A Tale of 50 Cities

NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio

A new report finds that despite the increasing vulnerabilities of cities around the world due to climate change many are coming forward as “first responders,” finding new and creative ways to combat the impacts of a rapidly changing climate.

The report, Climate Change and Cities: First Assessment Report of the Urban Climate Change Research Network, was headed by researchers at Columbia University and the City University of New York (CUNY) and published by Cambridge University Press, along with the U.N. Cities and Climate Change: Global Report on Human Settlements 2011. It details the climate change-related risks cities will face in the near future. Increased frequency of heat waves due to rising global temperatures and urban heat island effect will threaten the very young, very old, and ill. A higher projected frequency and intensity of droughts in inland regions will create added stress on city water supplies and wastewater treatment plants. Spiking energy needs will create strain for cities as fossil fuel supplies fall and prices hike. And in coastal cities, sea level rise and increased storm surges will threaten both city infrastructures and populations with flooding.

The report contains contributions from 110 authors in 50 cities, and analyzes the climate trends and projections for 12 cities spanning the U.S., Latin America, Europe, Asia and Africa. One of the study’s main priorities is to stress the urgent need for preparedness and planning in urban centers. Cities are responsible for a large portion of greenhouse gas emissions and other types of pollution linked to climate change. Therefore, cities can act as key players in the mitigation of climate change and its impacts.

Some cities, according to the study, have already begun searching for alternative sources of power to reduce dependency on fossil fuels, to limit air pollutants and improve their long-term resiliency. The report asserts that cities are often first in starting societal trends – regionally, nationally and internationally. Because of this unique influence, cities have a responsibility to take charge as global leaders fighting climate change and adapting to its effects. The report seeks to develop an efficient, cost-effective plan for reducing climate change risks for cities, providing up-to-date information for local policymakers so that they can make informed decisions.

“Climate change will stress cities in many ways,” said study co-editor William Solecki, who also directs the CUNY Institute for Sustainable Cities at Hunter College. “There will be more heat waves, threatening the health of the elderly and infirm. Droughts will also become more commonplace in many cities, while in coastal communities too much water may be the problem, due to sea-level rise and more extreme coastal flooding,” he explained.

“Cities are developing comprehensive climate action plans, but we’re a long way from being prepared,” added Shagun Mehrotra, a co-editor and managing director of Climate and Cities at the Center for Climate Systems Research.

Local governments and policymakers can take a page from the 48 cities mentioned in the report that are already establishing plans to mitigate climate impacts expected even before 2050. These plans provide guidance for other cities, and the report outlines the process in step-by-step detail. The hope is that this report may be used as a tool by cities still in need of a climate change adaptation strategy.

Stephen Hammer, an energy policy expert, also served as a co-editor of the report and lead author of one of the chapters. Upon its release, Hammer said of the report, “We’ve tried to create a comprehensive study that explains both the challenges and opportunities facing local government managers. It’ll also be a great classroom tool, one that we hope will train the next generation of climate change researchers and policymakers.”