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Notes from the 2nd World Congress on Cities and Adaptation to Climate Change

Climate Justice

Bonn–At a climate conference in Germany, with lager in hand, I was prepared to ponder nearly any environmental insult or failure. But rat peeReally? 

The urine of rats, as it turns out, is known to transmit the leptospirosis bacteria which can lead to high fever, bad headaches, vomiting, and diarrhea. During summer rainstorms in São Paulo, Brazil, floodwaters send torrents of sewage, garbage, and animal waste through miles of hillside slums and shanties. Outbreaks of leptospirosis often follow the floods. And in a metropolitan region of 20 million people, that’s a public health emergency.

I learned this and more at the 2nd World Congress on Cities and Adaptation to Climate Change, organized by ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability and the World Mayors Council on Climate Change, with support from the U.N. Human Settlements Programme. The event brought together 600 delegates, including mayors and UN officials, to address what may be this century’s defining challenge: keeping up with the climate.

While some of our national politicians continue to ignore basic climate science, and while I continue to rail against my local climate-denying weatherman who just last month spoke to my kids’ elementary school, the rest of the world is getting on with life. Specifically, scores of municipal governments from all over the world—rich and poor, iconic and ordinary—are beginning to make plans for adjusting to a planet that is going to be warmer, wetter, and just plain weirder.

In consultation with the World Bank, the City of Jakarta, Indonesia, has launched an assessment of geographical hazards, socioeconomic vulnerabilities, and institutional weaknesses now posed by rising seas, hotter temperatures, and swifter storms. This coastal megacity, 40 percent of which lies below sea level and is sinking because of groundwater depletion, is developing comprehensive disaster management programs, plans for coastal fortification, and new storm water systems. Half-a-world away, the city of Toronto has employed sophisticated computer modeling and a set of 1,700 plausible future scenarios to prepare for the impacts of stronger snowstorms and wilder floods. They have excel spreadsheets (and accompanying PowerPoint slides) on just about everything—traffic-light outages, sewer overflows, falling bridges, you name it. And down south in São Paulo, city officials are calling for vital “slum upgrades,” safer zoning, and, yes, improvements to sanitation and public-health networks to prevent and treat leptospirosis.

Don’t think American mayors are sitting on their hands. While their efforts do not often make the national news, a few metropolitan areas are driving change in impressive, innovative ways, including Boston, New York, Chicago, and Seattle, the last of which the Center for Progressive Reform has taken a specific interest in.

As in the anti-pollution movement of the 1970s and the climate mitigation movement begun decades afterwards, cities and local governments are leading the way. But they will hit a wall without the sustained support of national governments and the international community. The needed financial resources and scientific and engineering expertise are simply too great. And the shared nature of climate problems will sometimes require uniform standards and behavior across municipal boundaries. 

The Obama administration has begun developing its own climate-adaptation strategy which would require adaptation plans for all federal agencies. And just last week, the EPA issued its first-ever climate-change adaptation policy statement, promising an official adaption strategy by June 2012, an emphasis on environmental justice, and a survey of existing laws to determine how adaptation goals should be implemented into the federal regime. (Full disclosure: as a member of the Obama administration at the time, I had a hand in both documents.)

It’s important for all of this work to keep going. Remember, politicians don’t always see the light, but they feel the heat. And the heat I’m talking about here is political.

Robert R.M. Verchick is a former environmental official in the Obama administration and a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans. He is the author of “Facing Catastrophe: Environmental Action for a Post-Katrina World.”

Climate Justice

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