Remarks by Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield During a Panel on Elevating Local Leadership on Global Priorities at the “Cities Summit of the Americas&

Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
Denver, Colorado
April 27, 2023


MR. TONY PIPA: So, Ambassador, Mayor, I’m really privileged to be here in this conversation with you – two leaders that I really deeply admire – just to continue discussing, as we’ve been, about how to elevate local city leadership on global priorities and within traditional global governance.

So, we’ve heard throughout the morning and even in the conversations immediately preceding this one about local and collective city leadership, that they’re taking on a variety of issues that really know no political boundaries, issues like peace and security, climate change, public health, pandemic response, migration. And these are also the major issues that take up political attention within the traditional multilateral system at the United Nations and other global fora.

So, in our conversation I’d really like to just explore the connection between this city’s work and this local leadership, their national governments, and also the traditional multilateral system, and how we might better leverage the local leadership that cities are making.

So, Mayor Lopez, let me start with you. Under your leadership, Bogotá has been a very active member of the global community of cities working on these transnational issues. For example, you’ve made a strong commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals. You’ve adapted that framework to your local context. You even recently released a voluntary local review – so a progress report on the SDGs – and yet Bogotá wasn’t a party to that agreement. I mean, it was your national government. So, tell us about – what is the value for Bogotá as a city in using and fitting into a global agenda like the SDGs to advance your local priorities, an agenda that was really agreed to under the traditional multilateral system?

MAYOR CLAUDIA LÓPEZ: Well, thank you so much, Tony. It is such a great pleasure and honor to be with Ambassador Linda here and with all of you. So, the future of humanity is the future of cities, period. Half of humanity live already in cities; 80 percent of them will live in cities that has to be still built that we can influence and decide how to build the cities according to the SDGs, according to the climate change challenges, according to the social justice challenges that our societies, particularly in the Global South, have.

So, I think we have this commitment. The SDGs is not only – there is no way Colombia can achieve the SDGs without Bogotá. We are 25 percent of Colombia’s GDP. We are – together with the metropolitan region of Bogotá and Cundinamarca – a third of Colombia’s GDP. In the city such as Bogotá, in any city in the Global South, half of the emissions came from the transportation systems in cities, and in places such as Colombia or Brazil or Peru or Ecuador, the other half of the contention of the climate change crisis came from deforestation in the Amazon and in the Orinoco region and other regions.

So reforesting regions, regreening cities, building multi-modal clean modes of transportation, and managing circular economies, that’s how we’re going to achieve the climate change goals. That’s – scientific knowledge tell us that for sure, so we need to measure our achievement and our commitment, not only words but with clear investments, public and private investments. Public-private community partnerships to achieve these goals is the only way we’re going to achieve it. That is why we decided to put in Bogotá our inclusive, social, and green development plan.

And we put forward – we ask and request to be measured in our investments and goals and achievements in these SDGs because we want – we are citizens of the world, not only citizens of Colombia. And we need to commit to save the planet, but to save the planet in a way that isn’t – that we have a clear order, particularly in Global South, and also made an agreement with the Global North, which is we need to take care of people first – people in poverty, people in exclusion, people who is not treated with dignity, with opportunities, or education, employment, entrepreneurship, and the digital, green, caring jobs of the 21st century. We need to take care of people if we want them to take care of democracy.

And as Ambassador Linda knows, only democracy – only democracies care about the planet. Dictators and populists and oligarchs who don’t even care about their own people don’t care for people in the planet. So, without the social basis that can take care of social inclusion and at the same time preserving the democratic values and democratic institutions that allow collective action to achieve social justice, green justice, and climate change, we’re not going to be able to achieve these goals.

So, taking care of people, taking care of democracy is the only way to take care of the planet. That’s the commitment of Bogotá. That’s the commitment of cities, CLGU*, or Metropolis, and this global network of cities, that’s the kind of commitment and action that we are taking and that we hope we can share a place and a common collective action also with national states in the United States.

MR. PIPA: All right. Thank you. [Applause.] Got us off to a good start.

So, Ambassador, I remember when I was at the UN Mission representing the U.S. during the SDG negotiations, we traveled together to some national capitals to engage their heads of state, and I know at that time I wasn’t thinking about cities and local leadership when we were in the middle of those negotiations. And so, tell us how you view – from your perch now at the United Nations, how do you view local leadership in the U.S.? Mayor López was just talking about the importance of Bogotá to Colombia’s progress. How do you view cities in the U.S. on a global agreement like the SDGs otherwise? What does it mean for kind of advancing interests and global leadership and partnership for the U.S. in a multilateral system?

AMBASSADOR LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, thank you, and thank you for reminding me of that amazing trip that we took. And thank you so much for the leadership that you provided to moving us forward on creating the SDGs and making this process into something real.

