© 2018, © 2018 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group. Innovative climate governance in small-to-medium-sized structurally disadvantaged cities (SDCs) are assessed. Considering their deeply ingrained severe economic and social problems it would be reasonable to assume that SDCs act primarily as climate laggards or at best as followers. However, novel empirical findings show that SDCs are capable of acting as climate pioneers. Different types and styles of climate leadership and pioneership and how they operate within multi-level and polycentric governance structures are identified and assessed. SDCs seem relatively readily willing to adopt transformational climate pioneership styles to create ‘green’ jobs, for example, in the offshore wind energy sector and with the aim of improving their poor external image. However, in order to sustain transformational climate pioneership they often have to rely on support from ‘higher’ levels of governance. For SDCs, there is a tension between learning from each other’s best practice and fierce economic competition in climate innovation.