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Building climate resilience in cities: lessons from New York

09 June, 2016
Cynthia Rosenzweig and William Solecki

We live in an urbanizing world. Up to two-thirds of the world’s population – some six billion people – may live in cities by 2050.

Cities have emerged as first responders to climate change because they experience the impacts of natural disasters firsthand and because they produce up to 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

To protect urban dwellers from climate change impacts, such as more frequent and more intense heat waves, heavy downpours and coastal flooding, cities need to make themselves more resilient.

That’s why cities figured so prominently at the Paris climate conference last month, where hundreds of mayors pledged to reduce emissions and improve city resilience. As of today, 447 cities have signed on to the Compact of Mayors, a coalition of city leaders who have pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, track progress and prepare for climate change impacts.

We codirect the Urban Climate Change Research Network (UCCRN), a group of over 600 experts who provide climate science information on adaptation and mitigation to urban leaders and practitioners from governments, the private sector, nongovernmental organizations and the community. At the Paris conference, the UCCRN released the Summary for City Leaders of its Second Assessment Report on Climate Change and Cities.

Based on our work with UCCRN, we believe that cities have great potential to lead on climate change solutions, but must be transformed in order to do so.

We also believe that New York City’s experience in rebuilding after 2012’s Hurricane Sandy offers useful lessons for other cities.

Adaptable plans

UCCRN has identified transformative strategies that cities can pursue to become climate leaders.

They should link preparations for near-term disasters and long-term climate change; meld activities that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and build resilience; involve multiple stakeholder groups and scientists in the planning process; focus on protecting the most vulnerable; enhance local credit worthiness and management skills; and look outward by joining city networks.

New York City is already pursuing these objectives, motivated largely by the damages it has already suffered from extreme weather.

On October 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy hurtled ashore in the New York metropolitan region, killing 44 people and causing US$19 billion in damages in New York City alone. The flood inundation zone in New York City encompassed approximately 88,700 buildings, which contained 300,000 homes and 23,000 businesses, and left two million people without electricity.

The Hugh L. Carey Tunnel between Brooklyn and Manhattan flooded during Hurricane Sandy. Metropolitan Transit Authority/Wikimedia, CC BY

Sandy was a wake-up call that showed how vulnerable New York City was to extreme climate events. In its wake, city leaders resolved to take steps that would make New York stronger and more resilient in the face of climate change.

New York’s experience in rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy highlights three main messages that are transferable to other cities.

First, there is enough information to act on climate change today based on the best-available science. Cities can update their climate projections and urban climate change action plans as scientific understanding improves and city leaders learn more about resiliency, but there is no reason to delay climate action planning.

In New York City, the New York Panel on Climate Change (NPCC), a body of experts first convened by Mayor Bloomberg in 2008, developed a concept of Flexible Adaptation Pathways that the city adopted in its long-term planning. Originally conceived in London, this approach calls for agencies to start adopting resiliency measures immediately, monitor how well they work, and continually update their understanding of climate risk information and responses as the climate system and resilience actions evolve.

If cities do not start acting now, many of the world’s vulnerable cities and populations will endure significant impacts from heat waves, heavy downpours and coastal flooding due to sea level rise.

The second important priority is to plan across entire metropolitan regions. In preparing for climate change, the city of New York is taking an approach that encompasses the entire “infrastructure-shed” of the city.

For example, the New York City climate action task force includes regional transportation providers who manage the subways, buses, and railroads that run within and around the city into the extended metropolitan region. Plans must also consider how extreme droughts and inland floods can affect the watershed that supplies New York City’s drinking water.

Staten Island, New York residents wait to buy gasoline to power generators after Hurricane Sandy. Thomas Good/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Disasters and extreme events do not respect political boundaries, so steps to make cities more resilient cannot stop at city limits. Instead, they need to encompass the interconnected energy, water, transportation, telecommunications, sanitation, health, food and public safety systems that extend beyond municipal borders to the wider metropolitan region and beyond, including national and international supply chains.

New York City’s third key step is bringing together city decision-makers, infrastructure managers, citizens groups and other key actors with researchers to develop shared understanding of New York’s specific climate change vulnerabilities and climate science needs.

