This week’s article features Ben Leffel, a UC Irvine Sociology Ph.D Candidate and Public Impact Distinguished Fellow. His research has helped highlight the City of Irvine’s and UCI’s role in establishing the largest environmental city network in the world. 

How Irvine gave rise to the world’s largest environmental city government network

By Ben Leffel

Published: May 11th, 2020

The City of Irvine and University of California, Irvine are being honored as the origin of the world’s largest international environmental city government network, ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability (formerly, International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives). It has nearly 2,000 member cities globally that share resources and best practices necessary to combat climate change. After UCI researchers and I obtained hard copies of this history, we digitized them and made it known to the ICLEI World Secretariat just in time for ICLEI’s 30th anniversary. As a result, the mammoth organization has made its Irvine origins part of its anniversary celebration.

How did this come about? First, 1980s Irvine was a hotbed of progressive activism led by former Mayor Larry Agran and his Center for Innovative Diplomacy; a network of thousands of US local officials intervening in foreign affairs. This included advocacy on divesting from Aparthied South Africa, establishing sanctuary cities and nuclear free zones, creating partnerships with Central American cities ravaged by Reagan’s foreign policy, and many other initiatives. Agran and I digitized all of these records, and I published an article on this history in The Hague Journal of Diplomacy. Not long after this, I came into contact with Agran’s key ally, Michael Shuman, who sent me materials from the other piece of the Center for Innovative Diplomacy’s history. When the Cold War came to an end, fear of nuclear annihilation gave way to global environmental destruction. This too was underpinned by an Irvine-centric history.

The 1970s discovery by UC Irvine Chemist Sherwood Rowland that chemicals known as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), were causing a catastrophic hole in Earth’s ozone layer galvanized the nations of the world to take action and ban usage of CFC’s all together. By 1989, Irvine Mayor Larry Agran- who already had a decade of activism via the Center for Innovative Diplomacy under his belt- and policy entrepreneur Jeb Brugmann saw that the U.S. federal government was dragging its feet. Agran and Brugmann decided to implement the nation’s first comprehensive CFC ban at the city-level; which was controversial given the economic sacrifices it would make but was- more importantly- necessary. The New Yorker wrote of Irvine’s legislation: ”The problems of the environment are beyond the power of Irvine to solve, but because the city took responsibility where it could, it is no longer helpless.”

An archived invitation to the “North Amerian Conference for a Stratopheric Protection Accord.”

Irvine’s innovation did not stop there. Alongside Jeb Brugmann, Mayor Agran teamed up the City of Irvine with Sherwood Rowland himself and hosted the “North American Congress of Local Governments for a Stratospheric Protection Accord ” at what is today known as the Beckman Center. It was there that local officials from across the U.S. and Canada gathered to learn about how to implement Irvine-style CFC bans. They also pledged to scale this effort up to the international-level, creating a sort of “International Secretariat for Local Environmental Initiatives.” Jeb Brugmann’s advocacy efforts and dialogues with leaders globally brought the accomplishment to the attention of the United Nations Environmental Program. In 1990, the UN invited Irvine leaders to the UN headquarters in New York to attend the “World Congress of Local Authorities for a Sustainable Future”. As I explain in this video, it was here that the UN sought to breathe life into the “international secretariat” idea that was hatched in Irvine. Thus at the World Congress, over 200 local leaders from around the world joined a new organization called the “International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives”, which is today known as ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability. This is the largest environmental city network in the world and the collective front line for urban climate change mitigation. The rest is history, but a history remembered. Through innovation, we produced critical new infrastructure in global environmental governance.

Michael Shuman was another key activist ally of Agran during this time. When I obtained the ICLEI archives from him, myself and UCI undergrads Michelle Tran and Jasen Williams had them uploaded via UCI Libraries to create the ICLEI digital archive. We notified the ICLEI World Secretariat (now in Bonn, Germany) on what happened to also be their 30th anniversary.

A news article covering the “World Congress of Local Authorities for a Sustainable Future” event. Bulletin of Municipal Foreign Policy, 1990

This year the City of Irvine also happens to be developing their first climate action plan, and it is time Irvine to innovate once again. As a recently named a UCI Public Impact Distinguished Fellow, I am mobilizing my own research on urban and corporate climate change governance to the field for applied good. Specifically, I’m working together with Informatics Ph.D. candidate Richard Martinez to develop advanced data tracking methods for corporate and municipal climate change action. We are currently in talks with the City of Irvine and local companies, and are exploring how to apply emerging technologies to better track their climate change governance efforts–emissions levels, sustainable finance, and so forth. We aim to develop a way to make these sustainability metrics visible to all, allowing both local companies and City Hall to be aware of one another’s sustainability metrics. Our hope is that this shared knowledge will enable greater potential for public-private sustainability collaboration, and overall improved community sustainability efforts in Irvine. Innovation in local environmental governance is Irvine’s legacy, let’s carry on that proud tradition together.