networks of expatriates and diverse urban stakeholders) aligned with the goals of Cities.

Take the experiences of non-partisan an private organizations as London FirstPartnership for New York City, or Barcelona Global or Foro Global Territorio (our humble take to this huge task) as an example of private sectors doing soft-Diplomacy and Lobbying on behalf of their city based interests for understanding the new choral dimension of the global urban agenda, in Climate issues too.

What Madrid’s COP25 aftermath teach us is that the takeoff of the New Urban Power is a reality and a counter-reaction to the voices that preconize the end of the age of Multilateralism.

With a band of Cities strongly committed to link their local agendas with the challenges of global Climate Change, no other actor would defend their position internationally better that themselves, bringing solutions closer to the urban problems and concerns.

In a World more fragile than ever, the nature of Global Power is changing and the system needs a reset an new balance, and Cities, for the Planet’s sake, count.

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