Getting Ready for the Storm [INTERVIEW]: Missy Stults on ICLEI's New Climate Resilient Communities Program

“We have to tell the international community that it's in the cities that the battle to slow global warming will be won.” That's Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard speaking before a World Mayors Summit in Mexico that concluded this Sunday.  One week before the UN climate negotiations begin in Cancun, 138 mayors at the summit signed the voluntary Mexico City Pact that commits them to measurably reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. 

For people who follow this kind of thing, the announcement will sound familiar. Thanks in large part to work by ICLEI – an international organization that focuses on urban sustainability – cities have become prominent advocates for strong climate policies. And like the Mexico City Pact, discussions of cities and climate change have usually focused on what cities can to do reduce emissions.

But last week also marked the launch of a program of a different sort.

A few days before the Mayors Summit, the US branch of ICLEI turned a new leaf by announcing that eight cities and counties have been chosen to pilot what is the USA's  first national level effort to get cities ready for the impacts of climate change. Following a growing recognition that major challenges are on the horizon, the new Climate Resilient Communities program (CRC) gives cities the tools they need to understand and plan for life in a changing climate. In an announcement yesterday, Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino summed up what is at stake:

“Climate change is not a distant problem, but a threat that is here and now. We have a responsibility to protect the people, the businesses and institutions, the history and the future of Boston.”

Ebrard and Menino's comments are really two sides of the same coin: cities need to cut emissions, but they also need to brace themselves for big changes.

ICLEI has created an online list of climate impacts by region (drawn from the landmark 2009 federal Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States report). While not on par with the impacts expected for some of the world's most vulnerable regions, the picture still isn't pretty:

In Boston for example, sea level rise will increase flooding and erosion, extreme heat events and the urban heat island effect will take their toll on public health, and increased storms will test the city's infrastructure. Miami-Dade County can expect more frequent and severe storms, more flooding and saltwater intrusion into drinking water aquifers thanks to rising sea levels.

The new CRC program guides cities through the steps of assessing their own vulnerabilities, setting preparedness goals, selecting appropriate actions, implementing them, and monitoring success.

I spoke with ICLEI USA's Adaptation Manager Missy Stults about ICLEI's new push to get cities ready for a changing climate.

Alex Aylett: A large part of ICLEI's climate change work over the past 15 years -- almost all of it -- has been focused on reducing emissions. There was a lot of optimism that cities could help "solve the climate crisis." What does it say that we are now talking about adaptation?

Melissa Stults: Efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are critically important and ICLEI members have been making significant strides to reduce their carbon footprints. However, we know that we have enough momentum in the climate system that even if we were able to halt emissions to zero tomorrow, we would still experience a changing climate. Recognizing this, communities need to start preparing for existing changes as well as future changes that are unavoidable. What's important though, is that climate adaptation and climate mitigation should not be viewed as mutually exclusive strategies. The more we mitigate, hopefully, the less we have to adapt.

AA: For cities already working on mitigation, what does it mean to begin addressing adaptation as well? Where does working the two link up, and what new demands does working on adaptation place on cities?

MS: Many communities are already doing things that would be considered adaptation strategies - they are just not calling them adaptation strategies. For example, efforts around energy and water conservation are both climate mitigation measures as well as climate adaptation measures.

ICLEI's Climate Resilient Communities program is designed to help communities integrating climate considerations and climate adaptation planning into existing community planning. By doing that, ICLEI will help communities leverage existing efforts and existing funding to be more effective in building community resilience.

AA: What are some of the short and medium term benefits (or cobenefits) that cities can expect from engaging with work on adaptation?

MS: Healthier, more socially just communities. Tangibly, this will manifest itself with financial savings (through avoided impacts), more resilient economies, reduced greenhouse gas emissions; significant advances in local sustainability; and safer and healthier communities.

AA: Putting together an adaptation strategy is going to include picking some low-hanging fruit, as well as dealing with some difficult trade-offs. What do you think is ripe for the picking, and what do you see being an issue where cities are going to have to make some hard decisions?

MS: This is a tough question to answer. Adaptation is fundamentally a local issue meaning that the strategies that localities will need to move forward with will very much depend on local vulnerabilities and local circumstance. One of the first things ICLEI recommends our members pursue is understanding how they are already vulnerable and start figuring out how those vulnerabilities could change in the future.

