Canadian Cities Lead on Planning for Climate Impacts

[I was suprised to see Canadian cities come out in the lead on adaptation.  But also a bit disturbed to see just how nascent these efforts are, not just here, but globally.  We've got a long way to go... @ sustainable cities canada]

Canadian cities are world leaders in preparing for the impacts of climate change. That is according to a new report from M.I.T. [.pdf] . The report provides the first global survey of what cities are doing to prepare for a more volatile climate. But while Canadian cities may be leaders, action everywhere is still in its infancy. There is a striking gap between the serious risks cities need to prepare for and the resources available for the job.

Not long ago people didn't want to talk about adapting to climate change. In some cities – particularly in wealthy Northern countries – there was a sense of optimism and invulnerability. Discussing adaptation was also taboo; it was seen to take away from efforts to reduce our emissions. It was like admitting defeat.

But with global efforts to cap emissions failing, that began to change.

Iconic metropolises like New York and London began assessing the serious impact that an unstable climate would have on them. Late in 2010 planning guides were released in both the US and Canada to help all cities to identify their vulnerabilities and plan for new conditions.

The M.I.T. report, lead by Dr. JoAnn Carmin a top expert on urban adaptation planning, gives us our first view of the overall state of affairs. Based on survey responses from 468 cities on six continents the report provides interesting big picture conclusions, as well as more specific regional insights.

Climate Change Has Landed, But Resources Are Lacking
The first is that climate change has landed. Fully 79% of cities surveyed report that they are already feeling the impacts of stronger storms, longer droughts, flooding, and higher temperatures. This is leading to concerns over their ability to deal with increased future risks ranging from damage to municipal infrastructure, to the emergence of new diseases and declining housing safety.

Overall, despite having identified high levels of vulnerability, cities globally report that they lack the financial, institutional, and political resources that they need to respond effectively. Even basic preliminary work – like creating a vulnerability assessment – is stretching available resources. Sixty percent of cities are receiving no support whatsoever for their adaptation work. This is exacerbated by difficulty winning support for adaptation from local officials, and a perception that national governments know little about the impact that climate change will have on their cities.

Canadian Cities Leading (Minus the Feds and Business)
Canadian cities stand out in a number of ways. They report the second highest rate of engagement with adaptation planning. They also report relatively high rates of support for adaptation work from local politicians and government departments. As a result Canadian cities lead their peers in various aspects of planning for the impacts of climate change. Canadian cities also stand out for the relatively high level of financial support they receive from the Provinces.

While the Provinces may be supportive, the story is different when if comes to the Federal government. Seventy percent of Canadian cities reported that national government had only a partial grasp of the local impacts of climate change; 30% reported that the federal government had no understanding at all. The only country reporting lower confidence in national government was the United States.

Interestingly, Canada is also the only country where not a single municipality reported involving business in the adaptation planning processes. Our cities are also exceptionally unconcerned with the economic impacts of climate change. Only a small minority report being worried about potential losses of revenue, tourism, or jobs. Put those two together and it seems to me we may be overlooking both valuable partners and important risks.

Working Alone
While these last two may be troubling for Canadians, overall the report draws attention to a much bigger challenge. Cities around the world are only just beginning to prepare for the impacts of climate change. Most are conducting preliminary meetings with local government departments, doing on-line research, and forming commissions or task forces to support adaptation planning.

Going from there to creating strategies and integrating them into municipal operations will be a huge leap. Everything indicates that cities currently lack the political, financial, and institutional resources that they need to accomplish that critical work.

[I've covered work on urban adaptation quite a lot over the past few years. If you are interested in more, see these past articles.]

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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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