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Happy Talk on Cities and Climate Adaptation

By Keith Kloor

The Manhattan skyline, including the United Nations headquarters (center). Credit: Downing Street/flickr.

As both an urbanist and an environmentally-minded writer, I've long felt that cities get short shrift from traditional greens and ecologists. I do think the latter group is paying more attention of late. (In Science, I wrote about this emerging ecological frontier a decade ago). Mainstream environmentalism, too, is starting to shed its historical anti-urban bias. 

But climate change may be elevating the role that cities have to play. In a paper published this month in Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, Patricia Romero-Lankao, a sociologist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), in Boulder, Colorado, writes that, "some urban authorities around the world are starting to acknowledge the local implications of climate change" and are introducing adaptation programs to reduce "climate risk."

This is certainly true for where I live. Two years ago, Yale Environment 360 carried a story by Bruce Stutz, headlined, "New York City girds itself for heat and rising seas." In the piece, Stutz reported:

An Adaptation Task Force, made up of some 20 city departments, New York State and interstate authorities, and power and communications industries, has begun developing an inventory of infrastructures at risk. Working with local communities they hope to develop strategies — from keeping development away from the waterfront, to maintaining sewer systems, to evacuation plans, to protecting waterfront neighborhoods.

The Department of Buildings will reassess building codes to reduce energy use and make certain that homes can avoid flooding and high-rise apartment buildings can withstand increased storm winds. The city’s Office of Emergency Management is updating its floodplain maps to bring them into correspondence with predictions of rising sea level and expected storm surges.

Similar "future planning," Stutz wrote, was underway "for London, Rotterdam, St. Petersburg, Tokyo, and Seattle, as well as low-lying cities across Asia."

That was then, this is now, though. I'd be curious to get a progress report on these efforts. Alas, Romero-Lankao, in her paper, does not have encouraging news, generally speaking. She writes that "most of the discussion is still on what cities should do rather than on what they are actually doing to adapt to climate change."

It appears that all the the various agencies of municipal government are having trouble aligning on climate change. Romero-Lankao writes:

Adapting urban areas to climate change is complicated by the fact that it is undertaken at different temporal, spatial and sectoral scales, thus requiring a careful assessment of the different layers involved in land planning, housing, emergency responses and their effects on the determinants of urban vulnerability and adaptive capacity at different levels.

To me, that's wonk-speak for bureaucratic sclerosis. But there seem to be other stumbling blocks, as well. Romero-Lankao has found that,

Many [urban] climate programs do not necessarily address climate concerns, but rather energy security (e.g., Chinese cities) and other development priorities related to economic growth or poverty (e.g., Denver Manizales). Existing initiatives are fragmented and a piecemeal rather than a strategic approach is very common.

So overall, a mixed bag. It sounds like there's a lot of happy rhetoric about urban initiatives addressing climate change, but not much in the way of real action. As a New York city resident, I find this worrying, especially when I see headlines like this on the BBC website today:

New York set to be big loser as sea levels rise.