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Posts Tagged ‘climate adaptation’

Predictions for the Big Apple haven’t been so great lately, at least as far as climate is concerned. News from a week ago was that heat-related deaths are predicted to rise by 20% by the 2020s and by nearly 100% by the end of the century. Scientific American summarizes the work published this month in the journal, Nature Climate Change, and includes this quote from one of the authors:

“This serves as a reminder that heat events are one of the greatest hazards faced by urban populations around the globe,” said coauthor Radley Horton, a climate scientist at the Earth Institute’s Center for Climate Systems Research.

The record 2010 heat wave that hit Russia, killing some 55,000 people, and the 2003 one in Europe that killed 70,000 are potent examples of the devastation that extreme heat can cause, Horton added.

This week, Scientific American published another warning for NYC and the rest of the East Coast. The climate threat in this case is flooding – the possibility of Hurricane Sandy-like flooding every two years by century’s end! Salon summarizes the SA behind-the-paywall story here.  A few planning details:

Municipalities rarely plan for anything greater than the so-called one-in-100-year storm—which means that the chances of such a storm hitting during any given year is one in 100. Sandy was a one-in-500-year storm. If sea level rises by five feet, the chance in any year of a storm bringing a three-foot surge to New York City will increase to as high as one in three or even one in two, according to various projections. The 100-year-height for a storm in the year 2000 would be reached by a two-year storm in 2100.

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Justin Gillis, of the NY Times Green blog, is encouraging readers to watch the PBS 3-part documentary titled, EARTH: The Operators’ Manual, which is being broadcast by stations across the country this week. The part that caught my attention is where Gillis says that the series is not gloomy!

The host of the miniseries is Richard B. Alley, a climate scientist at Penn State with a gift for talking about his field in terms that ordinary people can understand. The basic idea is to lay out the problem of climate change in the first episode and then talk about how to fix it in the others.

Several points distinguish this documentary series, created with financial support from the National Science Foundation, from others on the subject. For starters, it is not gloomy! While Dr. Alley certainly conveys the sobering facts about rising emissions of carbon dioxide and what it could mean for the planet, he does it with a light touch and from interesting locales rather than beating people over the head with portents of doom.

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Jim Robbins, author of a forthcoming book called The Man Who Planted Trees, has an op-ed in today’s New York Times that alerts readers to the mounting threats to trees and the reasons why the planet needs them more than ever. The lines below caught my attention, especially the repercussions from the Texas drought that I discussed in a post last summer.

North America’s ancient alpine bristlecone forests are falling victim to a voracious beetle and an Asian fungus. In Texas, a prolonged drought killed more than five million urban shade trees last year and an additional half-billion trees in parks and forests. [Emphasis added.] In the Amazon, two severe droughts have killed billions more.

The common factor has been hotter, drier weather.

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Call them the 1%, the 2%, or even generously extend the designation to 20% as Andrew Ross does, people at the upper end of the income scale are the people who can afford to be green – IF green means hybrid vehicles, solar voltaics, and LEED-certified buildings (yes, there are some exceptions). In Ross’s new book, Bird on Fire: Lessons From the World’s Least Sustainable City, Phoenix is the context for an exploration of the relationship between income inequality and sustainability. Ross discussed this part of the book in a New York Times article this week titled The Darker Side of Green.  Ross cautions that a low-carbon lifestyle among the affluent will not be enough to slow climate change. The lessons that Ross uncovered in Phoenix are ones worth heeding, IMO.

Whereas uptown populations are increasingly sequestered in green showpiece zones, residents in low-lying areas who cannot afford the low-carbon lifestyle are struggling to breathe fresh air or are even trapped in cancer clusters. You can find this pattern in many American cities. The problem is that the carbon savings to be gotten out of this upscale demographic — which represents one in five American adults and is known as Lohas, an acronym for “lifestyles of health and sustainability” — can’t outweigh the commercial neglect of the other 80 percent. If we are to moderate climate change, the green wave has to lift all vessels.

Solar chargers and energy-efficient appliances are fine, but unless technological fixes take into account the needs of low-income residents, they will end up as lifestyle add-ons for the affluent.