That’s because climate change will not impact every city in the same way. For example, some cities will be exposed to repeated and worsening droughts, while others may be more exposed to flooding or extreme heat events. Scientists and stakeholders need to work together to understand the risks that are relevant for each city so that they can find effective ways to prepare for climate change.

Critical vulnerabilities

The most critical vulnerability in New York City that Hurricane Sandy spotlighted is coastal flooding. Currently, an estimated 400,000 New York residents, 71,500 buildings and much of the city’s critical infrastructure are located within the 100-year flood zone – that is, the area that has a one percent chance of flooding in any given year. Sea levels in New York City are rising at almost twice the global average rate, and the NPCC projects that sea levels will continue to rise in the coming decades, which will put more residents, buildings and infrastructure at risk.

Projected 100-year flood zone in New York City with sea level rise in the 2020s, 2050s, 2080s and 2100. New York City Panel on Climate Change, 2015

Coastal cities across the world are vulnerable to sea level rise and more intense coastal storms. And cities everywhere face risks including more frequent and more extreme heat waves and increasing heavy downpours.

Critical infrastructure systems in cities exposed to these changing hazards include energy, transportation, telecommunications, water and waste. These systems are interdependent, so impacts on one of them can cause cascading effects onto other infrastructure systems during an extreme event.

For example, Hurricane Sandy caused gas shortages in the New York metropolitan region: loading docks on the water were physically damaged, refineries and terminals lost power and pipelines shut down, making it impossible to receive or ship fuel.

This caused major failures in the gasoline supply chain, forcing drivers to wait in line at gas stations and limiting New Yorkers' mobility. Fuel shortages also made it more challenging for ambulances to respond to emergencies, for utility workers to restore electricity and for relief workers to reach the hardest-hit areas of the city.

Certain groups of people in cities are disproportionately vulnerable. For example, more intense and longer-lasting heat waves threaten people with underlying health problems, the young and the elderly, and low-income residents.

Investing in resilience

The UCCRN recommends that cities should take a portfolio approach to investing in resilience measures that spreads resources across multiple categories. They include implementing citywide policies, such as upgrading building codes; hardening critical protective structures; investing in green infrastructure, such as green roofs and bioswales; and strengthening social safety nets.

New York City portfolio approach for urban resilience. C. Rosenzweig, Author provided

In order to develop specific, localized climate action plans, stakeholders and scientists need to work together to learn about climate risks, brainstorm strategies and prioritize implementation. This process should include groups that represent a cross-section of the city’s population, including the most disadvantaged citizens, as well as the private sector.

The Paris Agreement signals a new era for climate change, and cities are generating positive energy for this new phase. Early-adopter cities such as New York need to continue to strengthen and share their actions and lessons learned.

Cities that have not yet started need to begin planning and preparing for climate change. The good news is that many urban leaders are committed to meeting these challenges, and there is a great deal of knowledge that researchers can share on how to proceed. By starting to plan and invest now, cities can lead the effort to avoid dangerous climate change and adapt to a warming world.

 

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Topics

Adaptation & Resilience

All countries will need to adapt to some of the environmental, social and economic impacts of climate change that are already unavoidable. Food security, livelihoods, water resource availability and public health are some affected areas. People living in poverty are more vulnerable, having a lower capacity to adapt. Thus, it is essential to promote resilience building. The adaptation and resilience aspects need to be mainstreamed into planning by policy makers and the private sector as well as integrated into development strategies.

Biodiversity & Livelihoods

Nature protection is most sustainable if it essentially contributes to the long-term stability of human needs. Today many regions around the world are confronted with increasing destruction of the natural foundations of life. The consequences of wide-ranging resource destruction are no longer regionally limited, but rather represent a global threat. Those affected are mainly rural populations, who find the sources of their income and the foundations of their way of life swept away. The depletion and destruction of natural resources goes hand in hand with decreasing agricultural yields and increasing poverty, which in turn forces the affected populations to deplete the remaining resources.

