June 5, 2012

U.S. Falls Behind In Climate Change Preparation

Michael Crumbliss for redOrbit.com

The largest cities in the world are lagging far behind smaller municipalities in preparation for climate change. Quito, the mountainous capital of Ecuador is an example of a smaller city leading the way. The government of Quito has been studying the effects of warming on nearby glaciers, preparing for water shortages, and hosting climate change conferences for other Latin American countries.

An MIT survey released today shows that 95 percent of major cities in Latin America are planning for climate change, compared to only 59 percent of such cities in the United States. “¨“¨Leadership on climate adaptation “can come from cities of many different sizes and ilks,” says JoAnn Carmin, an associate professor in MIT´s Department of Urban Studies and Planning and lead author of the survey´s report. While international climate policy measures – such as potential agreements limiting greenhouse gas emissions – require agreement among national governments, Carmin says, “cities are able to make some important strides in this area. There are numerous examples from around the world where there are no national policies or explicit support for adaptation, but where local governments are developing plans and taking action to address climate impacts.”

A total of 468 cities worldwide participated in the survey. Of these 79 percent have seen changes in temperature, rainfall, sea level or other phenomena attributable to climate change; 68 percent are pursuing plans for adapting to climate change; and 19 percent have completed a formal assessment of global warming´s impact.

Carmin believes US cities are behind because climate change is a more politically charged issue. “Climate change discussion is off the table, quite frankly, more in the U.S. than anywhere else,” Carmin says. “We are caught up over the cause of climate change, and this has led all climate-related issues to become highly politicized, undermining our potential to focus on promoting long-term urban resilience. This is not the case in many other countries where they take climate change as a given and are able to move forward with adaptation alongside their efforts to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.”

The problem can be generalized. Smaller, developing countries are already feeling the effects of climate change, while the most developed countries are still insulated by technology and advanced infrastructure.“¨“¨ Karen Seto, an associate professor of the urban environment at Yale University commented on the study, “A place that is rapidly developing needs to think about both climate change adaptation and mitigation. I´m not surprised that a smaller percentage of cities in the U.S. are thinking about adaptation. In the U.S. and in countries where income levels are relatively high, there is this false belief that we can buy ourselves out of it, that we can buy some technology to fix things, or that some other institution, whether it´s local, regional or national government, will come help save us.”

Cities can only do so much by themselves without financial help from the national government. “Many cities feel that national governments don´t understand the challenges they face,” says Carmin, who readily notes that “there´s a limit” to what cities can accomplish without more federal support.  Local governments are often limited to small-scale change, incremental planning and a lot of nonstructural measures, like planning and outreach to the public.

In the long term, that will not be sufficient.