SOME SERIOUS MOVEMENT AT LAST. During President Obama’s visit to China, it was announced that the two superpowers – the world’s largest economies, as well as the largest polluters on the globe – had reached an accord that would see the United States cut its 2005 level of carbon emissions by 26-2% before the year 2025. China signed on to peak its carbon emissions by 2030. In a world where climate change have fallen off the front page headlines, this is a significant move forward and is likely to resurrect global climate talks.

Canada responded in that familiar fashion that has earned the scorn of many nations by saying it would attempt to link its plan to that of the U.S.. Sadly, there is no concrete plan to do so, and if past history is any indication, lack of any clear federal action will lead to forgetfulness. That’s the plan, confirmed again when Canada’s poor environmental performance was centre stage again last week as it was announced that we are at the top of the list when it comes to global deforestation. More than one-fifth – 21.4% – of global deforestation occurs in Canada, a recent study has discovered. Russia is in second place. Brazil, often derided for its deforestation of its massive rainforest, stands at 14% – well below Canada.

There are reasons why the Americans have taken on a form of environmental leadership and Canada has lagged behind that involve more than just federal governments responding to a global challenge. Put simply, it’s a matter of cities.

Sometime in 2009, for the first time in history, more people lived inside cities than outside of them. But the indications of the rapid rise of urban importance were already in the wind for anyone willing to take notice.

Tired of waiting for national governments to take action, cities around the world have taken on ambitious plans to fill in the vacuum. Prior to the US/China agreement, nation states around the world were noted more for their bickering than bargaining. Housing half the world’s population, cities simply couldn’t afford to wait any further and have been reaching out to one another, despite distance, cultural and linguistic complications, and their lack of formalized networking.

Put simply: the future of democracy has a decidedly urban face. Solutions are often best found where problems exist, and in the world of economics and social cohesion, cities form the vast network of laboratories where effects can be researched and bettered. It’s clear that cities are becoming more ambitious when it comes to solving difficulties because it’s not only effective, but within their own best interests.

Another aspect that’s becoming obvious is that municipalities are filling in the void created when senior government levels lost the imagination for solving societal ills. Obama’s agreement with China is a welcome development, but it does little to alter the global stasis that has resulted from nation states constantly debating one another in their own self-obsession.

Cities, and many prominent present and past mayors, aren’t waiting around any longer. For all their importance, international climate change conferences have yielded little, and the effects of such failures will be felt most catastrophically in cities – especially those close to oceans and seas. Something has to happen, and fast.  And while nations fiddle, cities are acting.

Yet in Canada, movement in this direction has been slower than we would hope. While groups like the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) are working on vast collaboration networks among cities, the results haven’t been up to the speed at which the federal government has abandoned its leadership role.

Perhaps that’s about to change, as a large number of Canada’s major cities meet regularly under the rubric of the Big City Mayors’ Caucus and have increasingly placed the environment as front and central to their future deliberations. In the absence of federal leadership (with some provincial laggards), these mayors should formalize themselves into a working body of municipal elected officials who will work together across the country to bring about the kind of coordination that could run counter to our troubling international decline on the climate change file. Cities could co-jointly set targets, help and challenge one another, and begin demanding that the feds wake up before it is too late.

Leadership as we know it has to change. For too long we have permitted politicians to list the various crises in our society without forcing them to admit that they are largely the cause. Less than 20% of Canadians trust their political leaders specifically because they are perceived to be asleep at the switch while our problems mount. Those who have the power to lead also have the power to stall – a reality rapidly becoming our federal narrative. Cities can no longer afford to tarry. Our effective future leaders will be mayors, not prime ministers.