Global sea levels are rising fast, so where does that leave the cities most at risk?

Amy Lieberman – 10/14/16

The severe risk of climate change and rising sea levels on urban areas has not been addressed in the UN’s proposed New Urban Agenda, so flood-risk cities will have to learn from each another and share solutions.

Current projections of global average sea level rise are now expected to double by 2100, which would be severely damaging – if not disastrous – for many of the world’s coastal cities, from Ho Chi Minh City and Mumbai to New Orleans and Miami.

Yet the upcoming United Nations conference on sustainable urban development, Habitat III, is unlikely to create the international platform needed to tackle such a global threat, according to Dan Lewis, head of UN Habitat’s urban risk reduction unit.

“The communication of risk is something that most UN member states are not prepared to openly discuss, unless they happen to be Tuvalu or the Maldives or other South Pacific or Caribbean islands,” Lewis told the Guardian.

“Massive [climate-induced] displacement is a big problem that a lot of member states have dressed up as other kinds of issues. But when it comes to the real nuts and bolts of ‘how do you accommodate 100,000 people from Kiribati in the next decade or so?’, I don’t think we are going to see much of an expression emerging about the practical aspects of a major situation like that.”

Sea level rise – along with flooding, storms, heatwaves and other effects of climate change – receives only one (admittedly lengthy) mention in the 175-point New Urban Agenda which member states are due to adopt at Habitat III in Quito, Ecuador:

“We also recognise that urban centres worldwide, especially in developing countries, often have characteristics that make them and their inhabitants especially vulnerable to the adverse impacts of climate change and other natural and man-made hazards, including earthquakes, extreme weather events, flooding, subsidence, storms including dust and sand storms, heatwaves, water scarcity, droughts, water and air pollution, vector borne diseases, and sea level rise particularly affecting coastal areas, delta regions and small-island developing States, among others.”

There are no direct references to climate-forced displacement nor potential remedies, Lewis notes. Yet he says there are an estimated 12 million people displaced worldwide because of climate events.

The conference, which starts on 17 October, will also include announcements of specific commitments, such as helping local Florida authorities address sea level rise in low-lying, low-income areas.

Of course, several factors that climate scientists are still working to understand – such as the fragility and likely collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet – mean questions about exactly how fast sea levels will rise, and where the effects will be most severe, must be left open.

While the New Urban Agenda is a global, non-binding plan that aims to promote socially and environmentally sustainable cities, Lewis says the best option for many flood-risk cities looking to take action is to develop independent partnerships and networks to learn from each other – adding that this is the “cheapest and most effective way of doing work”.

For example, the Netherlands embassy in Washington DC consults and collaborates with a number of vulnerable US cities, including Norfolk, Virginia, and New Orleans, Louisiana. According to Dale Morris, a senior economist at the embassy, some of the shared ideas follow the principle of adapting to living with water, not keeping it out. (About a third of the Netherlands is below sea level, with another third presently at sea level.)

UN Habitat is gearing up to connect 20 cities, including St Petersburg and Beirut, through a “city resilience” programme that provides direct technical assistance to measure cities’ resilience and training.

“There is a lot of work cities are already doing together that is going to get showcased [in Quito],” Lewis says. “There is a lot of sharing going on around specific hazards cities are facing, and there has been a kind of explosion around awareness in activities. Instead of older, historic approaches like creating levees, it will be positive to see how cities have progressed, and are adapting.”

Of 533 cities, 89% recognise climate change as a significant risk, according to a recent report. But just 210 of 490 surveyed cities report an active climate adaptation plan.

Individual city plans to mitigate the impacts of flooding and storm surge are often extremely expensive. They are also developed for fairly short-term timeframes – for example, in the case of Miami and its neighbouring cities – and without the support of the state or federal government.

C40, a 10-year-old network of the world’s largest cities working to address climate change, provides an outlet to share both innovative solutions and the particular challenges facing the world’s poorer cities.

“It’s very hard for poor cities to handle this, by and large,” says Seth Schultz, director of research and planning at C40’s New York office. “Many of them don’t have plans, and it is also just a question of the hazards they are facing in the short and long term.”

“If we come in at the high end of the [sea level rise] projections, there will be many cities whose persistence will be difficult to imagine,” says Ben Strauss, director of Climate Central, a New Jersey-based independent organisation of scientists and journalists. “New Orleans can build levees higher and higher – but then they are just pearls on a necklace at some point, and everything around it could become water.”

Projections of global sea level rise by 2100 range from 0.2 metres to 2.0 metres (0.66 to 6.6 feet). Strauss co-authored a recent study (working with projections of 2 to 7 feet during this time period, and 3 feet as a reasonable global average estimate for some areas) which found that even a sudden elimination of CO2 emissions would still leave 30 million Americans below the ocean’s high-tide line by the end of the century.



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