Amid disturbing reports this week that climate change has already started to erode public health after a disaster-filled autumn and studies that major branches of the animal kingdom are stressed and finding it difficult to reproduce — a mounting effort to soften the blow is starting to take shape in cities across the U.S.
Extreme hurricanes and wildfires have made 2017 the costliest year for weather disasters in U.S. history. And that is some history. The United States has been hit by 212 extreme weather and climate disasters since 1980 that each caused at least $1 billion in damages. Hurricane Katrina (2005) still stands as the single largest. The next two were droughts in the Midwest in 1988 and 1980 which is blamed for the death of 10,000 people.
Along came the hurricanes
This September's hurricanes Harvey ($180 billion damages/75 dead in Houston), Irma ($58 billion/85 dead in the Caribbean, Florida, South Carolina and Georgia), and Maria ($45 billion/51 dead in Puerto Rico) are indicators that a climate-related public health crisis has arrived.
Enter The Mayors’ Resilient Cities Report from Center for American Progress, which pins its hopes where Chicago Mayor, Rahm Emmanuel, once mused: "Never let a serious crisis go to waste."
In surveying the landscape, the report makes the case that 2017 may end up something of a turning point for cities as they begin bracing for and finding ways to become more “resilient” to the onslaught of climate change.
Coastal cities like New York and Miami Beach are racing against the clock to put measures in place. Less obvious (but also exposed) are cities in the heartland, which are preparing for the bumpy ride ahead.
After Hurricane Katrina ($160 billion/1,833 dead) where many low-to-moderate income New Orleanians were stranded and suffered disproportionately, longstanding inequities in society were seen to affect everything from public health to the prospects for the environment.
“The current economy is deeply imbalanced: It supports the accumulation and concentration of resources and power among the wealthiest few at the expense of equal access to clean air, water, and economic opportunities and the well-being of society," the report reads. "The Trump administration’s policies aim to perpetuate this imbalance, including by slowing the ongoing transition away from a fossil fuel-driven economy toward renewable and clean energy sources.”
What can be done
This month marks five years since New York was swamped by Superstorm Sandy ($152 billion in damages /159 dead). The bolstering of the Big Apple, even with a $500 million emergency preparedness plan, is slow going. Policy on climate resiliency may be the one bright spot—the city will require developers to build with green infrastructure such as trees and green roofs (D.C. required the same last year), The Times reported this week.
Meanwhile, Center for American Progress advises against turning back the clock for cities like Houston, which has no land-use regulations to prevent hundreds of acres of prairies from being paved over for low-density suburbs.
“One acre of prairie grass can absorb enough water to offset the extra storm runoff created by 2 acres of single-family homes,” the report notes, adding “more compact community development with higher density housing can minimize sprawl into floodplains, as well as the paving over of natural spaces that drink up stormwater.”
Climate change will be amplified in cities because hard paved surfaces capture and radiate more heat, but don’t do so well absorbing water.
But cities are also hotbeds of innovation, funding, and bring energy to the climate fight. For example, the green infrastructure requirement in D.C. and New York has created a bond market to help pay for more stormwater management, i.e. bioswales and green roofs.
Cleveland, a climate superhero?
The surprise stars in the climate resilience discussion are economically struggling and segregated post-industrial cities like Cleveland, Toledo, and Grand Rapids — where climate change is expected to lengthen heat waves, increase extreme rain falls, flooding and waterborne pathogens.
Cleveland’s (2015) Tree Plan — which aims to improve tree canopy from its current 19% to 30% of land area by 2030 — is cited in the report. Cleveland is also updating its (2013) Climate Action Plan. The CAP calls for a more equitable set of defenses while building the prospects for “green” jobs (the Cleveland Evergreen Cooperatives are mentioned as a model to build on).
Toledo, which made national headlines when toxic algae blooms in Lake Erie shut down the city’s water supply, is investing a portion of its $521 million Toledo Waterways Initiative, a combined sewer overflow reduction project, with green infrastructure in low-income areas.
The report advises cities to answer two key questions: sustainability and resilience for whom, and sustainability for what purpose?
Cleveland is looking for answers from residents who understand their corner of the city and can help build counter measures, like its Neighborhood Climate Action Toolkit.
“The toolkit supports residents in identifying and advancing neighborhood priorities and furthering the city’s climate action goals,” the report notes.
Clear from this and previous reports measuring equity and sustainability: cities like Baltimore rank highly on equity in climate resilience. The city met with residents and community groups on 42 separate occasions including town hall meetings (while providing transportation and child care). Ideas were followed up on in programs like “resiliency hubs” which are community centers where residents can go for climate change resilience resources or during times of emergency.
Transportation equity—with a focus on rebuilding urban public transit systems and expanding new options like bike share and bike lanes—is recognized as a priority. For example, Divvy, the bikeshare system in Chicago, began offering $5 yearly memberships to low-income residents.
Though man-made climate change has arrived on the shores of the United States, we are not beyond the time to act to reduce the impact.
"A number of cities are already applying principles of equity and smart risk management to support equitable economic growth that will save money and lives in the face of more extreme weather and climate change."