Reflections on a Summer Well Spent

Center of Concern | Thu, Aug 13, 2009

By Alicia Donner
Source: Center of Concern

Looking at climate change from an urban angle—one of many options, from national security to the classic environmental approach—allows one a glimpse of how deep the issue actually is.

Interning with the Integral Ecology Project this summer has allowed me to combine two of my interests: the environment and how the people who exist within it interact with their surroundings, especially in urban settings.  Being an aspiring urban planner, urban systems fascinate me.  The experience of interning at the COC in DC offered me not only the chance to explore another urban metropolis in the United States, but also the chance to study urban systems elsewhere, specifically how impending climate change will affect these systems and those who call them home. 

When it comes to the impact of climate change on urban areas, images are often conjured up of the New York City skyline surrounded by water: an image that a citizen of the developed world can readily identify with—as well as one that seems too remote a possibility to call for immediate action.  For the developed world, climate change may be an accepted reality but it is not one that readily evokes the need to deal with it—at least not on the national scale.  This is especially pertinent if one considers what was discussed at the annual Group of Eight summit in L’Aquila earlier this summer.  But what is already happening in the urban areas of the Global South does.

The developing world is urbanizing at rate four times what is currently being experienced by the developed world,[1] a rate that is already proving to be an added stress on outdated infrastructure and overstretched urban governments.  This will only be further exacerbated by climate change. 

Climate change in the Global South means a variety of things for the urban systems that exist there.  It has lead to an increase in rural-to-urban migration as subsistence farmers are finding it no longer viable to continue their existence in an era marked by desertification.  An increase in natural disasters has lead to loss of life and millions of dollars in damages, especially in urban areas already located in precarious coastal regions.  Further, the potential sea-level rise which accompanies the melting of ice in the polar regions also threatens these areas.  Climate change acts as not only a cause but a compounding factor: straining ageing infrastructure and inadequate governance that is already under pressure from population growth, creating a concoction primed for a global disaster if not dealt with properly—and soon.

Looking at climate change from an urban angle—one of many options, from national security to the classic environmental approach—allows one a glimpse of how deep the issue actually is.  This is something that has resonated greatly with me this summer: just scratching the surface will not leave the curious person there for long; she will be drawn in deeper to see the almost overwhelming complexity of the issue.  And it can be very overwhelming, but never too the point of fostering inaction.  It needs to rouse, to alert, to encourage the average citizen to realize not only her role in climate change but also the lot she shares with the globe as a whole.  From the urban slums of the Global South to the rural towns of Midwest, everyone will experience climate change.  But, especially as citizens of the developed world, we all have a special responsibility when it comes to dealing with climate change, and we need to take that responsibility to its fruition—the sooner, the better.

[1] Ruth, M. and D. Coelho.  “Understanding and managing the complexity of urban systems under climate change.”  Climate Policy, Vol. 7 (2007) p. 321.