Harriet A. Bulkeley – Climate Changed Cities: exploring the urban politics of climate response

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Climate change is now widely recognised as one of the paramount environmental challenges of our time. As a so-called global issue, the social and political response to climate change has traditionally been seen as a matter for international negotiations and the politics of national governments, transnational corporations and non-governmental organisations. However, over the past two decades it has become clear that climate change is an equally vital urban issue — as centres of population and economic activity, cities are thought to contribute significantly to overall emissions of greenhouse gases on the one hand, and to be vulnerable to the impacts of climate change on the other. Numerous municipal governments, the transnational networks they have formed, and other urban actors, including the business and community sectors, have mobilised to respond to climate change through the city. The significance and potential importance of the urban response to climate change has now become recognised by a range of international organisations and national governments as an “urgent agenda” (World Bank 2010).

What are we to make of this phenomenon, of climate change as an urban issue? In this paper I want to suggest that the coming of climate change to the city poses three critical questions for the research and policy community: questions of response; questions of justice; and questions of meaning. The first of these questions draws our attention to the need to understand how and why cities, or more specifically urban networks of actors and socio-material assemblages through which they gather agency, organise and intervene, have sought to respond to climate change. The paper then turns to consider the second question — of justice. At the international level, questions of justice have been paramount in establishing where responsibilities and rights in the response to climate change lie. Curiously, at the urban level these matters remain mostly hidden and implicit. However, examining particular cases of urban responses to climate change shows that questions of justice are central to how these are framed and enacted. Asking questions of justice may pose some uncomfortable dilemmas for those seeking to develop urban responses — to whom should urban targets for reducing emissions relate? Which actors are required to participate in the process of determining urban policy? What are the justice implications of measures that are intended to reduce vulnerability for some, but not others? By recasting questions of what constitutes a just politics in the city, the city is in turn changed by climate change. Turning lastly to the question of meaning, the paper closes by reflecting on the consideration of climate change as an urban issue. Rather than regarding climate change as something that is happening to the city, as if imposed from afar, I argue that climate change, in both a physical and cultural sense, happens through the city. This in turn suggests that urban issues — of transportation infrastructure, the planning of housing, daily decisions about how to use water or what to buy, the experience of a summer’s day — are also climate change issues. Recognising the ways in which climate change and the city interweave means that our understanding of the city, its boundaries, meanings and politics is fundamentally opened up to question

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