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Experts Focus on Efforts by Cities to Deal with Climate Change

Urban areas must take political and practical considerations into account as they prepare for the effects of climate change, say experts at AGU Fall Meeting.

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Urban areas are playing an increasing role in dealing with climate adaptation and mitigation, and although cities may differ in their approaches to these challenges, many off-the-shelf solutions already exist, said experts at a forum about this issue at the American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting in San Francisco, Calif. They added that the recent climate talks in Paris are encouraging further measures.

Cities can, for instance, control two main “levers” for climate mitigation efforts, Tracey Holloway, professor at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison said at the Great Debate on Cities Adaptation and Mitigation to Climate Change. Those levers, Holloway said, are transportation and associated land use planning and the design and operation of buildings, including building codes and lighting.

Some off-the-shelf solutions for dealing with climate change that she noted include calling for white roofs, permeable pavement, and efficiency updates at the time of a property sale and designing urban areas to reduce car dependency. However, even though vehicle miles per person has steadily decreased in the United States since 2004, she cautioned against moving too far against car use. “The idea of having a car-free city is so far from where we are now that I’m not sure it is a helpful vision because it may not get as much buy-in as something that is more realistic.”

Differing Motivations                                                                        

Louise Bedsworth, deputy director, California Governor's Office of Planning and Research, noted that her state's Gov. Jerry Brown emphasized the role of state, provincial, regional, and city governments in addressing climate change. Credit: Randy Showstack
Louise Bedsworth, deputy director, California Governor’s Office of Planning and Research, noted that her state’s Gov. Jerry Brown emphasized the role of state, provincial, regional, and city governments in addressing climate change. Credit: Randy Showstack

Louise Bedsworth, deputy director of the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research in California, said that liberal as well as conservative urban areas in the state were moving forward to tackle climate issues, although their motivation may differ. Bedsworth said that California Gov. Jerry Brown received a lot of attention at the recently concluded Paris climate talks for drawing attention to the role of subnational governments—including states, provinces, regions, and cities—in addressing climate change.

Holloway and other experts said that many cities are crafting and implementing climate action plans. In some urban areas where it is controversial to talk about climate change, these efforts are billed as a response to extreme weather or to reduce flood risk.  “If you call it climate change mitigation and climate change adaptation, it is definitely going to raise the porcupine needles on a lot of conservative United States politicians,” she said. “If your motivation is to make your city more economically prosperous and safer and that happens to reduce carbon, the outcome is no different than if your motivation is to reduce carbon that happens to make your city richer and safer.”

Urbanization Opportunities and Risks

The general trend toward urbanization presents important opportunities for adaptation and mitigation because “densification” can mean a smaller environmental footprint, according to Ken Caldeira, senior scientist in the Department of Global Ecology, Carnegie Institution for Science, Stanford, Calif.

However, Caldera said that urbanization and densification, particularly in poor countries, could go in the wrong direction. “If that comes in the form of sprawling slums without adequate healthcare and without adequate sanitation, and so on, that could lead to widespread misery,” he said. “If we solve the problem of climate, but we don’t solve the problem of development, we really haven’t solved the whole problem. So we need to be thinking about how we’re going help people develop to have meaningful lives in ways that don’t adversely affect the climate.”

—Randy Showstack, Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2015), Experts focus on efforts by cities to deal with climate change, Eos, 96, doi:10.1029/2015EO041751. Published on 16 December 2015.

© 2015. The authors. CC BY-NC 3.0