City policymakers constitute the frontline in cities’ battles to secure funding from their parent states. But as the world experiences the largest urbanization trend in human history — the UN projects that by 2050, 70 percent of the global population will live in cities — issues of public health, energy independence, food production, security, and poverty alleviation will increasingly have to be dealt with at the city level. This growing burden on city policymakers is only exacerbated by the urgency of the effects of global climate change. Cities will also be on the frontlines of dealing with climate change, an expensive undertaking that will require resources beyond local budgets. The global community will need to chip in to their battles against rising tides.
Commercial city centers have historically been located along bodies of water. Trade, transport, food systems, and public health are all sustained by a city’s water supply and access to ports. There is no doubt that rising sea levels will have a disproportionate impact on these cities, virtually all of which lack adequate infrastructure to account for the kind of catastrophic flooding that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projects (assuming minimal policy intermediation).
In that event, potable water reserves could potentially be flooded and contaminated, essentially cutting off the city’s supply of safe drinking water. Moreover, sea level rise in a city that employs a combined sewer overflow model will be all the more catastrophic to water quality. Surrounding bodies of water will be instantly and severely contaminated, as wastewater treatment plants fail to keep their “heads above water,” so to speak.
These familiar doomsday scenarios, while terrifying, can be prevented. “Climate change adaptation” is a phrase thrown around a great deal in development and smart growth circles. According to the IPCC, adaptation amounts to an “adjustment in natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli or their effects, which moderates harm or exploits beneficial opportunities”. Cities around the world are working to adapt to the coming rise, acting quickly to secure their low-lying coastal settlements, protect their drinking water from the threat of encroaching saltwater, and rework their wastewater management systems to allow greater and speedier treatment capacity. From New York City to Ho Chi Minh City, from Miami to Durban, cities recognize the urgency and immediacy of the threat that rising sea levels pose and are in a mad rush to secure funds to prepare.
Still, as the cities of the world start to hit the ground running, their parent states struggle to reach consensus in climate talks. Recent UN Climate Change Conventions in Copenhagen and Cancun have given way to very little added momentum among member states, even as the stakes continue to grow. With the U.S. far from reaching domestic consensus on whether to formally commit to combating and adapting to climate change, prospects for these talks remain grim.
But there is hope. In June of next year, nations of the world will gather in Rio de Janeiro as a part of the so-called “Rio+20” UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD). Included among the agreed-upon themes of the convention is a commitment to building an “institutional framework for sustainable development” on a global scale.
For any UNCSD institutional framework to successfully engage in climate change adaptation at a global scale, it must employ the financial and diplomatic resources of the UN to support and share the progress already being made by cities. The existing UN Adaptation Fund is targeted specifically at developing countries that are parties to the Kyoto Protocol. The Adaptation Fund employs a traditional grantor-grantee flow of funds, without regard to the utility of best practice sharing and open dialogue between city policymakers and planners, who will shoulder most of the burden of the adaptation crisis.
At the same time, the diplomatic architecture of the UNCSD, with its hefty funding contributions and wide array of state representation, positions it very well to establish mechanisms to support urban climate change adaptation programs around the world.
A centralized host of “urban diplomacy,” this adaptation facility would inject funds into mentor city partnerships, coordinate city-to-city direct aid, and help to attract private foreign direct investment in adaptation programs. By sparking and maintaining an ongoing dialogue between cities and facilitating investment in adaptation projects, the UNCSD can have a profound impact on the number of cities in both the developing and developed world that are well prepared for the effects of climate change.
Adapting to the coming tide is a herculean feat, and cities will require access to the full resources of their parent states in executing these projects. One can only hope that states will put their money where their people are.
David Weinberger is the Senior Fellow for Energy and Environment at the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network and a senior at Hunter College of the City University of New York.