And Mayor, it’s really an honor for me to be here with you and hear the exciting things that you’re doing. And I think your response to the question really is the response that we all should be working from, and that is: Cities are at the core of addressing the needs of people. And this is about the dignity of people. It is about how we address all of their needs – I heard one of the previous speakers as I was standing outside say, it’s cities, it’s mayors, who are going to be implementing national policy. National policy is not implemented from the capital, it’s implemented at the level of the city.

And when we look at the United States, we’re not a unitary system. We see this as a whole-of-government process. We’re made up of the national state, but then we’re made up of national entities, we’re made up of cities, and we’re made up of civil society and religious groups and churches and community organizations. They’re at the center of implementation of all of the SDG goals, because the accomplishments of the SDG goals impact people directly. And it’s really important that we not ignore the roles of our cities.

One of the things that I’ve done as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations is take the SDGs, take the multilateral system, take our goals of peace and security out of New York and take it to the people. That’s why I’m here today. It is why I travel around the United States so that our communities and people understand what it is that we are trying to accomplish in the multilateral system and why the SDGs are so important to them, to their futures. The climate is a key area where cities have made a huge difference. And it is cities that kept us going when the U.S. pulled out of the Paris Agreement. The City of Los Angeles continued its commitments. Other cities continued their commitments to ensure that we have a planet that is still functioning for the next generation. So, cities are a key component.

MR. PIPA: So, thank you very much, and thanks for, as you say, taking it to the people and being here today in this conversation.

So, Mayor López, let me turn to you again. And you were just talking about the commitments and the importance of a city’s commitment actually on social issues, on issues of – on environmental issues, on issues of climate change. You’ve been focusing very strongly on issues of gender equity, even as they intersect with climate action. How do you see that local leadership, and also your participation in some of the city networks we were just talking about? How does that contribute to kind of the global dialogues happening at the UN or in other places? How do you see making sure that there’s a space and a contribution coming from cities into those global fora?

MAYOR LÓPEZ: Well, I think that’s the new multilateralism of the 21st century. We need to include communities. We need to include voices from the social organizations, from the cities and municipalities and regions, along with the nation-states, to address the challenges. We need to unite forces. Time is running out. Time is running out for democracy. Time is running out for climate change and for sustainability. So, we need to work together in actions, not only to share rooms, not only to share sessions, but actually to share investments and actions that change the course so that social inclusion, democratic values, and environmental sustainability as much as social sustainability is actually built in our cities.

I think we all want – if you ask people around the Americas, we have a great opportunity here. Yesterday night in a Financial Times roundtable dinner, we had a very good perspective. This is the more democratic region in the world, is the Americas, is Latin America. This is the region – you’re not going to find that democratic values and regimes in the Middle East or in Africa. It’s here. And it’s at the same time the most urbanized region in the world, in the Global South, is this region, is Latin America, is the Americas.

So, every one of our citizens, they want to live and prosper and grow in the town they were born. You can be sure of that. Venezuelans love Venezuela. They want to stay there and to prosper there. And we need to build the opportunities in Venezuela and in Colombia and in Central America and in the Caribbean and the Latin America to have a decent, prosperous, inclusive life, and to share the institutions both in the market and in the economy and in politics and democracy that will allow that.

So, there are some specific actions, I think, that we can do to pursue this goal. I think it’s time, and I’m sure Ambassador Linda will be crucial in promoting that voice as much as Secretary of State Blinken that we’re going to meet also here in this. It’s the time for the new, peaceful, social green deal for the Americas, and we can build that right off this summit with a plan for specific investments, specific actions, to be taken in the next 50 years, so that at the same time that we achieve the SDGs in our cities and in our towns and in our countries, we build peaceful societies in which our kids and youth people is not engaged in violence but in creation and innovation.

Our women are not overburdened with unpaid care work and domestic work and domestic violence but is free of that overburden by social services that take care of the kids and families and older members, elder members of our – or persons with disabilities in our families. And that care is provided by the government and by the private sector rather than by the poverty of women. We can do the community public-private partnerships to create the new entrepreneurs and the new jobs of caring services, telecommunications, IT, public transportation, which is green, so that we have opportunities for employment, entrepreneurial opportunities in our cities. But it requires local investment, national investment, and multilateral donors and banks’ investments in these kind of projects right now.

And that’s, I think, achievable, perfectly achievable, if instead of making this Summit of the Cities and the United Nations assembly of the national states, we come together at least twice a year, not only to listen to each other, but actually to agree on plans and investments and funds that can support these kind of investments in our citizens and our world.

So, this kind of actions, we’re close together. Never, ever a mayor or a governor speak before the national – the United Nations Assembly. We did it two years ago. Never, ever we have a Summit of Mayors in the Americas. We have it now. So, we are making progress, as Emilia was saying before. But it’s the time. We have this tiny window opportunity to concrete these new scenarios, these new communication and working together in a new multilateralism, in a new, peaceful, green, and social deal for the Americas.

