As we face the immediate crises of Russia’s unwarranted invasion of Ukraine, rising inflation and political unrest, we have recently been reminded of a pervasive and hidden problem: climate change. Scientists have recently documented the growing risks we face globally, including how climate change is affecting cities and what they can do about it.
The documentation comes from International Panel on Climate Change, where thousands of scientists and climate experts from around the world review the evidence and scientific analysis, which is then reviewed and written by a wide panel of leading international climate experts. The most recent results should shock and worry us all.
In a presentation of the group’s findings hosted by the New School’s Tishman Environment and Design Center, my New School colleague Timon McPhearson and others have told us that climate change is a “threat multiplier”. (My blog today is heavily inspired by Introducing McPhearson.) Even if we slow global temperature rise, negative impacts are already embedded in our future for at least the next 20 years, and longer if we don’t take drastic action.
Like most other problems in our society, we have been told that “it is the poorest and the marginalized who are most vulnerable” to climate risk. It is estimated that there will be 4.2 billion city dwellers by 2050, or 2/3 of the world’s population. Coastal cities will be particularly at risk from rising sea levels, but extreme heat, drought and water scarcity will also increasingly threaten cities and people around the world.
So we need to take serious adaptation action now, but McPhearson’s summary warned that “adaptation may be limited in some areas”. Much of our infrastructure is already built and already vulnerable. Just think what a modest rise in sea level could do to oil reservoirs and sewage systems next to bays and rivers, from housing in low-lying areas of Bangladesh to New Orleans by the way. by Miami, and port facilities, airportsand logistics hubs everywhere that serve the global economy.
And if you weren’t worried enough, McPhearson also reported the scientists’ conclusion that “multiple climate hazards will occur simultaneously more often.” For example, heat and drought affect agriculture and crop yields. This drives up food prices, hurting the most economically vulnerable. These economic strains can cause problems, urban and political disruption (countries like Egypt subsidize bread prices to keep cities quiet), increased international migration, and zero-sum battles over water supplies. .
We need action at all levels, from international cooperation to small community interventions. But today’s session was reporting on the climate risks facing cities and what they could do specifically to address those risks.
One of the main needs is to focus on helping the most vulnerable and at risk, who often face economic exclusion and systemic racism. McPhearson’s report summary notes that “the greatest gains…in urban areas” come from reducing “climate risk to low-income and marginalized residents.” They are the most vulnerable but also those who benefit the most from assistance.
And such efforts benefit us all. It was noted several times during the presentation that targeting marginalized groups is based on “not just ethics, but impact”. Targeted justice-based efforts help stabilize the economy and society, move more people into productive economic roles, and can limit climate disruption.
Of course, simply maintaining the status quo of exclusion and discrimination is not enough. Cities can take many positive steps on their own, some of which I will review in future blogs. A promising example is New York City Mayor Eric Adams’ reorganization of separate climate offices in a new Mayor’s Office for Climate and Environmental Justice, aimed at bringing both better coordination and a focus on climate justice to the city’s efforts.
Climate change will continue for decades as an existential threat to our cities and to all of us, even though, like our other social problems, the negative impacts fall unfairly on the poorest and most marginalized. You can learn more about today’s event and other climate justice efforts at Tishman Center websiteand I recommend watching today’s event video when it becomes available.
You will be frightened by scientific discoveries. But you will also be heartened that such dedicated people, from IPCC scientists to grassroots community activists, are helping us address the environmental and justice issues of climate change.