At first it sounds like the set-up of a joke or a riddle: “What has 8 percent of the world’s population, a GDP the size of China’s, and the potential to take a billion-ton bite out of the world’s carbon emissions?” These statistics characterize the 63 cities of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, which brings mayors from around the world together to share strategies for climate change mitigation and adaptation. Rit Aggarwala, the former director of long-term planning and sustainability for New York City, serves as special advisor to Michael Bloomberg in his role as chair of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group. During his November 21 visit to the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Dr. Aggarwala discussed some of the driving forces behind cities’ leadership on climate change, and explored the ways different cities apply adaptation strategies to fit local needs and resources.
The success of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group reflects urban areas’ growing leadership in climate change adaptation. A number of factors have spurred and enabled cities to act on climate change. To start, urban dwellers are more likely to see global warming as a real issue; 90 percent of cities stand near coasts, and city residents tend to be more dependent on the infrastructure that climate change threatens. For instance, an urban resident who relies on an elevator to leave his apartment or on public transit to commute to work may be especially affected by a blackout. Mayors typically face fewer political roadblocks than state and federal politicians, and the day-to-day responsibilities of managing a city provide both the tools and the practice for implementing pragmatic solutions.
Dr. Aggarwala highlighted heat and drought; sea level rise and flooding; storms and extreme precipitation; and changes in the geographic distribution of disease as five key themes driving cities’ preparations. As cities implement policies to protect their citizens and their infrastructure, they face a diverse and sometime counter-intuitive array of challenges. For instance, London, a city close to the coast, and famous for its rain, is actually more concerned about heat than water. A sea wall currently keeps flooding at bay, while buildings and public transportation often lack air conditioners, fans, and other means to deal with hot weather. While rising sea levels and flooding do threaten Vietnam’s Ho Chi Ming City buildings, a sea wall here would pose significant financial challenges. So, instead of trying to keep water out, the city is experimenting with strategies to minimize the damage water causes when it comes in.
Identifying the right solution is often far easier than figuring out how to implement the fix on a megacity scale. For instance, a SmartCity partnership between IBM and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, uses microclimate data to predict landslides up to an hour before they occur. Landslides jeopardize some of the city’s most vulnerable communities, and as storms and precipitation increase, landslides are expected to become more frequent as well. By altering community leaders of danger via text messages, IBM’s technology saves lives. However, Dr. Aggarwala noted, its success ultimately depends on strong community networks, effective community leaders, and safe evacuation routes and centers. In responding to climate change, technology only makes up half the battle. Effective management plays an equally important role.
Sometimes, the best solution does not rest on innovative technology, but on new applications for something as simple as a water fountain. That’s the approach London used to help address rising rates of heat stroke on its subway platforms. Similarly, New York City plans to explore the use of window screens to help combat expected increases in insect-borne illnesses. Dr. Aggarwala pointed to examples like these as he distinguished climate change adaptation from resiliency. He worries that the framework of climate change adaptation can narrow cities’ efforts, by focusing on new challenges and tools. In contrast, resiliency involves both preparing for new threats, such as rising sea levels, and responding to new levels of severity in existing challenges, like extreme storms and heat.
Dr. Aggarwala’s presentation concluded a semester-long speaker series, From Mitigation to Adaptation: Regional Responses to Climate Change. The series, co-hosted by the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy and the Yale Climate and Energy Institute, highlighted regional and local approaches to climate adaptation, and how those strategies fit within the larger context of climate change mitigation. His final remarks, in response to an audience question about the future of urban adaptation, offer a fitting end to this semester-long conversation. As populations trends continue and “everything becomes urban,” Dr. Aggarwala suggested that urban adaptation will become less of a hot topic, and more of an integrated part of city’s management frameworks.
Amy Weinfurter is a first-year Masters of Environmental Management (MEM '15) candidate at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, focusing on the intersection between environmental communication and policy. Before arriving at Yale, she studied English and environmental science at Colby College, and worked with non-profit organizations in Colorado and Washington, D.C., on communication, watershed management, and community outreach and engagement initiatives.