Sustainable Cities Collective has re-launched as Smart Cities Dive! Click here to learn more!

Avoiding Extreme Weather Losses: A Call for a Unified Approach to Climate Adaptation

Extreme Weather500 cities around the world with one million or more inhabitants are becoming home for a growing majority of the world's population.  Extreme weather presents those cities and their residents with existence-threatening risks and daunting responsibilities.  To confront the risks, each city must align its diverse constituencies in adapting to climate change. To address the responsibilities, the cities must collectively coordinate actions and share experiences. Cities have already discovered that preparing for extreme weather caused by climate change is an undertaking of historic scale and complexity. For many cities, effectiveness of climate adaptation can mean the difference between thriving existence and urban catastrophe.

The confluence of climate adaptation ability and accountability in cities is acknowledged by the increasing frequency with which cities are making climate adaptation a top priority. Tight integration and intimate knowledge of a city's own resources and vulnerabilities yield the greatest ability to prevent loss and respond to effects of extreme weather. Accountability for the well-being of residents and protection of physical assets also rests locally, with the city. In the face of extreme weather, city governments are not only "on the front lines", but they are also "the final backstop" for security, health, and welfare. 

Yes, individual cities are the centers of ability and accountability in adapting to climate change, but city departments shouldn't act alone.  Adaptation efforts employ wide-ranging disciplines spanning climate science, architecture, construction, economics, and actuarial science, to name a few. City departments contribute valuable expertise in these disciplines, but local resources outside of city government offer complementary depth and perspective. Insurers, real estate owners, and residents, among others, are stakeholders that have vested interests in protecting a city.  Beyond expertise and perspective, buy-in from these other stakeholders strengthens resiliency programs. Coordinating participation of city government with other stakeholders in a context of unknowns and change is a formidable challenge, and every city can benefit from improved alignment of stakeholders.

Climate adaptation experience from cities around the world is a unique and highly-valuable resource. The damage caused by extreme weather and the understanding of what adaptations are most effective in one city can provide guidance to other cities. Cities evaluate techniques, policies, and programs, and improve them based on experience. Leveraging that experience is essential for protecting all cities.  While there are already experience-leveraging programs in place, a formal global practice will yield still greater benefits.

Discoveries made by one city hold the potential for other cities to avoid mistakes and achieve better results. Many cities already learn from the experiences of others through membership in ECLEI Local Governments for Sustainability, World Mayors Council on Climate Change, C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, United Cities Local Governments, Cities Alliance, and other inter-city organizations. They benefit from each others' experience via programs such as a Carbon Disclosure Project's Cities Program which shares information about risk assessments and adaptation in addition to many other topics. Much time is spent on these organizations and programs, but the benefits are constrained by inconsistencies in management practices. For example, although risk assessments and other adaptation practices are common, standards for evaluating risks are lacking, and vary significantly from city to city. The lack of standards makes it impossible to aggregate and compare experiences. Increased consistency in adaptation management practices across cities is critical for improving learning and results.

Systematic management of adaptation practices and practice knowledge will accelerate climate adaptation for cities. Cities' ability to adapt to climate change has benefited from past communication among cities, but the process of capturing, sharing, and leveraging is still at an early stage of maturity. Cities and inter-city organizations have set the stage for building on accumulated experience, and can now take the next steps. The systematic approach can start by formalizing and expanding the best of existing practices.

Systematic management of adaptation practices will not constrain cities' adaptation options.  A systematic approach has advantages in being adaptable and evolving. No one single strategy addresses the needs of all cities.  Individual cities will address specific needs while still working within the context of a practice.

In preparing and responding to extreme weather caused by climate change, cities around the world are on the front lines of ability and accountability.  They face a challenge of integrating disciplines and constituencies, and an opportunity to learn from the experience of other cities around the world.  Cities will best be able to address the challenge of adaptation, seize the opportunity of cooperative action, and accelerate climate adaptation efforts by establishing a global city-centric practice.  The practice takes existing experience the next step by formalizing methodology, expertise, technology, and governance.

Mobilization for climate adaptation is still in its early days.  Most cities are doing preparatory, initial planning, or vulnerability assessment work.   As of 2012 approximately 18% of ICLEI members are currently implementing their adaptation plans.  For those that had begun climate adaptation implementation work, collaboration across the diverse set of parties is rare with only 11% of city governments worldwide reporting partnerships with business on adaptation. It is exactly at this stage when cities need to improve alignment and apply best expertise. Delay only increases the risk that extreme weather will inflict catastrophic damage on unprepared cities. It is exactly at this stage when cities can benefit most from a city-centric global climate adaptation practice.