The shifting role of cities in the global climate change regime: From Paris to Pittsburgh and back?

AuthorHelmut Philipp Aust
Published date01 April 2019
Date01 April 2019
The shifting role of cities in the global climate change regime:
From Paris to Pittsburgh and back?
Helmut Philipp Aust
Email: In recent years cities have asserted themselves as relevant actors in the global cli-
mate change regime. International law practice and scholarship has so far only partly
embraced this development. The selfasserting move of cities on the global level has
been accompanied by a rhetoric according to which States would have failed to live
up to their responsibilities with respect to the fight against climate change. Instead,
cities would be wellpositioned to fill this governance gap, in particular through glo-
bal networks such as ICLEI and C40. This contribution discusses how this narrative
is affected by the entry into force of the Paris Agreement on climate change. This
was seen as a milestone for the global climate change regime. The Paris Agreement
and the decision adopting it are also evidence for a cautious embrace of the import-
ance of cities and other subnational authorities in this field. Yet, new questions arise
after the announcement by the United States of their intent to withdraw from the
Paris Agreement. This has generated more attention than ever for what cities and
other subnational authorities can do in this field. At the same time, the struggle
between the US federal executive and US cities is emblematic for a wider debate
on the future of the international (legal) order: how will the balance between States
as central actors of the international system on the one hand and an increasingly
assertive league of cities and subnational authorities be struck?
I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.
With these words, President Donald Trump announced his intention
on 1 June 2017 for the United States to withdraw from the Paris
Agreement on climate change. Although it remains to be seen
whether, when and how the United States will formally withdraw
from the Paris Agreement, the announcement has been a watershed.
The adoption of the Paris Agreement in 2015 was a landmark in the
global fight against climate change.
Despite numerous uncertainties
about the scope and bindingness of the Agreement, it was hailed as
a muchneeded step forward after the long deadlock in the
negotiations for an international agreement on the mitigation of and
adaptation to climate change. The fact that the Agreement entered
into force already one year after its adoption was heralded as a
further sign that things were moving in the right direction in the glo-
bal climate change regime. Amidst numerous signs of doom and
decline, the Paris Agreement thus became a rare symbol of hope in
today's international relations. The Trump declaration has cast a
shadow of doubt on the fortunes of the Agreement and on the ques-
tion of whether it will be able to set humanity on a path towards an
effective implementation of measures needed to curb climate change
and keep its potentially disastrous consequences under control.
As a side effect of the announced US withdrawal, a specific kind
of actor in the global climate change regime has received even more
attention than before: cities and subnational authorities. Immediately
following the announcement by President Trump, representatives of
US cities, states and business leaders announced that they would
submit a plan to the United Nations Framework Convention on
© 2018 John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.
The White House, Statement by President Trump on the Paris Climate Accord(1 June
2017) <
Paris Agreement (adopted 12 December 2015, entered into force 4 November 2016) 55
ILM 740.
DOI: 10.1111/reel.12272
RECIEL. 2019;28:5766.

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