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Capacity Building

On the one hand, conflicts are caused by structural factors, such as economic and social inequality or environmental destruction. On the other hand, conflicts are fuelled by a lack of democratic structures, deficient mechanisms of non-violent conflict settlement, inadequate rule of law, the destruction of social and cultural identity and the disregard of human rights. Against this backdrop, development policies have been dedicated to a broad concept of security, which comprises political, economic, ecological and social stability. As a consequence, development cooperation agencies and actors have developed a broad spectrum of approaches for conflict prevention and transformation as well as for sustainable use of natural resources.

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Cities

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Civil Society

Civil society is the first victim of environmental pollution, under-development and conflicts. Economically disadvantaged and politically marginalized population groups are particularly affected by violent conflicts as well as increasing resource degradation. Simultaneously, civil society is a fundamental pillar for implementing sustainable development. It contributes in many ways to strengthening conflict prevention and plays a significant role in the peaceful and democratic development of states. It must be supported to strengthen civil rights, adherence to human rights in general and democratic participation.

Climate Change

Climate change resulting from the emission of greenhouse gases represents one of the vital challenges for international environmental policy. Flooding, droughts, shifting of climate zones and increasingly frequent and intense extreme weather events will have serious economic and social consequences for entire regions. The climate problem is also directly linked to the question of future energy generation.

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Climate Diplomacy

To address the challenges posed by climate change, a new profile of climate diplomacy is evolving. This utilises a full range of policies, including development cooperation, conflict prevention efforts, and humanitarian assistance, in addition to more traditional measures of climate change adaptation and mitigation. Moving from a risk analysis of climate-related threats to well-timed preventive action requires a greater commitment to integrating climate change concerns into development, foreign, and security policies. Examples include strengthening diplomatic networks, building new alliances with partners, and raising awareness – not only of potentially negative climate change impacts, but also of opportunities to embark on a sustainable transformation of our societies.

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Co-Benefits

Climate action entails an array of economic, social, political and environmental co-benefits. It provides an opportunity for economic growth and new jobs. Many investments can take into account climate considerations without becoming more costly. Further important co-benefits include: improved energy security, less local air and water pollution, health benefits as well as ecosystem and biodiversity protection.

Conflict Transformation

In order to overcome the structural causes of violent conflicts and thus bring about an improvement in the framework conditions for peaceful and fair development, it is essential to have long term and broadly planned peace development and peace advancement. Various governmental and non-governmental, national and international actors and groups are involved in these processes.

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Development

Climate change and development are inextricably linked. Climate change endangers the development agenda and has the potential to reverse development goals. Furthermore, successful mitigation of climate change heavily depends on development choices around the world. Therefore, development strategies need to be climate-compatible to provide long-term success, and there are viable policy options that support this compatibility. Many mitigation and adaptation activities can present development opportunities to developing countries and avoid the lock-in to environmentally damaging technologies.

Early Warning & Risk Analysis

The reasons for the development and escalation of conflicts and the incidence of risks are multifaceted and complex. Simultaneously, the assessment of the specific causes in the form of risk and conflict analyses can contribute to a better understanding of these processes and make it possible to provide warning of negative developments, or ideally help prevent them. In the context of natural resource use, risks and conflicts have gained increasing attention in the past years. The debate on possible future water wars is merely one example.

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Energy

The well-being of individuals, communities and nations depends on the availability of energy resources. The gap between energy supply and demand appears to be growing, making the world vulnerable to serious economic shocks. At the same time, the burning of fossil fuels causing climate change is one of the vital challenges of international environmental policy. So far, only rudimentary approaches exist for shaping climate and energy security in a sustainable way. The components of a strategy that can contribute to reducing vulnerabilities related to climate change and energy policy include a greater role for renewable energies, the improvement of energy efficiency and a stronger decentralisation of energy supply.

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Environment & Migration

The economic, social and environmental consequences of climate change aggravate the breakdown of eco-system-dependent livelihoods and are likely to become dominant drivers of long-term migration. Natural disasters already cause massive shorter-term displacement and the number of temporarily displaced people is likely to further increase with climate change. For vulnerable populations in vulnerable regions, such as the Sahel zone or the Ganges delta, migration often becomes the sole survival strategy. In order to address climate-related displacement and migration successfully, knowledge of effective adaptation and an improved understanding of how environmental change affects human mobility is essential. 

