World's Cities Unprepared for Climate Change

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Cities — home to half the world's population — face potentially dire consequences from climate change. However, they often fall short when it comes to addressing the issue, according to an analysis of urban policies.  

“Climate change is a deeply local issue and poses profound threats to the growing cities of the world,” said Patricia Romero Lankao at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Colorado, who conducted the analysis. “But too few cities are developing effective strategies to safeguard their residents.”

Romero Lankao cited cities for not reducing their own greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate global warming and for not preparing for the likely effects of climate change. [Cities Cover More of The Earth Than Realized]

Scientists expect that climate change will bring with it more extreme weather, such as storms and heat waves. Because of their density and locations, cities are often at greater risk for natural disasters caused by extreme weather. Heavily paved cities can magnify heat, worsening air pollution and causing widespread health problems, for example.

But even after recent natural disasters, such as the Russian heat wave of 2010, leaders are often failing to prepare, according to Romero Lankao. This is because fast-growing cities are overwhelmed with other needs, leaders are pressured to foster economic growth at the expense of health and safety standards, and climate projections rarely offer insight into the effects on individual cities, according to Romero Lankao.

And in spite of their potential to cut back on greenhouse gas emissions, cities often take a hands-off approach, she said.

“Cities can have an enormous influence on emissions by focusing on mass transit systems and energy- efficient structures,” Romero Lankao said. “But local leaders face pressures to build more roads and relax regulations that could reduce energy use.”

Meanwhile, another recent study found that people's acceptance of global warming waxes and wanes with the weather, so if the day is unusually cold, they would be less likely to believe humans are causing global temperatures on average to rise.

Romero Lankao’s studies appear this month in a special issue of the journal Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability (with co-author David Dodman of the International Institute for Environment and Development) and in an upcoming issue of the journal European Planning Studies. The research was conducted in association with the United Nations Human Settlements Programme and funded by the National Science Foundation, NCAR's sponsor.

You can follow LiveScience writer Wynne Parry on Twitter @Wynne_Parry.

Wynne Parry
Wynne was a reporter at The Stamford Advocate. She has interned at Discover magazine and has freelanced for The New York Times and Scientific American's web site. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor's degree in biology from the University of Utah.