In regards to low hanging fruit; urban forestry has lots of other benefits (like stormwater management, urban heat island mitigation), so do energy conservation, water conservation, community/public awareness and education. Forming partnerships with scientists and others to get information on climate change and possible vulnerabilities, and integrating climate considerations into existing planning process (i.e. using the future 100 year flood for planning) are also strategies that can be effective as gaining momentum and building resilience.

AA: The central step in the CRC's 5 milestones is "making a leadership commitment."  With mitigation, we have seen that cities struggle to truly commit to ambitious policies.  [see for example this recent poll]  Do you think that focusing on adaptation will increase the number of cities that are getting actively engaged with climate change?

: Yes. There is a hypothesis in the field that climate adaptation is the backdoor to climate mitigation --- and I very much think this is true. At some point, we realize there are things that we can't adapt to and maintain the basic services and quality of life we are use to. This information is often a motivator for action.

AA: Is that because Adaptation has a more visceral side to it? That seeing the risks that your community could face down the line might have a more immediate impact on decision makers and citizens?

MS: Absolutely. Adaptation is about making sure your community is prepared for existing and future climate and weather impacts - it's about building resilience. It's about being a socially justice, vibrant, dynamic, and healthy community.


Britain's New Green Deal

The British coalition government has announced plans to retrofit the country's 26 million famously drafty homes (if you've spent any time in the UK, you know what I am talking about). Yale's environment 360 is running an interview with UK Energy and Climate Minister Greg Barker where he explains how the new "Green Deal" is going to work. I've posted a few excerpts below.

Writing from North America -- where a similar US program is under fire, and the Conservative Canadian government is irrationally opposed to any form of climate action -- it is particularly interesting to see how climate policy in the UK seems to have become a non-partisan issue.

Barker speaks with all the verve for the power of the market that you would expect from a Conservative. But then he quotes ground breaking environmental economist Herman Daly's famous zinger that the economy is "a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment." Barker's  main argument is that the government needs to make judicious and dependable interventions into how energy efficiency is financed, and then let the market do the rest of the work. He also pushes the idea that the UK needs to develop a full renewable energy supply chain to establish its leadership in the sector.

I'm not convinced that the type of dramatic shift we are aiming for can be brought about entirely by intelligent market regulation. If we are going to get to zero carbon, or anywhere close, more direct government intervention is going to be necessary. Carbon based fuels have dominated our energy systems and economies for 300 years, they aren't going to give it up easily. 

But smart dependable economic policies are a good way to start. And, crucially, they also seem to be something that both the centre-left and center-right can agree on. [For a surprising quote from the Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher, be sure to scroll down on e360 and watch the first few minutes of the video].

From the Interview:

"What we’re going to do is go away from the stop-go, government-funded programs, and through using smart regulation, open up this market to the private sector. We believe we can create a market that will bring in billions of pounds of investment into energy efficiency for homes and businesses. We’re going to create a mechanism whereby the cost of making these [energy-efficiency] measures can all be financed through pay-as-you-save models, with the finance being repaid over a period of 20 years through the bill on each individual property.

Now, that’s a big change. To date it had to be paid upfront, either by the individual homeowner or through a grant. By pinning the repayments to the bill of the property, it means it’s not a debt. It’s not even a mortgage. It doesn’t need to be credit-scored, because if the individual living in that particular home moves, dies, ownership changes, or they cease to rent, it stays on the bill of that property, just like the conventional energy bill."

"There are three things to business, which we think are absolutely essential ingredients for long-term success of the transition to a low-carbon economy. We think business needs these three things in government policy: transparency, longevity, and certainty — TLC, if you like. And too often in the past, the short-term measures have been tinkering with policy, which has sent confused and mixed messages to the investment community. What we need to see is actually fewer interventions in the market. But when we do intervene, we need to do so in a very robust fashion that is transparent, clear, and gives real long-term certainty to business."

The Good News Paradox

This year's Human Development Index (HDI) came out last week and it was full of good news. The HDI started out 20 years ago to provide a way of indexing development and progress that gives a fuller picture of human well being than GDP's shallow economic calculations. This year's report celebrates the fact that over the past 40 years “average life expectancy rose from 59 to 70 years, primary school enrolment grew from 55 to 70 percent, and per capita income doubled to more than $10,000.”