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Finance

Climate finance, from all sources, plays a key role in supporting and enabling adaptation and mitigation action as well as climate and energy innovation. The Paris Agreement ensured that the Green Climate Fund and the Global Environment Facility are at the core of climate finance architecture as entities entrusted with the operation of the Financial Mechanism of the UNFCCC. Increasing climate finance from all relevant public and private sources is crucial. Furthermore, much needs to be done to redirect finance flows to sustainable paths, e.g. reducing fossil fuel subsidies, introducing maritime and air transportation taxes. The conditions for green investment in developing countries should also be improved.

Forests

Forests are disappearing at an alarming rate. Competition for forest resources triggers, exacerbates, or finances numerous crises and conflicts in tropical developing countries. Illegal logging and timber trade foster instability and sometimes violent conflict by strengthening illegal and armed groups, increasing corruption and exacerbating use and claim conflicts among local communities, the state and the business sector. Forests are a vital resource to poor people but they can also become areas of conflict. Sustainable management of forest resources is therefore key to preventing violent conflict over and within forests.

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Gender

Gender plays an important role as a category of conflict for many reasons. The interlinkages between gender, environment and conflicts are complex and much research is still needed. Existing insights suggest that conflicts may worsen gender inequalities that existed before the outbreak of violence. The unequal distribution of land property rights in many parts of the world serves as an example. Moreover, women (and children) are among those most affected by both violent conflict and natural disasters. At the same time, women carry much of the burden of trying to implement rehabilitation measures after crisis events.

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Land & Food

Increasing water scarcity, desertification and crop failures due to extreme weather events are becoming more and more of a threat to global food production. While the world’s population continues to grow rapidly, food production is unable to keep pace. Due to the global food crisis in 2008, the number of hungry people reached the symbolic one billion threshold for the first time – corresponding to about 16 percent of world population. Food insecurity may be a consequence or cause of conflicts. Violent conflicts often lead to the destruction of agricultural infrastructure and means of production, as well as to the displacement of local communities.

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Minerals & Mining

In the past, the discovery and tapping of valuable or strategic resources like valuable minerals, oil and natural gas, particularly in developing and emerging countries, has often led to large scale environmental contamination and negative development. The "resource curse" of some countries shows that the wealth from resource yields is frequently unfairly distributed; instead of serving development it advanced the formation of corrupt elites and in some cases even led to conflicts and civil wars. Measures in various sectors and at all levels are important in order to use the potential of these natural resources in a manner that is sustainable and prevents conflicts.

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Private Sector

The spread of violent conflict not only affects people but also companies located in such regions. Destruction of investments and infrastructure, collapse of markets and trade partnerships, flight and expulsion of employees are phenomena of conflicts and environment-induced crises that directly affect companies in unstable regions. Almost all branches of the economy thus have a clear interest in a stable and peaceful environment for their activities. Conversely, the business sector plays an important role in the interaction of economic growth, social development and a healthy environment, all of which can advance peace and sustainable development. 

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Security

Environmental issues have a significant security dimension. Access to, and overuse of, natural resources often play a key role in civil wars or other forms of internal domestic conflict. This is compounded by climate change and environmental degradation. Climate change is now widely recognised as a non-traditional, risk-multiplying threat that will have increasing security impacts. Key risks with possible implications for human and national security include water scarcity, food crises, natural disasters, and displacement. More preventive diplomacy and advocacy is needed to address the strategic implications of climate and environmental change.

Sustainable Transformation

Sustainable Transformation allows societies to profit from a growing, environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive economy – especially in emerging and developing countries. This requires a higher up-front investment, but the benefits of a sustainable transformation in the medium and long term are significant. For instance, energy cost savings and reducing the impact of price volatility offer major incentives for deploying renewable energies and promoting energy efficiency. Such benefits exist in all key sectors of the economy.

Technology & Innovation

Innovations and technologies are already readily available and affordable but their global diffusion and uptake remains a challenge. Innovation and technology are crucial to achieving ambitious climate change mitigation and adaptation targets. However, research and development often do not receive appropriate public support. Developing countries can leapfrog high-carbon industrialisation phases by adopting, deploying and improving existing innovations and technologies. For this, it is essential to minimise financial, administrative and political barriers.

