This election cycle illustrates that ideology and federal bureaucracy may not prove up to dealing with the urgency of climate change. Meanwhile, local governments clammer for financing to deal with the urgent changes already upon them. Necessity makes municipal government the mother of invention. Cities are compelled to lead the charge.

Hollywood Green City Farms' aeroponic tower garden. (Photo: TG)

Hollywood Green City Farms’ aeroponic tower garden. (Photo: TG)

Today, approximately 80 percent of the U.S. population is metropolitan. Migration from rural to urban is increasing in the U.S. as jobs change from manufacturing to a service economy. By 2050, three out of four people in the world will live in an urban environment. This alone would require major changes in infrastructure, planning and management. The effects of climate add unprecedented burdens on city leaders, such as:

  • Hotter temperatures
  • Already high and rising sea levels
  • Lethal heat waves
  • Droughts & floods
  • Hurricanes & cyclones
  • Larger storm surges
  • Complications with agriculture and food distribution
  • Extinctions from habitat loss
  • Invasive species (port cities, vector control and diseases)

“Climate change is happening much differently and much more quickly than anyone imagined,” said Frank Cownie, Mayor of DesMoines, Iowa.


Image Source: U.S. EPA.

This simple pie chart illustrates the primary sources of greenhouse gas generation by sector. These are primary sources. Power and agriculture are major primary sources, but where and how is that energy used? Final use is where city management becomes critical.

Why are cities the centers of climate action? Over 40 percent of U.S. greenhouse gases (GHGs) come from building and home operation. Another 30 percent of GHGs come from transportation. Urban commuting and movement of food, goods and services comprise the majority. Municipal waste comprises another 2.3 percent.

Zoning, building codes and energy use fall directly under municipal regulation. Emissions are heavily influenced by local planning and investment. The development of mass transit systems fall under local control.

City leaders must look at three critical factors:

  • Anticipate change
  • Prepare for change
  • Recover from changes that have already happened

The Role of City Emergency Management Planning

Anticipation is important to setting priorities and goals. It is also critical to projecting costs and fundraising. Inadequate anticipation places city financing into a game of catch-up, as one crisis after another drain funds that would otherwise operate basic city functions. Over the past few decades, federal, state and local governments have undergone climate assessments of their risks, adaptability and resilience to climate changes. “Time is not on our side,” according to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Preparation means systems, staff and materials are in place to deal with the impacts of climate change. It does little good to fix the coop after the fox has gotten in and killed all the chickens.

Recovery is dramatically improved when anticipation and preparation have been adequately addressed. Systems will be in place to respond to the loss of critical services. Emergency “rainy day” funds will be adequate and instantly available. Personnel will be trained and equipped to respond on a moment’s notice. External assistance from state and federal agencies will be available for funding and support as needed.

A kayak in the streets of Miami Beach, Florida, in 2009 during a king tide flood that may have been exacerbated by the stormy weather. (Photo Credit: maxstrz / Flickr)

A kayak in the streets of Miami Beach, Florida, in 2009 during a king tide flood that may have been exacerbated by the stormy weather. (Photo Credit: maxstrz / Flickr)

Key Factors in Moving From Resilience Planning to Action

There are three common concepts when moving from resilience through planning to taking action:

1) No more people versus nature.

It’s a stacked deck — nature always wins. We must look for ways of working with the natural world. According to the Presidential Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience, “Natural systems are important features within the built environment, providing buffers against flood impacts and storm surge, storing water and recharging aquifers, helping to manage storm water and moderate local temperatures, and providing vital habitat for native and migratory wildlife.” 

When we remove a wetland, we have to replace it with a less efficient and costly water treatment system. When we kill a reef, we interrupt an entire food web and a barrier to storm surges. When we build a wall or a road, we may cut off a migratory pathway to a critical species. When we over-harvest a forest, we are interrupting a major system for carbon capture and oxygen production. The cost of replacing natural systems vastly exceeds maintaining those systems.

2) There is no returning to normal.

We cannot prepare for the future by simply attempting to return to what was before. Climate history is not prologue when planning for a prosperous future. According to the U.S. National Climate Assessment, “After a long period of relative stability in the climate system, climate conditions are changing and are projected to continue to change. As a result, historically successful strategies for managing climate-sensitive resources and infrastructure will become less effective over time.”

3) Building for the future helps us with the present.

There are collateral benefits. Reducing emissions will improve respiratory health in the short term and mitigate global warming in the longer term. Increasing resilience improves the day-to-day living by lessening disruptions and reducing the risks of disaster. Good climate change management “will advance community livability, reduce impacts from natural hazards, and improve health conditions” (Knave 2014).

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