With nations lagging, cities take lead in adapting to climate change

As global leaders look towards another round of climate negotiations in Durban, South Africa this December, the reality is that the poorest and most vulnerable populations in both developed and developing countries are already bearing the costs of climate change.

Eric Chu's picture
Insight by 
Eric Chu
06 June 2011

The continued political stalemate and the prevalence of empty promises have propelled many municipalities to act in this arena of inaction. Both individual and networks of cities have been quick to show leadership in addressing climate change risks, mitigating climate change drivers, and adapting to climate change effects.

Cities are uniquely positioned to deal with climate challenges because they have the most detailed knowledge of local conditions and the needs of their citizens. The concentration of people and economic activities in cities means that managing the impacts of climate change, which range from rising sea levels to increasing extreme weather events, is essential to avoid human and economic losses. As the proportion of urban residents in the world grows, cities have also become increasingly important centers for climate technology and policy innovation.

© Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience NetworkThe local specificity of climate effects has not deterred cities from working together. In recent years, there has been a proliferation of urban networks and partnerships that aim to fill in adaptation knowledge and resource deficits. These networks include the Rockefeller Foundation’s Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network (ACCCRN), ICLEI—Local Governments for Sustainability’s Cities for Climate Protection Program (CCP), and UN-Habitat’s Cities and Climate Change Initiative, among others.

Most importantly, these networks facilitate learning and information sharing across cities. The “Learning Among Urban Leaders: Peer Exchange on Adaptation to Climate Change” conference, held this past April, was one such event that brought together urban adaptation leaders, from both developed and developing nations, onto a platform to discuss common challenges. These leaders identified how to engage citizens, access reliable scientific information, devise appropriate municipal investments, and develop stronger institutions as priority action items. This event was jointly hosted by the Rockefeller Foundation, the International Institute of Environment and Development (IIED), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Makerere University in Uganda.

Dr. Debra Roberts, Deputy Head of Environmental Planning and Climate Protection and host of the climate negotiations later this year in Durban, is spearheading the “putting the urban back in Durban” campaign to raise the international profile of urban adaptation issues. Durban has been at the forefront of aggressively planning for climate change and has integrated concerns over slow-onset disasters, food security, and water resource constraints into short- and long-term development planning.

Like Durban, the City of Boston, USA, has been actively addressing climate adaptation and promoting climate action amongst its citizenry. In 2010, Boston published Sparking Boston’s Climate Revolution, which presented to Mayor Thomas Menino recommendations on green development mechanisms and urban adaptations to sea level rise, expanded flood zones, and more frequent heat waves. The City followed that up by publishing A Climate of Progress: City of Boston Climate Action Plan Update 2011 to highlight how city departments have started putting these recommendations into effect.

The lack of internationally led action has meant that city governments across the world have taken the lead in addressing emerging climate adaptation issues. Not only have cities become centers for technology and policy innovation, groups of cities have begun to form networks and communities of “early adaptors.” Although the growing importance of these municipal networks cannot replace effective international-level directives, this growing urban movement does highlight the reality that cities are increasingly experiencing direct climate effects and that governments, at any level, must pursue adaptation responses immediately.

This blog was written by Eric Chu, a doctoral student in Environmental Policy and Planning in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). His current research focuses on the politics of climate change adaptation planning in cities across Asia and Africa.