Unlikely pioneers: creative climate change policymaking in smaller U.S. cities

  • George C. Homsy


With the U.S. federal government stepping away from climate change, a number of cities have indicated that they will continue their efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Broad statistical analysis and case studies of larger and often progressive cities have provided some insight into what drives local governments to act on climate change mitigation. However, the vast majority of U.S. municipalities, most of them small, do nothing. Understanding what might drive smaller, poorer, and less progressive places is important if local governments are expected to take the lead on this issue of the global commons. In this exploratory study, I examine a group of “unlikely pioneers”—communities that statistical modeling indicates are the least likely to undertake climate change action, but then do act. Using interviews and document reviews in 12 of these communities, I seek to answer the question: what drives these unlikely pioneers to act? I find that local leaders reframe climate change action as a way to save money and attract economic development. Personal environmental ethics drive small town leaders to reduce greenhouse gase emissions. Citizen committees can provide technical resources and political support. Otherwise, and more subtly, citizens can create a political environment that reduces resistance to climate change policymaking. Despite research that indicates fiscal health is correlated to increased sustainability, no communities in this study initiated climate change mitigation from general revenues. All required grants or other revenue to act. In four of the communities, the income from municipally owned utilities provided the fiscal resources for climate change programs.


Climate change Local government Leadership Capacity Citizen participation 


Funding information

This research was supported in part by a 2014 United States Department of Agriculture, Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, Foundational Agricultural Economics and Rural Development grant (no. 2014-68006-21834).


