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US Climate Study: Cities Center of Risk, Opportunity

The US National Climate Assessment, a new draft study by 13 federal agencies under the Dept. of Commerce, warns that climate change is introducing to cities ample societal and business risks, but also economic opportunities. Because extreme weather is expected to increase, our changing climate is our future, especially in urban areas, where 80% of the nation lives.

The unprecedented 1000+ page draft report–the most ambitious scientific exercise ever undertaken to catalog the real-time effects of climate change, and predict possible future outcomes–came out Friday from top federal research agencies, state agencies, private industry and university experts. Today the report became available for public comment.

The report pulls no punches: “Climate change threatens the well-being of urban residents in all regions of the U.S….systems such as water, energy supply, and transportation will increasingly be compromised by interrelated climate change impacts.” And for California and the Southwest: “Snowpack and streamflow amounts are expected to decline, decreasing water supplies for cities, agriculture and ecosystems.”
 
In the longer term, the study asserts that sea level rise or superstorms ala Sandy will “affect coastal facilities and infrastructure on which many energy, transportation and water delivery systems, markets, and consumers depend.”
 
My takeaway is our nation’s most potent response will be to embark upon comprehensive urban planning, engineering and technology based on these new risks, which present almost limitless opportunities for adaptation and mitigation. Put another way, there will be a need to (as the study says) “test and expand understanding of the effects of different climate and integrated assessment model structures.”
 
As new investments in energy technologies occur, future energy systems will differ from today’s in uncertain ways–depending on the changes in the energy mix. This portends unprecedented opportunity, so look for some of the largest industry sector changes and resultant new business models in utilities and energy.
 
The National Climate Assessment cites several studies in predicting, “if substantial reductions in emissions of heat-trapping gases were required, the electricity generating sector would decarbonize first, given the multiple options available to generate electricity from sources that do not emit heat-trapping gases, such as wind and solar power.”
 
Significant opportunities will range across planning and design, combined with public and private investment in:
  • Distributed systems of all types will proliferate: renewable energy; wastewater, water and waste reuse. These technologies in many cases will provide better alternatives to large-scale centralized energy generation or water treatment systems and their outdated regional transmission networks, which are at risk to coastal flooding, severe storm outages, wildfires, and critical drought. Some of the large historic Northeast US power outages (2003: 55 million impacted in US and Canada) are prime examples of events that could regularly occur as a result of such threats.
  • Smart grids and energy systems incorporating system redundancy. The Netherlands grid provides an example of a circular grid (versus hub and spoke) that is almost completely ensconced safely underground.
  • Water efficiency systems and water-conserving buildings, landscapes and materials
  • Cooling technologies and heat mitigating building design and urban landscapes
  • New materials, sensors and automated feedback systems that protect against, and warn and respond to extreme events of heat, wind, flooding, drought and wildfire
In order to reduce future risks and to cope with already occurring events, comprehensive urban climate planning, management and technology approaches are needed to implement massive upgrades to vulnerable infrastructure.
 
Extreme weather events are already affecting energy, and energy delivery facilities. Consider the regional gasoline shortages that occurred after hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike because there was (and is) only a single pipeline from impacted areas to markets in the Southeast. Cities and smaller communities are more risk adverse to climate change impacts (or other natural disasters) with alternatives to private cars such as public transit, walkability and cycling infrastructure.
 
Policy makers, the private sector and academia will need to jointly collaborate to better “understand the relationship between climate change, energy development, and water- dependent socioeconomic sectors to inform national and state-level energy policies.” These sweeping new policies are likely to include everything from watersheds and aquifers to land development and other agreements for metro and city general plans and utility districts.
 
The bottom line is that global climate is apparent across a wide range of US geographies and sectors. Global human-caused climate change is projected to continue to occur over this century and beyond. The magnitude of climate change beyond the next few decades depends on our actions now, combined with how sensitive the climate is to increased carbon emissions.
 
Confirmed findings of the report include:
  • U.S. average temperature has increased by about 1.5°F since record keeping began in 1895; more than 80% of this increase has occurred since 1980. The most recent decade was the nation’s warmest on record. U.S. temperatures are expected to continue to rise.
  • Global sea level has risen by about 8 inches since reliable record keeping began in 1880. It is projected to rise another 1 to 4 feet by 2100.
  • Heavy downpours are increasing in most regions of the U.S. Further increases in the frequency and intensity of extreme precipitation events are projected for most U.S. areas.
  • Certain types of extreme weather events in some regions have become more frequent and intense, including heat waves, floods, and droughts. The increased intensity of heat waves has been most prevalent in the West, while the intensity of flooding events has been more prevalent over the East. Droughts in the Southwest and heat waves everywhere are projected to become more intense in the future.
  • There has been an increase in the overall strength of hurricanes and in the number of strong hurricanes in the North Atlantic since the early 1980s. Strongest hurricane (Category 4 and 5) intensities are projected to continue to increase as the oceans continue to warm.
  • Winter storms will increase. Other severe storms, including the numbers of hurricanes and the intensity and frequency of tornadoes, hail, and damaging thunderstorm winds are uncertain and are being studied intensively.
  • Rising temperatures are reducing ice volume and extent on land, lakes, and sea. This loss of ice is expected to continue.
  • The oceans are currently absorbing about a quarter of the carbon dioxide emitted to the atmosphere annually and are becoming more acidic as a result, leading to concerns about potential impacts on marine ecosystems.
  • The length of the frost-free season (and the corresponding growing season) has been increasing nationally since the 1980s. The largest increases have occurred in the Western U.S., affecting snow-pack water supplies and related ecosystems and agriculture.
The National Climate Assessment findings mean that public policies will be of little value that are solely based on either past business or operating models, past (or even existing) resource or energy prices, as well as so-called “100-year” flood models.
 
This is a new game and we can’t play by the same old rules with the same teams. But we now have, for the first time, the parameters of the playing field–the geography of observed and projected impacts. The fields of industry, economics and timescales are less defined.
 
Adapting to the climate and climate-impacted economy of the future that we are just beginning to experience will require the emerging collective intelligence of our society through the use of collaborative technologies including social networks, which was the subject of a San Francisco TEDx talk I gave last year.
 
We will need to leverage our institutions, particularly our educational system, while building upon the body of global knowledge that shows that if we act now, we can successfully avert the worst impacts of climate change that are daily becoming evident in the United States and throughout the world.
 
Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, a global consultancy based in the San Francisco Bay Area.
 
Image credit: Manhattan black out - ekonon/flickr

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