Uneven Impacts

This past Saturday in Chicago, the UNITY journalism convention hosted a panel called "Covering Climate Change: Why Non-White Communities Could Be Hit the Hardest." Currently poor, largely ethnic, urban communities are already struggling with poor air and water quality and access to other key environmental services - climate change is only going to make that worse. Earlier this month Maplecroft (a UK based environmental risk consultancy) released a detailed report on global climate vulnerability. Perhaps not surprisingly what plays out within our cities is also true internationally: by and large the countries most vulnerable to climate change are also the poorest.

In some places that's because a more volatile climate will add stresses to poor populations already living precariously on steep slopes, in low-lying floodplains or other vulnerable spots. It is also linked to the fact that poorer communities and countries often have fewer resources to deal with calamity when it comes. Wealthier groups have the option and ability to buy alternative to public goods when things go wrong; air conditioning lets you close your windows to smoggy air, a country cottage substitutes for lacking or unsafe public parks, bottled water and diesel electric generators can take over if municipal infrastructure breaks down, a private health plan keeps you out of crowded clinics etc. etc. But most places, the majority of us don't have that kind of out. Public goods are the only goods.

Cities are such intricate, exciting, vibrant and creative places to live specifically because they can provide a home to so many different social and economic groups. But a city is a precarious accomplishment though. You don't need to go far in time or space to see what happens when outside stresses get added to unequal access to key resources. To keep our cities together and build them into something better, responses to climate change can't only be about the environment. In the end how we do will have as much to do with our relationships to each other as with the amount of greenhouse gases we emit.

(I am am still looking for a transcript or recording of the UNITY event - please let me know if you have one that I could post)


3 Responses to "Uneven Impacts"

... said... 28 July 2008 at 15:29

Out of curiosity, Alex ... is there a relationship between vulnerability and community of residence? In other words, are urban communities more likely to be hit the hardest by climate change? And if so, has anyone suggested to address the potential impact of climate change by trying to re-distribute population to less populated areas?

Alex said... 1 August 2008 at 01:18

A tough question given that the effects of climate change will be very different from city to city.

In general, it is not so much that cities are inherently more vulnerable to climate change than other settlement types. The issue is where the city is located and how the population is distributed within it. New Orleans, to pick on an easy example, is a bad place to buy real estate, especially the poorer parts.

Trying to balance out population among a variety of regional centres, instead of one mega-city makes sense for a variety of reasons. But the idea of everyone returning to a rural lifestyle could actually make things worse by pushing people into currently unsettled areas and disrupting the ecosystem services (like fresh water) that those areas may provide.

A well designed and well managed city could infact deal better with severe climate than other types of settlements. It would have the ability to deliver goods and services to a large number of people that might be difficult to bring to a population that was more spread out.

Lunatrix said... 1 August 2008 at 01:25

Thanks! :o)


This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

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