This is great stuff.  But the question that the HDI asks is can it be sustained?  Can we hope so see similar gains in the next 40 years?

Climate Change and Development
The main threat, which haunts the report, is climate change. By some projections, much of the already wealthy North will not directly feel the negative impacts of climate change until late in the century. But many of the areas where gains have been made in access to education, nutrition and life expectancy are also going to be the most vulnerable to climate change. As the HDI puts it:

“The main threat to maintaining progress in human development comes from the increasingly evident unsustainability of production and consumption patterns. .... The consequences of environmentally unsustainable production are already visible. Increased exposure to drought, floods and environmental stress is a major impediment to realizing people’s aspirations. .... The continuing reliance on fossil fuels is threatening irreparable damage to our environment and to the human development of future generations.”

Unrealized Urban Possibilities
Cities have an important place in all this. Beyond coastal communities that will face increased flooding, all of the world's ever growing cities are directly dependent on external supplies of food, potable water, and energy that make it possible for such a high density of people to live together in relative comfort.

With 40% reductions in staple grain crops currently expected by mid century (as well as a bundle of other climate related disasters) the spectre of resource conflicts and urban unrest is very real. At the same time, decoupling urbanization from increased energy use could play a huge part in mitigating the intensity of climate change. Unfortunately recent reports on the US and China show that this is – on the whole – simply not happening. There are some innovators.  I've written about many of them here. But they are the exception not the rule.

This contrast between how good things are and how challenging they will get is a bit of a brain twister. Even if you understand the issues, at an intuitive level it all seems slightly unreal. How can things be going so well if they are really going so badly? (something Andrew Revkin also riffs on over at Dot Earth)

The Environmentalist's Paradox
Dr. Ciara Raudsepp-Hearne, a close friend and recent graduate of McGill's Dept. of Geography, made waves in September with a paper (pdf) on exactly that dilemma. In the paper, which got picked up by the Guardian and a variety of other international media, she dubs this sticky situation the “Environmentalist's Paradox.” Beyond just supplying a catchy name, she and her co-author's go some way to explaining how – exactly when the HDI show that enormous gains have been made since the 1970s – reports like the Millenium Ecosystem Assessment show that the capacity of the world's ecosystems to provide key services are in decline.

Given the unprecedented burdens we are placing on the planet's resources, projecting forward from past data is tricky. But with that proviso, Ciara and her co-author's argue that on the one hand, agricultural innovations have helped increase human well being despite declines in other areas, and on the other that there is a time lag between the damage we do to our ecosystems and when we feel its impacts. In other words, it takes a bit of time before the chicken's come home to roost.

Cities of Change
Going into a century of rapid climate change with already depleted ecosystems is a frightening prospect. But, as the HDI points out, in many ways things are better than ever. To keep that going on a rapidly urbanizing globe means designing urban systems that are more resilient to climatic shocks, resource shortages (and the social tensions they create), and that also impose a lighter load on the ecosystems we depend on. 

Concretely, that means more attention to technical projects like decentralized renewable energy that increase the resilience and efficiency of our hard infrastructure. It also means continued progress on social issues like education, health, and equality that build the resilience of our societies. Change happens, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Our cities need to be ready to respond to both. Read more...

US to determine Canada's Climate Change Policies...Again

What can I say. At least the current Canadian government is consistent. As we all wait to see the results of the US midterm elections, Environment Minister Jim Prentice has announced that Canada would abandon work on cap-and-trade legislation if, as expected, the Republicans take control of Congress.

This "follow the leader" approach has been central to the Conservative approach to environmental policy. The fact that the leader isn't going anywhere doesn't seem to trouble them though - and that is worrying. Check out this post from earlier this year for a look at the economic, environmental, and political downside of letting the US call the shots when it comes to climate change. Read more...

World's 1st Commercial Roof Garden

Montreal is soon going to be home to the world's first commercial rooftop garden.  The 31,000 sqft hydroponic farm is set to open in early 2011 and is aiming to provide year round harvests.  Run by Luffa Farms, crops have been selected in collaboration with plant science and nutrition from McGill university.  Shorter transportation distances mean crops chosen for taste and nutritional value, not how long they can sit in a crate before they get funky.


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.

Info on my consulting work, c.v. and current research focus is all here.