Cities will bear the brunt of floods, heat waves and blackouts caused by climate change

Cities will bear the brunt of floods, heat waves and blackouts caused by climate change
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Cities will bear the brunt of climate change. That’s the not-so-surprising but still deeply disturbing news last month from two reputable research institutes. They report that the climate-related risks posed to urban dwellers are mounting. This is a serious problem in the United States since the majority of the population lives in metropolitan areas.

One report, released by the Union of Concerned Scientists, shows that coastal cities in the United States face persistent flooding due to higher and higher tides stemming from sea level rise. The second study, conducted by the Urban Climate Change Research Network at Columbia University, suggests that no city is immune and that all cities will see a dramatic rise in flood risk, heat waves, blackouts, and food and water shortages over the coming decades. 


The need to get our sustainability game together, then, is critical if we’re going to save cities and the people who live in them. And as a U.S. cities-focused index released last month shows, we have a long way to go. The index, titled “Leaving No U.S. City Behind”, ranks American cities based on their sustainability and features many of our cities in its top 10. But even the top performers, such as San Jose, Boston and Seattle, have a long way to go. If we’re to leave no U.S. city behind, then, this is a clarion call for an all-hands-on-deck response. No city is exempt in stepping up its game. Nor is the public.


We know Americans want climate action. Now we need Americans to speak up, and loudly, if we want to lock in a sustainable path in our cities. Yes, U.S. cities stepped into the void when the federal government decided to pull out of the Paris Agreement, and our cities have since committed to even more aggressive emissions reduction targets and timelines. But even more is needed. Our cities need a boost, and a big one.

While cities are increasingly the go-to when it comes to American climate leadership, many cities are now facing a make-or-break moment where they’re wondering how they’ll feasibly follow through on their targets. This is an understandable response because the urban transformation that’s necessary, if we’re to slow the extreme weather trends cited above, is monumental.

Whether it’s getting to zero waste or reaching 100 percent renewable energy, these are herculean tasks, made more difficult by recalcitrant and regressive federal and sometimes state governments. This work would be tough even if the White House was on board. Now it feels near impossible for some of our cities. 

More reports, like the ones mentioned above, will not likely move the needle and provide the catalyst for aggressive climate action across this country. We regularly witness the release of similar reports and climate deniers still dig in and Washington still waits to act. 

So, while we’ve long said that cities will save us — and this remains true when federal and even regional governments refuse to act, a trend that’s visible across America right now — our cities can only roll out game changing policy if the public supports them in doing so. 

Here’s where we need the public’s help. Later this year we’re going to release a report on “game changers” and “no brainers” for cities to pursue in order to get to zero emissions, zero waste, 100 percent renewable energy and more. 

While many of our cities are already in pursuit of these game changers, a serious scale up is essential if we want to avoid the intolerable heat waves, inescapable flooding, incessant power outages and insufferable food and water shortages predicted. And that scale-up is only possible if the public offers a full-throated support of our cities’ climate action. While we recognize that it’s easier to protest gas pipelines and double-down on calls for fossil fuel divestment, all of which are necessary, we actually need the public to protest in favor of the following.

For example, when a U.S. city wants to enact zero carbon building codes or install electric vehicle charging infrastructure, we need the public behind us, pushing, if necessary, building owners to do the right thing and support these policies. Building owners may seem like an odd target for many urban environmentalists, but buildings often comprise the bulk of a city’s carbon footprint. It’s time to put some serious pressure here.

When a U.S. city wants to build car-free and low-emissions vehicle zones, to make the air cleaner and more breathable, or get the carbon emissions out of building heating systems, we need the public behind us. Many of our cities have a hard road to walk on this front as many old buildings are still reliant on dirty fossil fuels, such as oil and gas. Switching to electric heating and cooling, so that buildings can be powered by renewable energy, is essential. A cumbersome process, perhaps, and not the sexiest, but easily one of the biggest carbon obstacles that needs to be addressed immediately.                               

These may sound like no brainers, but they’re game changers in making our cities more livable and sustainable. Some non-U.S. cities, such as Oslo, Norway, are going even further and rolling out carbon budgets, fashioned after financial budgets, to make sure each city department plays its part in emissions reductions. That’s systems-level thinking and, while not as apparent as a pipeline protest, it has a huge impact when implemented.

All of this is doable. And it’s already being done in some of our cities. But for all cities to have a clear mandate to move forward on this kind of aggressive game-changing climate action, the citizenry, which is often more accustomed to calling the White House or state house to protest the latest environmental rollback, should also turn its attention to the town or city hall. That’s where the game can be changed. And that’s the no brainer.

Johanna Partin is the director of the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance. 

Nils Moe is the managing director of the Urban Sustainability Directors Network.