How the UN Could Play a More Productive Role in Fighting Climate Change


To ensure that the world’s cities are all equally equipped to adapt to climate change, the United Nations should create a multilateral platform for direct urban diplomacy and aid. 

The United Nations (UN) has made climate change adaptation a priority, and has deployed the resources of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, UN-HAB-ITAT, to promote local action. UN-HABITAT runs a number of forums for nations looking to enhance their cities’ capacities to adapt. Any interaction that takes place between urban policy-makers is mediated by their cities’ mother countries, which are often trapped in political gridlock on issues related to sustainable development and climate. Still, UN-HAB-ITAT does not have an official funding mechanism to activate the projects discussed within these forums. 

The Clinton Climate Initiative (CCI) works with the C40 Cities Initiative, a platform for multi-lateral and bilateral partnerships between cities that fosters exchanges of best practices and discussions on setting measurable climate goals. CCI deploys assistance—financial, technical, and project management—to aid cities in reaching these goals. Because it facilitates inter-city planning and funds projects to achieve shared goals, the CCI and C40 represent an exemplary approach to urban diplomacy. The UN currently lacks avenues to link inter-city dialogue on climate to adaptation projects with potential for immediate impact. 

Meanwhile, sister city relationships have become popular in the past half-century, with over 600 American cities now taking part. These relationships provide direct, bilateral transfers of information, expertise, and capital between cities. Sister city programs ordinarily lack any significant funding, and are primarily symbolic in nature. Still, this kind of direct engagement between cities could yield exactly the kind of efficiency that cities need to face the rising tides. 


A program of direct “urban diplomacy” would inject funds into and expand on existing sister city partnerships, coordinate city-to-city direct aid, and help to attract private foreign direct investment in adaptation programs. 

Funds to execute these plans are more widely available to cities in the developed world. Without the help of direct aid and expertise exchange, there will be a significant security gap between cities in the developed world and cities in the developing and least developed countries. The diplomatic architecture of the UN, with its hefty funding contributions and wide array of state representation, positions it very well to establish mechanisms to support urban climate change adaptation programs around the world. 

By integrating components of the CCI-C40 paradigm for urban climate diplomacy with the long-term approach to bilateral partnerships that Sister Cities programs promote, the UN can spark and maintain an ongoing dialogue between cities and facilitating investment in adaptation projects. In this way, the UN can have a profound impact on the number of cities in both the developing and developed world that are well prepared for the effects of climate change. 

Next Steps

With the effects of climate change already being seen in many SIDS, the UN must act fast. In June of 2012, nations of the world will gather in Rio de Janeiro as a part of the so-called “Rio+20" UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD). Included among the agreed-upon themes of the convention is a commitment to building an “institutional framework for sustainable development” on a global scale. A movement that encompasses environmentalists, urban developers, policymakers, and citizens’ organizations in cities around the world should advocate for this program at the 2012 conference.