Climate change policy adoption in U.S. cities

Despite worldwide attention to climate change, national leadership in the US has played a marginal role in creating strong collaborative networks to confront climate change. Some state governments have been more active, but the level of engagement and leadership has been mixed; thus, leaving a great deal of responsibility in the hands of municipal governments.

Scholars have identified several barriers local governments face when dealing with climate change. First, climate change mitigation policies are public goods with positive spillover effects (i.e., have concentrated costs for the local community and dispersed benefits to all cities and regions). In addition, the positive impacts of climate policies – mitigation and adaptation – are hard to measure and expected to accrue over the long term. Thus, there are powerful incentives favoring nonaction, particularly in areas where there are competing local or regional policy priorities. Policy adoption is often constrained by opposition group pressure (e.g., lobbying from manufacturing and extractive industries), limited policy windows (i.e., influence) in areas with high potential for reductions in emissions (e.g., utilities and transportation, both of which involve various levels of government, consumer choice, and other actors), high up-front costs associated with policy implementation and limited financial resources, and low visibility of adverse effects to the public – particularly in small communities.

In spite of these challenges, hundreds of cities have committed themselves to manage and reduce greenhouse gas emissions and engage in adaptative measures to increase resilience given the local nature of risks (e.g., to infrastructures, coastal communities, economic activities, etc.). Researchers distinguish three waves of municipal activities in response to climate change in the US: the first wave – in the mid-1990s – was focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions in large cities albeit in an ad hoc manner with limited coordination; the second wave – in the early-2000s – was facilitated through network organizations, such as the US Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement (MCPA) and International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI); the third wave – in the mid-2010s – emphasized long-term sustainability and adaptation.

There is a growing body of climate change scholarship exploring why some localities increasingly act as pioneers in confronting climate change, how others learn and follow, what differences exist in adopted policies, and what processes and conditions enable policy change in different contexts. For example, case studies suggest that proximity to ambitious pioneers with sophisticated policies is associated with the spread of climate actions to neighboring jurisdictions. However, there is hitherto no systematic review and meta-analysis that draws from and seeks to learn across the various case studies that test different explanations for local climate change policy adoption. In addition, the scholarship in this area has generally been non-cumulative because design and measurement have been carried out in ad-hoc ways. Given the deficiencies of the empirical literature, critical review essays are needed for integration. Nonetheless, narrative reviews could be largely subjective, i.e., different experts can come to different conclusions, and impossibly difficult when there are more than few studies involved. A meta-analysis, by contrast, applies objective formulas to a large number of currently available studies to summarize the existing body of evidence.

“Determinants of climate change policy adoption: A meta-analysis” is the title of a recently published paper in the Urban Climate Journal in which Drs. Andrew McCoy, Todd Schenk, and Armin Yeganeh present a systematic review and meta-analysis of quantitative research on drivers of climate change policy adoption in US cities, marshaling lessons learned from various studies to draw synthesized conclusions. It aims to contribute to the literature by analyzing what we know so far and proposing a foundation for more systematic and cumulative assessment going forward.

The analysis suggests that climate policy adoption is primarily driven by internal factors, including the level of public support and the presence of dedicated sustainability staff. Leadership from higher levels of government (i.e., state and federal) is not strongly associated with policy adoption at the local level. The results suggest that there is a strong relationship between community support and climate policy adoption, which is in general accordance with many reviewed studies. However, there are nuances in how public support might impact policy adoption, as it might have stronger influences on community-focused rather than internal government-focused programs. Government-focused programs are likely to be strongly driven by local government environmental awareness or the presence of environmental entrepreneurs. The importance of local support and awareness to climate policy adoption necessitates the development of public outreach, education, and engagement activities based on scientific projections and objective risk assessments, particularly in communities that are more vulnerable to environmental risks.

To read or cite the full article: Yeganeh, A., McCoy, A. P., & Schenk, T. (2020). Determinants of climate change policy adoption: A meta-analysis. Urban Climate, 31, 100547. Image: Markus Spiske