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U.S. Cities Behind on Climate Change Preparedness

Houston’s mayor, Annise Parker—shown here demonstrating the city’s bike-sharing program
Houston’s mayor, Annise Parker—shown here demonstrating the city’s bike-sharing program—has embarked on a campaign toward combating reducing the city’s carbon footprint that includes installing chargers for electric vehicles and building energy-efficient structures. A new study reveals that many cities in the United States could do more to prepare for the effects of climate change. Courtesy of Richard Carson 

Cities around the United States may want to follow the examples set by those in other parts of the world and embrace the need to combat climate change now, an MIT report says. 

June 26, 2012—A recent survey directed by an associate professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the Massachusetts of Technology (MIT) reveals that smaller, less-developed cities outside of the United States are doing more to prepare for climate change than their more-developed American counterparts.

The research project, headed by JoAnn Carmin, PhD., involved an anonymous survey of 468 cities around the world, conducted in partnership with ICLEI—Local Governments for Sustainability (formerly known as the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives). The report sends a strong message to state and local governments in the United States that it is time to end the debate on the validity of climate change and to begin to take actions to prepare for its effects, Carmin says.

“Progress and Challenges in Urban Climate Adaptation Planning,” a 30-page document, was produced on the basis of a 40-question survey that Carmin says took an average of 30 minutes to complete. While one piece of information extrapolated by the MIT News Office grabbed headlines—that Latin American cities outranked American cities 95 percent to 59 percent in a self-reported rating of climate change preparedness—the survey also addressed other issues, including the perceived impact of climate change on local economies, population levels, public health, water supply, and infrastructure. Some of the key concerns centered on managing the impact of storms and dealing with changes in demand for electricity.

The report’s collection of data on what cities perceive to be the manifestations of climate change is notable. For example, 81 percent of the responding cities said they have experienced changes in such natural hazards as storms, drought, and flooding. Next on the list, with 67 percent, came temperature change, 40 percent citing higher temperatures. The survey also asked respondents to note any concrete impacts of the phenomenon. Those cities that agreed that climate change was affecting them mentioned property damage most often; others noted changes in population size, as some residents move away from the cities.

While many cities say they are taking steps to combat climate change, most of them are still in the very early stages of forming committees and carrying out preliminary assessments. Carmin says she hopes her work will sound a note of urgency in this work. “We’re seeing an increase in flooding and serial storms, so we need to do something about [climate change],” she says. “In the U.S., we tend to still be stuck in this cycle of: we have a storm, then we rebuild. New Orleans is a good case in point.”

Instead of taking steps to deal with the changes in temperature or water levels, Carmin says, Americans have gotten caught in debates about the origins of the changes. Other countries simply accept that change is happening and try to prepare for its effects. “[They say] it really doesn’t matter right now, we need to deal with the changes that we’re seeing and we need to be prepared for that,” she says.

Most of the respondents were U.S. cities, and though many are still in the planning stages, some are taking concrete steps. In Washington, D.C., for example, Mayor Vincent C. Gray recently announced a program called Sustainable D.C. that includes a string of initiatives aimed at making an impact on climate change by 2032. Some of the highlights of the plan include cutting greenhouse gas emissions in half, increasing the availability of locally grown food, and enhancing the District’s tree canopy.

Even Houston, a city that was essentially founded on the development of oil, is making changes. Laura Spanjian, the director of Green Houston, that city’s sustainability office, says that the city’s mayor, Annise Parker, has been working toward placing America’s fourth-largest city on a path toward combating climate change.

“We have grown the number of green buildings dramatically just in the last couple of years,” she says. “We’re number four in the country in the number of LEED-certified buildings, and that’s important for trying to reduce energy costs and retain and attract young professionals.” The Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Green Building Council operates the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating system.

Public-sector initiatives may not be enough, however; sometimes a boost from the private sector is needed for programs like bike sharing and charging stations for electric vehicles to get off the ground. “How is the oil and gas capital launching bike shares?” asks Houston’s Spanjian. “If you’re using less resources, you’re saving money,” she explains. “I really [push] the cost savings when I’m talking with businesses. And I say, if you can do it in Houston, you can do it anywhere.”

There’s no doubt that sustainability offices in such cities as Houston and Washington can use climate change’s threat to the local economy as a way to gain traction with business leaders. The survey shows that respondents in the United States (nearly 40 percent), Latin America (more than 60 percent) and Australia and New Zealand (more than 40 percent) were particularly sensitive to the possibility of losing revenue due to the impacts of a changing climate.

“Cities need to be partnering with universities and … the business community,” Carmin says. “If you start thinking about the future and begin to bring this into your planning and start to form alliances with different stakeholders, you begin to create a nice foundation for the future. And those are things you can do without spending any money at all.”



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