  1. American Public Power Association (2013) Q & A for communities considering the public option. Author, Washington, DCGoogle Scholar
  2. Andrews RNL (2006) Managing the environment, managing ourselves: a history of American environmental policy. Yale University Press, New HavenGoogle Scholar
  3. Bassett E, Shandas V (2010) Innovation and climate action planning. J Am Plan Assoc 76:435–450. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bernauer T, McGrath LF (2016) Simple reframing unlikely to boost public support for climate policy. Nat Clim Chang 6:nclimate2948. doi:
  5. Betsill M (2001) Mitigating climate change in US cities: opportunities and obstacles. Local Environ 6:393–406CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Birch EL, Lynch A (2012) Measuring U.S. sustainable urban development. In: Starke L (ed) State of the world 2012. Island Press/Center for Resource Economics, pp 77–86Google Scholar
  7. Boswell MR, Greve AI, Seale TL, Mroz-Barrett M (2011) Implementing local climate action plans. Salt Lake CityGoogle Scholar
  8. Bulkeley H (2010) Cities and the governing of climate change. Annu Rev Environ Resour 35:229–253. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Bulkeley H, Kern K (2006) Local government and the governing of climate change in Germany and the UK. Urban Stud 43:2237–2259CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Burch S (2010) Transforming barriers into enablers of action on climate change: insights from three municipal case studies in British Columbia, Canada. Glob Environ Chang 20:287–297. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Campbell LK (2015) Constructing New York city’s urban forest: the politics and governance of the MillionTreesNYC campaign. In: Sandberg LA, Bardekjian A, Butt S (eds) Urban forests, trees, and greenspace: a political ecology perspective. Routledge, New York, pp 243–260Google Scholar
  12. Carter R, Culp S (2010) Planning for climate change in the west. Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  13. Corburn J (2009) Cities, climate change and urban heat island mitigation: localising global environmental science. Urban Stud 46:413–427. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Davenport C, Rubin AJ (2017) Trump signs executive order unwinding Obama climate policies. The New York Times A1Google Scholar
  15. Dulal HB (2016) Making cities resilient to climate change: identifying “win–win” interventions. Local Environ 0:1–20. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Esty D, Winston A (2006) Green to gold: how smart companies use environmental strategy to innovate, create value, and build competitive advantage. Yale University PressGoogle Scholar
  17. Fiorino DJ (2006) The new environmental regulation. MIT, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  18. Forester J (1999) The deliberative practitioner: encouraging participatory planning processes. MIT, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  19. Fung A (2008) Citizen participation in government innovations. In: Borins S (ed) Innovations in government: research, recognition, and replication. Brookings Institution, Washington, DC, pp 52–70Google Scholar
  20. Fung A (2015) Putting the public back into governance: the challenges of citizen participation and its future. Public Adm Rev 75:513–522. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Gerber BJ (2015) Local governments and climate change in the United States: assessing administrators’ perspectives on hazard management challenges and responses. State Local Gov Rev 47:48–56. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Hawkins CV, Krause RM, Feiock RC, Curley C (2016) Making meaningful commitments: accounting for variation in cities’ investments of staff and fiscal resources to sustainability. Urban Stud 53:1902–1924. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Holgate C (2007) Factors and actors in climate change mitigation: a tale of two South African cities. Local Environ 12:471–484. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Homsy GC (2018) Size, sustainability, and urban climate planning in a multilevel governance framework. In: Climate change in cities. Springer, Cham, pp 19–38CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Homsy GC, Warner ME (2013) Climate change and the co-production of knowledge and policy in rural USA communities. Sociol Rural 53:291–310. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Homsy GC, Warner ME (2015) Cities and sustainability: polycentric action and multilevel governance. Urban Aff Rev 51:46–73. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Honadle BW (2001) Theoretical and practical issues of local government capacity in an era of devolution. J Reg Anal Policy 31:77–90Google Scholar
  28. Hoppe T, van der Vegt A, Stegmaier P (2016) Presenting a framework to analyze local climate policy and action in small and medium-sized cities. Sustainability 8:847. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Hughes S (2017) The politics of urban climate change policy: toward a research agenda. Urban Aff Rev 53:362–380. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Keys N, Thomsen DC, Smith TF (2016) Adaptive capacity and climate change: the role of community opinion leaders. Local Environ 21:432–450. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Kim Y, Warner ME (2017) Geographies of local government stress after the Great Recession. Social Policy & Administration n/a-n/a. doi:
  32. Kousky C, Schneider SH (2003) Global climate policy: will cities lead the way? Clim Pol 3:359–372CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Krause RM (2011) Policy innovation, intergovernmental relations, and the adoption of climate protection initiatives by U.S. cities. J Urban Aff 33:45–60. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Krause RM (2012) Political decision-making and the local provision of public goods: the case of municipal climate protection in the US. Urban Stud 49:2399–2417. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Laulajainen R, Stafford HA (2013) Corporate geography: business location principles and cases. Springer Science & Business MediaGoogle Scholar
