The best way to solve climate change? Unleash cities

Climate change is already having dramatic impacts on us. Storms are growing more severe. Droughts are becoming more frequent. And that’s just for starters.

But Carl Pope, former chairman of the Sierra Club and co-author of Climate of Hope, says there is reason to be hopeful. We have the power to address climate change. And that power lies within cities.

Pope delivered a keynote address at the Council’s Smart Cities Week and offers a rallying cry to address the obstacle that keeps holding cities back. — Kevin Ebi


Cities deliver more than their fair share of carbon emissions. While 60% of the world’s population lives in cities, cities probably deliver 80% of the emissions. And both numbers continue to grow.

That’s a call to action. It’s also the place to start.

“If you can’t do it in cities, it’s not worth talking about when it comes to climate,” Pope said.

Reasons for hope
Despite the fact that we now have “hurricanes on steroids,” out-of-season droughts and more common famines, Pope is optimistic that we can do something.

“We are now at a point where we know that if we innovate we will solve the climate problem,” Pope said. “We know that innovative solution are economically attractive and profitable and that they will make us safer and healthier. There really is only one question left: How fast can we do it?”

There are two ways to look at the need or speed. First, the longer we wait, the more it will cost to address the problems. But on the bright side, the faster we will benefit through thriving economies and healthier and safer cities.

So what’s stopping us?
Pope says the biggest problem is that while the climate change answer lies within cities, cities don’t have the power to put it into practice.

“Cities are not given, in most countries, the autonomy they need and deserve to control their own futures, to serve their own populaces, and to be the engines of innovation that their DNAs are wired to provide us,” Pope said. “National governments repeatedly intervene to stop cities from moving forward.”

While cities are pragmatic and solution-driven, Pope says national governments can often be held hostage by special interests. In the U.S., for example, he says the Senate can be controlled by politicians who represent just 13% of the population. And those interests, by and large, have called for laws and regulations that are obstacles preventing any change that would hurt old industries.

Cities are the future
Pope says world governance has shifted from empires to nation-states. But it needs to shift again.

“If we want the 21st century to be prosperous, if we want it to be healthy, if we want it to be secure, and if we want it to be sustainable, we need to empower the world’s cities,” he said. “We need to unleash the engine of innovation and prosperity and a better way of doing things that make a city large or small great.”

“The issue of the 21st century is how to deploy innovation to sustain a world of 7 to 9 billion people, all of whom, by the end of the century deserve to have become prosperous consumers,” he continued. “And in that context, the political institution that needs to own the 21st century is the cities.”