What local climate change plans can teach us about city power

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Date: June 2009
From: Fordham Urban Law Journal(Vol. 36, Issue 4)
Publisher: Fordham Urban Law Journal
Document Type: Article
Length: 10,184 words

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Introduction I. Schroeder and Bulkeley's Study of London and Los Angeles II. Relative City Power: Structural Influences on Autonomy III. A City's Power Over Its Object: Greenhouse Gas Reduction Opportunities A. Local Power in the Proprietary Domain B. City Ability to Reduce Emissions by Shaping the Built Environment C. Implementing Emission Reductions by Managing Waste D. Cities as Educators and Purveyors of Environmental Norms Conclusion


This brief commentary on Heike Shroeder and Harriet Bulkeley's recent Piece (1) in this volume of the Fordham Urban Law Journal asks what new light city action on climate change can shed on an old discussion about the extent of city power or powerlessness. While this commentary does not offer a new, full-fledged theory of city power, it does suggest new avenues for inquiry in the hopes of contributing to the understanding of local governments.

Assessments of city power in the United States have focused largely on how state and federal law either impede or augment city autonomy in relation to higher levels of government or other cities. (2) City action on climate change highlights the potential to revisit the question of city power from a new angle. Rather than inquiring into the relative power of cities vis-a-vis other governments, one can investigate power in relation to the object over which the city aims to exercise its power. In other words, we can ask: "City power with regards to what?" A very small degree of relative power may have a substantial effect on a specific problem. Cities may turn out to be quite powerful in one realm despite being quite disempowered in another. Although Schroeder and Bulkeley primarily examine structural constraints to assess the "role of law" in municipal climate change plans, their study highlights how the movement of local governments tackling climate change invites us to revisit the broader question of city power.


Schroeder and Bulkeley's review of climate plans in London and Los Angeles makes at least three important contributions to the study of climate change and local governments. First, the authors adeptly illustrate the range of domains in which cities act by reviewing their policies using a taxonomy that recognizes four types of governance modalities: "self governance" which concerns a local government's control of its own actions; "control and compliance refers to the ... use of traditional forms of authority such as regulation and planning;" "provision" or governing through service delivery; and "enabling" which describes local efforts to facilitate, encourage, and enable voluntary private sector activities) The authors show these two cities to be innovative in employing these various modalities to work around legal, economic, and other constraints.

Second, the authors avoid the temptation to seek a single variable to explain local interest in climate change. Rather, they identify multiple factors in their case studies that interact to motivate local action, thus capturing the nuance of catalyzing circumstances. (4) Finally, their Article draws attention to the importance of comparative study of...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A204418542