MR. PIPA: All right. Thank you. (Applause.) Well, and building on that, Ambassador, we were even speaking backstage about how important it was for this group to come together and for it to be cities. So, I’d like to ask you sort of a similar question that I just asked Mayor López, but from your perch within the multilateral system. I mean, you’re at the UN. You’re in New York. You’re working with your counterparts there. What’s your perspective on how we best leverage this kind of collective action from the local level – and you were speaking about it in the U.S., from the local level, and among a network of cities here – especially in an important region like this, and create that intersection with the UN? What have you seen that could work and what’s your perspective on that?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, let me just start by saying – you said in your earlier remarks, Mayor, and again, that democracy is so important to ensuring that we focus on people. And I just want to echo that because we are seeing an attack on democracy. And we know that democracies deliver for their people, and at the center of democracy are people. And we have to – we can’t ever forget that. So, I just wanted to echo that statement.

In terms of what we’re doing in the multilateral system, this year I think is going to be the most consequential year for us in terms of development, in terms of the SDGs and the achievement of the SDGs, and in terms of climate change. And we can’t wait, because if we wait we’re going to lose another year. So, we will be coming together in New York in September, during what is traditionally called High-Level Week, and we will be focused on all of these issues. We will be focused on the SDGs, as we are here today. We will be focused on the Secretary-General’s “Summit of the Future”. We will be focused on his climate ambitions. And we will bring all of that together with heads of state, with governments.

And I encourage governments, when they put together their delegations, they shouldn’t just have a delegation of their ministries of foreign affairs. They need to have mayors; they need to have civil society in their delegations to address all of these issues broadly.

And when I say this is a critical year, someone handed to me, and I brought the card up just as we were talking in the door, that we’re off track on the SDGs. Only 12 percent are on track. That’s nothing.

MR. PIPA: Yes. We are off track. We are off track.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: We’re off track. Fifty percent have made some progress. That doesn’t mean it’s a lot of progress. And 30 percent have made no progress at all. So, we have to work as cities, as communities, as countries, and as the multilateral system to really ramp up our engagement on the SDGs to ensure that we achieve these so that we know that our youth, our young people have a future. And we have no time to waste. And I see the actions we’re taking here in the Cities Summit leading up to the actions that we will be taking in New York during High-Level Week and moving us forward after High-Level Week to helping us to achieve these goals.

MR. PIPA: So, we’re almost running out of time, so just very quickly I’ll just ask for both of your final thoughts. And Ambassador, let me just build on what you were just saying and ask you. So, it is a very consequential year at the UN on these development issues that we’ve just been talking about. What advice would you have for these local leaders? What would you say to them?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Simply, let’s not sit on our hands. And I don’t think you are because you’re here in the room with us today. But this is a time for action. It’s a time for bold ideas. The Secretary-General and the President of the General Assembly said over and over again we need new ideas, we need bold ideas, we need out-of-the-box thinking on how we can move forward. And sometimes your voices aren’t heard. Let us hear from you. Let us hear your voices. Let us hear your communities’ voices. And ramp up the pressure on your governments. Ramp up the advocacy in your governments to ensure that your governments don’t also ignore what needs to be done.

As I said earlier, this is a whole-of-government – for the United States it’s a whole-of-government initiative. But for you here, it’s a whole-of-globe initiative. The entire world has to focus on this. There is no space for anyone to sit back and watch what others are doing. You have to be active. You have to be proactive. You have to be part of the process. You have to lead. And there’s a leadership spot for every single one of you.

MR. PIPA: Thank you. (Applause.) Mayor López, let me just ask for your final thoughts and recommendations on what’s next for cities, and what would you say to your counterparts here?

MAYOR LÓPEZ: Keep fighting. (Laughter.) We achieve – we are here. We never, ever dreamed to be here just two years ago, but here we are, speaking together in the Summit of the Cities of the Americas. Two years ago, we were addressing the General Assembly of the United Nations, mayors from different cities around the world.

So, we need to take the opportunity of this sort of traumatic time. We never, ever thought we were going to have invasions and war, and we have it. We didn’t realize we were going to have a pandemic so traumatic such as the COVID-19, but we had it. Because of the climate change, we’re facing natural disasters around the world. Violence and insecurity is unfortunately rising again. So, times of challenge are times of opportunities, of actions, decisive, out of the box, bold, well financed, with concrete results in the short and long run. That’s the opportunity we have.

So, let’s keep joining, talking, and acting together for the new, peaceful, social, and green deal of the Americas. Thank you so much.

MR. PIPA: Thank you. (Applause.) Well, there you have it: a call for action from both of our leaders here, for your boldness and for your action. Please join me in thanking Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield and Mayor Claudia López. (Applause.)