For over a decade, you have been researching the topic of climate change adaptation in urban planning and sharing your findings and ideas with policymakers, educators, planners, and the general public. What have we learned? What are our current and future plans?
We have seen that cities and our way of life are built on the assumption of a stable and unchanging environment. This includes infrastructure, built environments, and our relationship with land. Property rights, tax systems, and insurance programs all depend on the environment not changing too much. Cities located along coastlines and in delta areas, wildland/urban interfaces, mountains, and steep slopes have all contributed to the degradation of environmentally sensitive areas. Roads, schools, homes, and other structures are built in areas that are vulnerable to disasters. Sometimes multiple disasters can occur at once, with cascading effects across different sectors of society, infrastructure types, and types existing natural hazards.
We are now finding it crucial to adapt our infrastructure, cities, lifestyles, and lives to the changing climate. We have reached a point in which millions of people are affected by high heat and drought, wildfires and other events. Trends suggest that this number will continue to rise. The U.S. has experienced 14 disasters per annum between 2015 and 2020 at a cost of at least $1billion, compared with just six and a quarter such events between 1980-1999. Rising sea levels, storm surges and higher tidal flooding are all threatening $1 trillion worth of coastal real property and 13 million people in the United States. The vulnerabilities are even greater internationally. According to The World Bank 143 million people from Africa, South Asia, Latin America and South Asia will migrate to these areas by 2050 due the changing climate. This is the current outlook.
It is important that we understand how climate change impacts communities and how cities’ efforts can worsen existing inequalities when developing adaptation plans. Planners and other disciplines are examining how these inequalities can be created. They also examine how institutions of land governance and their foundations drive us towards unequal outcomes.
Your work reveals commonalities between very different geographies such as Florida, the southern U.S., South and Southeast Asia. What can these places have in common that can help us better understand the root causes and work towards redressing it with more sustainable and equitable adaptation plans.
To better understand inequity, we need to collectively think about climate change adaptation. This includes not only the environmental risks but also why some people are disproportionately at risk. And how society adaption can be used to address those underlying drivers, rather than just the surface risks.
As you might have guessed from the cases, common vulnerabilities include access to safe land and sufficient water. Many cities along Florida’s coast are highly developed and have lots of real estate within a few feet from sea-level rise. My students and me have discovered that there is significant vulnerability due to sea-level rising, but that there is inequalities along the coast. If you think about how people move and adapt, you can see how real estate companies and individuals will invest in and purchase properties in inland communities on higher ground. These communities are currently more diverse and cheaper. Climate gentrification and displacement may result. Communities of color and those with lower incomes who live in higher elevation areas are more safe, but are less desirable and more at risk.
These are driven by factors such as individual property ownership that allows for such displacement, financialization of the land use that encourages municipalities to maximize development within their limits, and the fragmentation or governance of land into 100 municipalities in each U.S. Metro area. Fundamentally, they are the result of a land ethics that views land as severable land rather than a homeland for both human and non-human species. We can move infrastructure and people around with some difficulty. But changing the underlying mindsets or institutions would really transform society.
Our customers are located in South and Southeast Asia. ResearchIt is evident that water flows across the landscape and that vulnerable people are constantly losing their water rights. Cities expropriate farmers’ water rights, forcing them to migrate from rural areas to cities. They often find informal work, precarious housing, less access to water, and are often forced to leave their homelands. When cities attempt to build urban water infrastructure to reduce flooding, informal residents are often the first to be evicted. They are relocated to the fringes of urban areas, where they miss out on jobs and are less protected from environmental risks. Floodwaters can be pushed into rural areas by cities’ efforts to keep them out.
These and other places have shown that we need to think about climate change in a more holistic way. We need to consider land and water resources as well as landscapes. It also shows the potential for rural solidarity and movement-building between groups that are often politically, socially and geographically separated.
“We want to ensure that the billions and trillions we spend on adaptation and mass migration in the future will result in a society more beautiful, more sustainable, and more equitable than the one we are trying to protect and preserve.”Linda Shi; Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability
Your work connects people from planning to policy. Do you believe there is a consensus on the need for new climate adaptation strategies in order to ensure a more just, sustainable future?
In the early days, climate adaptation research and practice were based on the assumption that cities would adapt if they were doing good work and progressing. My colleagues and I were among the first researchers to demonstrate that adaptation projects can increase inequalities as they are implemented. In one project involving eight casesWe showed the world how adaptation projects, sometimes called disaster risk reduction or infrastructure project, ended up displacing low income communities to make cities more resilient for those who can afford them.
Although I don’t know if there’s agreement, more people from all walks of society are becoming more aware of the potential impacts and risks of climate change. These opportunities are both encouraging and concerning.. The private sector, for example, is starting to consider climate impact on assets and portfolios. It also wants to change systemic codes and standards that will shift and internalize climate cost. Although their actions will have broad-ranging consequences across society, they are motivated by profit and liability, not necessarily community well being, social justice and environmental sustainability. Internalizing these costs can lead to market shifts but can also leave behind communities unable, unwilling, or unable, to adapt across a metropolis or environmental landscape.
This is a great moment for climate policy, both in mitigation and adaptation. The administration adopted an immediately. Executive OrderThat has led to a Justice 40 planTo spend federal funding so that 40% goes to the most vulnerable communities most affected by climate change. Biden doubled FEMA’s budget for disaster preparedness in May. In October, over 20 federal agencies were also doubled. Issued adaptation plans. These are significant steps in the right directions, but extra funding does not make it easier for communities to address long-term climate impacts. National adaptation strategyIt answers questions like: How will Americans live under long-term climate changes? Why are our development choices still producing inequitable, racialized and vulnerable environments? How can we share our resources with vulnerable groups, including nonhuman species that must adapt? We still have a lot of work to do before we can answer these deeper questions.
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