Climate change doesn’t care about our plans - that’s why cities need to plan for climate change

by Mark Watts | @MarkWatts40 | C40 Cities
Thursday, 21 September 2017 13:16 GMT

Interstate highway 45 is submerged from the effects of Hurricane Harvey seen during widespread flooding in Houston, Texas, U.S. August 27, 2017. REUTERS/Richard Carson

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Mayors need to look at the worst case scenario and consider how their city would cope if the situation were twice or three times worse

Ban Ki Moon, then United Nations Secretary General observed in 2011, that “Climate change does not respect borders, it does not respect who you are -- rich and poor, small and big.”

Recent events from the immense damage that hurricanes Maria, Harvey and Irma have wreaked on Puerto Rico, Houston, Miami and the Caribbean, or the monsoon floods that have forced millions from their homes in India and Bangladesh, illustrate that climate change does not respect whether we are ready or not. Our planet’s climate has changed and its impact will be felt by every one of us and for generations to come.

Climate scientists have, historically, been reluctant to attribute specific natural disasters or weather events to climate change. Yet, there is no doubt that warmer surface water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic Ocean and the seas and oceans of South Asia contributed to the intensity of recent hurricanes and monsoon rains. Human activity does not cause hurricanes or monsoons, but rising global temperatures, caused by human related climate change are making these natural phenomena more dangerous and destructive.

As Tomás Regalado, Mayor of Miami told the Miami Herald. “If this isn’t climate change, I don’t know what is. This is a truly, truly poster child for what is to come.”

As long as humans have gathered in cities, their leaders have sought to limit the economic, physical and human damage caused by natural disasters. In recent years, mayors have been investing unprecedented resources into building the resilience of infrastructure and communities, to prepare and adapt for the impact of climate change. This is based on a clear recognition of the risks of inaction. Climate change-related natural disasters have been estimated to put 1.3 billion people at risk by 2050 and destroy assets worth $158 trillion.

Jesus Rodriguez rescues Gloria Garcia after rain from Hurricane Harvey flooded Pearland, in the outskirts of Houston, Texas, U.S. August 27, 2017. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

For these efforts to be truly effective, they must be based on a realistic assessment of the risks we face. It is becoming increasingly absurd to talk about once in a hundred year or once in a thousand year storms. When climate-related disasters of the scale of Houston, Miami, Mumbai and Dhaka strike cities in different parts of the world twice in a month or multiple times within a handful of years, it is time to recognise that this is a new normal for our cities.

Mayors need to look at their worst case scenario planning and consider how their city would cope if the situation were twice or three times worse.

If the threats from climate related disasters, including heatwaves and wildfires, as well as storms and floods, threaten to grow exponentially in the years ahead, it is no longer enough to just build higher storm barriers against rising seas. A functioning city relies upon multiple interdependent systems - energy, transportation, telecommunications, water, sanitation and food.

If any one of these systems is knocked out by a climate related disaster, others can also fail or become more vulnerable. Recent C40 research has urged city leaders to focus on building the resilience of these interdependent systems, in order to protect the overall functioning of the city during emergencies.

Yet, for mayors, particularly those who hope to be re-elected, it is not enough to simply protect the vital infrastructure of a city. The assets that are most valuable to the economy of the city are usually found in the central business district or in the wealthiest parts of town. The poorest neighbourhoods and minority communities are often the most vulnerable to disasters. Creating truly resilient cities also means creating equitable cities. 

If we stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow, the planet will continue to warm because of the emissions already released into the atmosphere. Every dollar spent on building the resilience of our cities and every man-hour committed to planning for the worst are necessary to protect our citizens from current and future disasters. Unfortunately, they are not sufficient.

The only way to truly protect our cities, ourselves, our children and grandchildren is to deliver on the ambition of the Paris Agreement, by drastically cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Global emissions need to peak before 2020, which means action needs to ramp up now.

Fortunately, the mayors of the world’s great cities recognise the urgency of the crisis. By the end of 2020 each of the 91 cities in the C40 network will have in place a climate action plan that is consistent with achieving the ambition of the Paris Agreement to limit global temperature rise to below 1.5 degrees Celsius. If all cities globally followed this example, then they could deliver 40% of the emissions savings needed to achieve the Paris Agreement goals.

Climate change won’t respect even the most sophisticated climate action plans we create. We must brace ourselves for more disruption, huge economic costs and human suffering. But the plans we make today are our best hope to create sustainable, healthy, liveable and resilient cities for future generations to enjoy.

If the alternative is to do nothing and wait to see just how bad climate related disasters can get, then there really is no alternative.

Mark Watts is the Executive Director of C40 Cities, a network of the world’s megacities committed to addressing climate change