Experts are warning us that floods, droughts and heat waves will increase, while cities around the world attempt to prepare themselves for future climate catastrophes - and population explosions.
It sounds like a movie scene: Wall Street evacuated because of a hurricane warning, 370,000 people forced to flee Manhattan. The New York Stock Exchange is forced to shut down, and the international world of finance is sucked, literally, into the eye of the storm.
It's a scenario that almost became reality in August 2011, when Hurricane Irene rolled across the Atlantic Ocean towards New York. The US metropolis had already made preparations to shut down the Subway system and turn off the power grid, while the inhabitants of Manhattan were to be evacuated. But luckily it didn't come to that, and at the last minute Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg was able to give the all-clear.
More extreme weather
Even if New York had a narrow escape that time, most cities will have to make serious preparations for disaster situations in the future. According to the results of the so-called SREX (Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation), extreme weather phenomena like hurricanes, floods, and heat waves will become more and more common.
The SREX report was presented at the current "Resilient Cities" congress in Bonn, organized by the ICLEI - Local Governments for Sustainability association. How should cities prepare for the effects of climate change? What will a city of the future even look like? These are the central questions of the congress, where delegates are currently exchanging ideas and solutions.
Experts in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) believe that if governments don't start curbing the use of fossil fuels now, the world will be between four and six degrees Celsius hotter by the end of the century. This will not only cause more frequent and stronger hurricanes and typhoons, but will also see a rise in sea levels.
"The polar ice-caps will melt, as will the ice on Greenland," said ICLEI President David Cadman. Since two-thirds of the human race lives near water, rising sea-levels represent a direct threat to densely populated towns.
The effects of rising sea levels
By how much the seas will rise remains in dispute, but it seems clear that it will be by more than previously assumed. "It is relatively certain that it won't be just one meter or so – more like two meters by the year 2100," says one of the IPCC's leading experts Joern Birkmann of the United Nations University in Bonn.
Birkmann believes that such a rise will affect enormous urban areas worldwide, raising the question: "Where will millions of people be evacuated to if the sea-levels rise? Because it won't go down a couple of days later!"
Birkmann is certain that cities need to start investing in disaster protection right now – and that includes building dykes and flood-walls. But they also need to be prepared for the opposite extremes: droughts and heat waves, which will also become more frequent. London, for instance, used to be concerned by climate change flooding, but he says new research shows that the British capital should be more worried by droughts.
But disaster protection is expensive, and many cities already have heavy debt burdens. Even though more than half the world's population currently lives in cities, most major cities operate on limited incomes.
"The truth is that for each tax-dollar, cities earn barely eight cents," says Cadman, which is why he is calling for cities to get a larger share of regional and national tax incomes.
Bonn's Mayor Jürgen Nimptsch is also well aware of the financing problems faced by cities. The small town on the Rhine has received money from the state government to fund flood protection measures, but he believes there need to be long-term financing programs on an international level.
"We financed German reunification through the extra solidarity tax," says Nimptsch. "And we need a similar solution on an international level. But that time hasn't come yet."
As the members of the ICLEI swap ideas at the congress, delegations of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change are also meeting in parallel. It is their job to prepare for the next UN climate summit at the end of the year in Qatar. But as the Copenhagen summit of 2009 showed, major UN summits are not exactly slick and speedy at implementing their conclusions.
"If the nations can't reach the necessary agreements, then the cities have to see how they can make changes on the ground themselves," says Nimptsch.
Cadman also thinks that cities cannot afford to wait for the wheels of international politics to grind on. He believes that the first effects of climate change will be felt by 2020. "Then we won't be able to control events anymore – nature will," he says. "And nature will take its revenge."
Author: Helle Jeppesen / bk
Editor: Andreas Illmer