Water

The availability of freshwater resources in sufficient quantity and quality is essential for the preservation of human health and sound ecosystems. The use of water resources is also vital, however, for economic development: whether for agriculture, industrial production or for electricity generation. The world's freshwater resources are distributed very unevenly in terms of geography and seasons. In addition, water shortage is becoming more prevalent in several regions due to population growth, economic development, urbanisation and increasing environmental pollution. Thus, water resources can hold potential for conflicts between parties who have different interests and needs.

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Regions

Asia

The environment in Asia is already under tremendous pressure as a result of the unsustainable use of land, forests, water and even air in many regions. Climate change will only exacerbate these challenges. Rising sea levels will likely endanger densely populated areas, changes in the monsoon patterns can strongly impact agriculture, melting glaciers will increase long-term water scarcity, and extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall and cyclones can pose further hazards.

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Central America & Caribbean

Natural disasters and water scarcity are key challenges for most of Central America and the Caribbean. These challenges will become even more pronounced as the climate changes. Weak resource and disaster risk management and land disputes pose additional security challenges for large parts of the region. Several countries of Central America and the Caribbean have limited adaptive capacities as they face political instability caused by high social inequality, crime, corruption, and intra-state conflicts.

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Europe

As one of the most developed and most densely populated regions in the world, Europe makes heavy use of its resources, resulting in difficult trade-offs and negative consequences for the environment and ecosystems. Land is used for settlements, agriculture and dense infrastructure, creating problems of soil degradation. Water resources are stressed due to unsustainable agricultural practices. Despite nature protection policies, Europe continues to lose biodiversity at an alarming pace. Some of these trends are exacerbated by climate change, which is expected, for instance, to lead to shifts in water availability.

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Global Issues

Resource scarcities, environmental pollution and climate change are not limited by national borders, but often have a transboundary or even global impact. These issues interact with political stability, governance structures and economic performance, and can trigger or worsen disputes and violent conflicts. Exacerbating some of these trends, climate change is likely to lead to the degradation of freshwater resources, declines in food production, increases in storm and flood disasters and environmentally induced migration. All these developments pose potential for conflict.

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Middle East & North Africa

The geopolitical position of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), its fossil fuel resources, high population growth and the political changes spurred by the Arab Spring all make the region one of the most dynamic in the world. Nevertheless, it is also one of the most arid and environmentally stressed. Dwindling water resources, limited arable and grazing land, high pollution from household and industrial waste, remnants of conflicts and increasing desertification are key environmental challenges.

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North America

Climate change has various impacts on the three North American countries of Canada, Mexico and the US. Canada and the US have well-developed adaptive capacities and foster the strengthening of capacities in other regions as well. With high per capita emissions, these two countries also bear a greater responsibility for a changing climate. Mexico has a sound national strategy for climate change adaptation, yet fewer capacities than Canada and the US. The poorer and rural populations of Mexico are especially vulnerable to climate change, due to an increased sensitivity and a lower adaptive capacity.

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Oceania & Pacific

In Oceania, population growth and economic development trends put a strain on oceanic and island ecosystems. Freshwater scarcity, overexploitation of fisheries, loss of land biodiversity, forests and trees, invasive species, soil degradation, increasing levels of settlement, poor management of solid and hazardous waste and disproportionate use of coastal areas are some of the problems. Climate change exacerbates most of these trends, while also raising questions about the future sovereignty of some island states.

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South America

South America has diverse and unique ecosystems and is very rich in biodiversity. Weak natural resource management, land disputes and extreme weather events bring about significant challenges for the region. While South America accounts for relatively few CO2 emissions, the changing climate will alter its ecosystems and greater climate variability will lead to more hurricanes, landslides, and droughts.

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Sub-Saharan Africa

In many African states, environmental security issues rank high on the political agenda. Throughout the continent, countries suffer from water scarcity, food insecurity and energy poverty. These chronic and worsening resource scarcities have severe livelihood implications and are exacerbated by political conflicts over access to and control over these resources. Climate change may seriously threaten political and economic stability in Africa. It may also put a severe strain on the capacities of states and societies to co-ordinate activities, to communicate and to organize.

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