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In reading through an interesting series of posts by Andrew Revkin (here, here, and here – all behind the NY Times subscription wall, I think), I was struck by several ideas that have direct implications for planners and designers. Revkin states that science is clear on greenhouse gas function (rising CO2 levels mean a warming world), but science is much less clear about the specific effects of climate change that matter to people at the local level, in their communities and daily lives. We do not know exactly how much sea level will rise by 2100, for example. There are also many uncertainties about the sensitivity of the climate to a doubling of CO2 levels. And on the regional climate models that planners would like to see, Revkin says:

I noted many climate modelers are convinced that regional climate forecasts — another top concern of officials and the public — are unlikely to improve much even with far more powerful computers and years of extra work on simulations. (Emphasis added.)

In reviewing these points, I noted, “That’s why this is what some complexity theorists call a ’super wicked problem.’”

So here we are – faced with a need to act (adaptation, rather than mitigation in this case), a need based on threats to health, safety, and welfare, and equipped with inadequate knowledge of exactly what will happen. Revkin’s larger point is that “while the basics of the science are clear, the science on questions that matter most to society is not.” In the two follow-up posts, Revkin publishes reader responses, one of which emphasizes the political argument that data may be less important to the public than the underlying values threatened by climate change – risks to life, property, and the economy.

The other follow-up is a response by Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods. Louv critiques the term sustainability, which he says connotes stasis, and instead offers up “thriveability.”  Louv suggests shifting the debate to the creative and hopeful, but still rooted in concerns that matter to people on an individual basis, like the welfare of their children. And designers should appreciate the attention Louv and Revkin give to creative acts of place making that include the green, “natural” areas in cities:

… for the sake of biodiversity and human happiness, conservation is no longer enough; now we must create nature — where we live, work, learn and play. Those actions not only serve our immediate needs, but might also have an impact on biodiversity and climate change, or at least attitudes about climate change. (Emphasis added.)

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There’s an interesting post in the WorldWise blog of the Chronicle of Higher Education titled “The Power of Blogs in Forming New Fields of International Study.” It is written by Nigel Thrift, vice-chancellor of the University of Warwick, in England. Thrift has a particular interest in an emerging field of study called speculative realism, and he attributes its rise, in part at least, to communication in online communities.

The vice-chancellor identifies blogs as a primary vehicle for scholarly exchange in the emergence of speculative realism for these reasons:

First, they are a key preserve of particular communities like postgraduates and early career researchers, not least because so much activity can go on below the radar, so to speak, outside the attention of the kind of disciplinary policing that journals and other institutions tend to impose.

Second, they are a means for established figures to communicate in a different and more immediate register and often to become more prominent more quickly than might otherwise be the case.

Third, they are a much easier means of importing material from other disciplines, in ways which might be frowned upon if the material was to appear in formal outlets.  ...snip…

Fourth, they allow all manner of researchers to communicate with each other, establish reading groups and the like, often concerning intellectual alleyways which might prove of the greatest importance. There is real debate.

Fifth, new material reaches an audience much more rapidly than it would through the normal means of communication.

Climate adaptation is an emergent interdisciplinary field that has the potential to grow in this manner – through informal, international discourse that is then used as the basis for more formal research and peer-reviewed publication.

 

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I guess climate adaptation has arrived – featured yesterday in a USA Today column. The higher profile of adaptation planning in the U.S. owes much to a media blitz by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) over the last few weeks. It began in late July with the release of a report on water, Thirsty for Answers, summarizing previous research on water-related vulnerabilities in 12 cities. In early August, NRDC debuted its Climate Change Threatens Health website, designed to reveal climate change impacts “in your backyard.” Bringing climate change data down in scale to state and county levels is a significant need, and the work by NRDC is unique and valuable. Next up will be determining impacts at the LOCAL level, where change will be directly experienced and where (I predict) the most effective policies for human health and wellbeing will be enacted.

In the USA Today article, Brian Holland of ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability USA is quoted as saying that adaptation is a new field. That cannot be emphasized enough. Adaptation planning is very new, and it is difficult to take the success stories of adaptation planning (cities mentioned in the USA Today article and this list of “climate-ready cities”) too seriously. Almost everything written about climate adaptation dates from 2010 or 2011! [Note: much more has been done by cities in the area of mitigation plan development.] There is a tremendous amount of work to do! But we are fortunate that some adaptation strategies piggyback on other issues that have been studied for a longer period of time, like green infrastructure-based stormwater management. Time to get on with walking the talk.

A good starting point for additional information on adaptation planning is the ICLEI site.

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