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Studies Say Cities Are Ill Prepared for Climate Change

Studies Say Cities Are Ill Prepared for Hazards of Climate Change

By Jeff Baron
Staff Writer

Washington - A U.S. researcher says cities worldwide are particularly vulnerable to damage from the effects of climate change - and doing little to prepare for them.

The cities also are failing to reduce the damage they are causing through carbon emissions, the researcher said.

The warnings come from sociologist Patricia Romero-Lankao of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, which is based in Boulder, Colorado, and supported by the government-backed National Science Foundation. Working with the U.N. Human Settlements Programme, she studied policies around the world and found that many urban areas, especially in developing countries, will suffer disproportionately as global temperatures rise.

The dangers vary from place to place: increased storm surges in coastal cities, wildfires during droughts in some places, increased suffering from heat waves and pollution in others.

"If a levee has been built to withstand a 100 years flood, and now it can be that we get three or four of those of even a larger intensity, then those infrastructures are not climate-proofed," Romero-Lankao said. Each city faces its own particular "bundle of climate stresses," she said.

Many cities have talked about facing the dangers of climate change, she said, but their actions "have not been so effective." Some cities have made changes to limit their carbon output - by requiring that new buildings be more energy-efficient, for example, or by expanding the use of public transit in place of cars - but they are doing less to adapt to predicted changes.

Part of the problem is "a mismatch of scales," Romero-Lankao said. "People care about short-term issues, very immediate issues, but climate issues require that you think in terms of short, medium and long temporal levels and scales." When the hazards from climate change are immediate, she said, it will be too late to make the necessary changes to protect people from them.

Fast-growing cities in the developing world have the opportunity - with help - to adapt to climate change as they grow, she said: They can build transit and sanitation systems that their people will need, they can incorporate green space into growth, and they can prevent construction in hazardous locations along waterfronts, among other things.

A crucial factor in how well cities will respond is how open and honest their governments are, and thus how difficult it is for developers or other interests to sway city policies for their short-term benefit.

More than half of the world's population lives in cities. Romero-Lankao said that by 2020, more than 500 cities will have at least 1 million residents.

David Morley, a research associate at the American Planning Association in Washington, agreed that "both rich cities and poor cities around the world are not doing enough, fast enough, to make a substantive difference yet."

"Most of the planning work so far has focused on mitigation, meaning: What can we do so that we're not putting as much CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere?" Morley said. "I think we're starting to see a growing awareness of the importance of climate change adaptation, which would be: What can we do to protect our critical infrastructure from the effects of climate change that may be inevitable at this point, and how can we ensure that we're keeping people in that critical infrastructure out of harm's way as much as possible?"

Some cities have adopted climate action plans or incorporated that approach into their comprehensive plans and regulations. Morley's organization maintains a database ( of the plans on its website.

Romero-Lankao's findings appear in two journals: European Planning Studies and Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability.


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