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Cities ill-prepared for climate change dangers

By Martin Leggett - 09 Apr 2011 15:19:1 GMT
Cities ill-prepared for climate change dangers

The city climate-change sirens have been wailing for some time - from hurricane-blasted New Orleans, to January's flash floods in Rio de Janeiro, to Moscow's choking smog last summer - but city leaders aren't listening. So says a new report on urban policies for dealing with the risks of climate change, published this month in Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability. With over half of the world living in urban environments, that's a large slice of humanity that is being exposed to the dangers from global warming.

The study of climate policies in cities world-wide was undertaken by Patricia Romero Lankao, from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). It aimed to assess both the preparedness of city leaders for climate-change driven risks, and the measure cities are taking to reduce their contribution towards global warming. What she found was worrying - there is a widespread short-term focus in policy that is pushing action in both areas firmly to the back-seat. And cities are some of the most vulnerable locations facing up to ongoing extreme weather events.

That's because cities are, by their nature, prone to disproportionate effects from destructive weather phenomenon such as heat-waves or tidal surges. They have high levels of population, squeezed into their dense streets, are home to important and expensive-to-replace infrastructures, and are socially and politically important to the wider community. In addition, the physical environment of cities can exacerbate these natural events.

In a heat-wave, the concrete-and-asphalt fabric of cities absorbs more heat, and so turns up the dial for its inhabitants; and the high concentrations vehicles and smokestacks can then worsen the trapped air pollution, producing choking smogs. In a flood surge, the hardened drainage and flood-defense systems in cities can break suddenly and catastrophically, magnifying the damage done.

But that increased threat has not sunk in with urban policymakers. Romero Lankao puts the lack of action from civic leaders to three main causes.

Firstly, most cities in developing countries are still undergoing rapid-expansion - and resources are often focused on dealing with that influx. Secondly, economic growth is placed at a maxim by the local politicians, and so resource-consuming health and safety risks are downplayed. And thirdly climate science itself cannot yet provide politicians with the information they need to drive forward climate-risk planning - the projections from climate models are too coarse to be very specific for individual cities.

An inclination towards short-termism also comes into play with reducing greenhouse gas emissions from cities. ''Cities can have an enormous influence on emissions by focusing on mass transit systems and energy efficient structures,'' Romero Lankao says. ''But local leaders face pressures to build more roads and relax regulations that could reduce energy use.''

But not all cities are falling into that trap - there are some leaders who are harnessing the natural innovative tendencies of cities to address climate-change issues. Lankao concludes ''The good news is that policymakers can discover ways to improve sanitation, health, and safety as they try to reduce emissions and adapt to climate impacts.'' She cites London in the UK, Curitiba in Brazil, and Bogota in Colombia, as taking positive steps to reduce emissions, and ease adaptation.