Students at New York University (NYU) take a Covid-19 test outside of its business school on on August 25, 2020 in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Students at New York University (NYU) take a Covid-19 test outside of its business school on on August 25, 2020 in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

From COVID-19 to Climate Change, US Cities are Leading the Way

For the last four years, our nation – and indeed the world – has watched the Trump administration repeatedly abdicate their responsibilities on everything from climate change to the COVID-19 pandemic; and so cities, especially New York City, have risen to the occasion to become the emblem of 21st century American leadership.


  • Opinion
  • 27 Aug 2020
  • 8 min read


Within 24 hours of Trump announcing his decision to take the US out of the Paris Climate Accords, the mayor of America’s most populous city, New York, signed an executive order committing the city directly to the principles of the climate agreement.  This was the first of many bold steps American cities have taken since the Trump administration actively rejects science, multilateralism and allies. 

The national response to the pandemic – or rather the lack of one – is the most stunning, recent example of this vacuum in leadership. New York City was once the epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic in the US. By early April, at its height, our city averaged more than 5,000 positive cases and nearly 600 deaths per day. Our hospitals were at capacity, we were running out of ventilators and there was a deadly shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE).

Local leaders had to quickly mobilize and fend for ourselves after appeals to the federal government went mostly unheard. Our city collaborated with private labs to expand testing capacity, worked with local manufacturers to make our own ventilators and PPEs, and set up field hospitals in parks to increase hospital bed capacity. We also asked for help beyond our borders – cities and nations around the world responded.

To put it simply, no one could quite believe that - almost overnight- the city that never sleeps would become the frontlines.  In the many conversations I had with ambassadors, I heard one thing consistently: we are ready to help.  Countries around the world, from Vietnam to Qatar and Japan, responded with generous donations. NYC even received a historic donation of PPE from the United Nations own HQ stockpile. 

As a city, we sheltered in place, implemented facial covering requirements and encouraged social distancing. Now, months later, our vigilance is paying off. The percentage of people testing positive for COVID-19 has hovered around one per cent for weeks. However, the mayor and city’s health leadership have warned against growing complacent. This is far from over. Yes, we are reopening but we are doing so slowly, cautiously. We are following the science.

The same can be said for our response to the ongoing climate crisis. In the weeks and months that followed NYC’s executive order to commit to the Paris Accords, the city collaborated with the US Conference of Mayors to coordinate additional support, which has resulted in the campaign, ‘We are Still In.’ This movement now boasts a membership of 3,850 mayors, governors, tribal leaders, businesses, college presidents and more that represent some 158 million people across all 50 states.  Policies adopted by this US coalition ‘could reduce US greenhouse gas emissions up to 37 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030,’ according to a 2019 report by the America’s Pledge initiative, which tracks climate action by subnational actors. It is clear there is a difference between US government leadership and American leadership. 

As we look to our future in NYC, we know that fighting the climate crisis must be at the heart of our recovery planning, because climate change is a threat multiplier.

In fact, our administration has included climate and environmental justice as a key component of the recently announced COVID-19 ‘Fair Recovery for All Plan.’  This work builds on the administration’s efforts to make our city more resilient in the face of climate change. Shortly after taking office, the mayor unveiled a citywide development plan to tackle some of the inequities exposed by SuperStorm Sandy to help us build back stronger, better and fairer.

OneNYC 2015 built on prior long-term sustainability plans by adding initiatives to tackle economic and environmental challenges. The plan set ambitious goals including lifting 800,000 people out of poverty by 2025, sending zero waste to landfills by 2030, and eliminating long-term displacement from homes and jobs after shock events – all by 2050.

As an administration however, we wanted to go further. So we launched the NYC Green New Deal plan last year to tackle a multitude of pressing societal challenges. The NYC Green New Deal includes a series of laws and actions to combat global warming on all fronts and ensure a nearly 30 per cent additional reduction in emissions by 2030.

While city colleagues continue their work tirelessly in our neighborhoods, New York City has also kept our connectivity with other local governments open and active – from sharing real-time strategies with subnational leaders via webinars to driving momentum on city leadership efforts to localize the Sustainable Development Goals.

When the global community agreed to the SDGs in 2015, NYC knew that using them as a common framework and common language would allow us to create a platform for exchanging best practices in order to accelerate policy impact on the ground, in our communities.

Last year, during the General Assembly, we launched the NYC Declaration on the Voluntary Local Review with more than two dozen signatories. We now have more than 200 cities and states who have committed to using the SDGs to accelerate change in their communities. It is important to note that COVID-19 has increased the desire of cities and local governments to become more actively involved. And taken together, these local governments represent millions of citizens who can benefit from the intent and purpose of the Global Goals.

City leadership remains as crucial as ever. Whether it is climate action or managing COVID-19, local voices must be part of the solution. As UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres noted in a recent policy brief, ‘Now is the time to rethink and reshape the urban world. ...And now is our chance to recover better, by building more resilient, inclusive and sustainable cities.’

But we can’t do it alone forever. There are many limitations for local governments and the real impact for our people and communities will be when we can rely on and collaborate with an empathetic, rational federal government as we rebuild and reimagine our society. 

I am hopeful this election year. As former President Obama said during the virtual 2020 democratic convention, the power of the US government is simply ‘awesome.’ Whether activating global institutions to further climate action or sensible policies at our borders, it is this partnership between cities and national governments that will make the most difference as we build back from the most significant crisis of our generation.

Chatham House does not express opinions of its own. The opinions expressed in this publication are the responsibility of the author(s).