  36. LoMonaco-Benzing R, Ha-Brookshire J (2016) Sustainability as social contract: textile and apparel professionals’ value conflicts within the corporate moral responsibility Spectrum. Sustainability 8:1278. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Lowe K, Reckhow S, Gainsborough JF (2016) Capacity and equity: federal funding competition between and within metropolitan regions. Journal of Urban Affairs 38:25–41. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Lubell M, Feiock RC, Handy S (2009) City adoption of environmentally sustainable policies in California’s Central Valley. J Am Plan Assoc 75:293–308. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Mann S, Briant RM, Gibin M (2014) Spatial determinants of local government action on climate change: an analysis of local authorities in England. Local Environ 19:837–867. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Margerum RD, Robinson CJ (2015) Collaborative partnerships and the challenges for sustainable water management. Curr Opin Environ Sustain 12:53–58. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Martiskainen M (2017) The role of community leadership in the development of grassroots innovations. Environ Innov Soc Trans 22:78–89. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Mayrhofer JP, Gupta J (2016) The science and politics of co-benefits in climate policy. Environ Sci Pol 57:22–30. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. McGalliard T (2014) Advancing sustainable communities through civic engagement and performance measurement. In: The municipal year book 2014. ICMA, Washington, DC, pp 53–65Google Scholar
  44. Moon MJ, deLeon P (2001) Municipal reinvention: managerial values and diffusion among municipalities. J Public Adm Res Theory 11:327–352. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Moore CH (2000) Kane ditto and the leadership environment in Jackson, Mississippi. In: Bowers JR, Rich WC (eds) Governing middle-sized cities: studies in mayoral leadership. Lynne Rienner, Boulder, pp 9–25Google Scholar
  46. Nelson KL, Svara JH (2012) Form of government still matters fostering innovation in U.S. municipal governments. Am Rev Public Admin 42:257–281. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Onyx J, Leonard RJ (2011) Complex systems leadership in emergent community projects. Community Dev J 46:493–510. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Opp SM, Osgood JL, Rugeley CR (2014) Explaining the adoption and implementation of local environmental policies in the United States. J Urban Aff 36:854–875. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Pasquini L, Ziervogel G, Cowling RM, Shearing C (2015) What enables local governments to mainstream climate change adaptation? Lessons learned from two municipal case studies in the Western Cape, South Africa. Clim Dev 7:60–70. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Pitt D, Congreve A (2017) Collaborative approaches to local climate change and clean energy initiatives in the USA and England. Local Environ 22:1124–1141. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Portney KE (2013) Taking sustainable cities seriously: economic development, the environment, and quality of life in American cities, Second edition. MIT, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  52. Portney KE, Berry JM (2016) The impact of local environmental advocacy groups on city sustainability policies and programs. Policy Stud J 44:196–214. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Rajasekar U, Chakraborty S, Bhat G (2018) Climate resilient smart cities: opportunities for innovative solutions in India. In: Climate change in cities. Springer, Cham, pp 203–227CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Ramaswami A, Bernard M, Chavez A, Hillman T, Whitaker M, Thomas G, Marshall M (2012) Quantifying carbon mitigation wedges in U.S. cities: near-term strategy analysis and critical review. Environ Sci Technol 46:3629–3642. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Rickards L, Wiseman J, Kashima Y (2014) Barriers to effective climate change mitigation: the case of senior government and business decision makers. WIREs Clim Chang 5:753–773. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Rohracher H, Späth P (2014) The interplay of urban energy policy and socio-technical transitions: the eco-cities of Graz and Freiburg in retrospect. Urban Stud 51:1415–1431. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Romsdahl RJ, Atkinson L, Schultz J (2013) Planning for climate change across the US Great Plains: concerns and insights from government decision-makers. J Environ Stud Sci 3:1–14. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Sarzynski A (2018) Multi-level governance, civic capacity, and overcoming the climate change “adaptation deficit” in Baltimore, Maryland. In: Climate change in cities. Springer, Cham, pp 97–120CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Sharp EB, Daley DM, Lynch MS (2011) Understanding local adoption and implementation of climate change mitigation policy. Urban Aff Rev 47:433–457. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Spencer B, Lawler J, Lowe C, Thompson LA, Hinckley T, Kim SH, Bolton S, Meschke S, Olden JD, Voss J (2017) Case studies in co-benefits approaches to climate change mitigation and adaptation. J Environ Plan Manag 60:647–667. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Stavins RN (2010) The problem of the commons: still unsettled after 100 years. National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper Series No. 16403Google Scholar
  62. Svara JH (2011) The early stage of local government action to promote sustainability. In: The municipal year book 2011. ICMA, Washington, DC, pp 43–60Google Scholar
  63. Tabuchi H, Fountain H (2017) Bucking Trump, these cities, states and companies commit to Paris Accord. The New York Times A12Google Scholar
  64. Tang Z, Brody SD, Quinn C, Chang L, Wei T (2010) Moving from agenda to action: evaluating local climate change action plans. J Environ Plan Manag 53:41–62. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Uhl-Bien M, Marion R, McKelvey B (2007) Complexity leadership theory: shifting leadership from the industrial age to the knowledge era. Leadersh Q 18:298–318. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Wang X, Hawkins CV, Lebredo N, Berman EM (2012) Capacity to sustain sustainability: a study of U.S. cities. Public Adm Rev 72:841–853. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Wang X, Wart MV, Lebredo N (2014) Sustainability leadership in a local government context. Public Perform Manag Rev 37:339–364. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Warbroek B, Hoppe T (2017) Modes of governing and policy of local and regional governments supporting local low-carbon energy initiatives; exploring the cases of the Dutch regions of Overijssel and Fryslân. Sustainability 9:75. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Young RF (2010) The greening of Chicago: environmental leaders and organisational learning in the transition towards a sustainable metropolitan region. J Environ Plan Manag 53:1051–1068CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Zahran S, Grover H, Brody SD, Vedlitz A (2008) Risk, stress, and capacity explaining metropolitan commitment to climate protection. Urban Aff Rev 43:447–474. CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© AESS 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Public AdministrationBinghamton UniversityBinghamtonUSA

Personalised recommendations