My morning walks to the conference centre have certainly been better than coffee for waking me up. But even snowy Alberta hasn’t escaped climate change, as the local Edmonton Journal captured in an article on Monday. According to the provincial government, climate change is likely to worsen flash floods, forest fires and other threats in this region. Edmonton, which sits on the North Saskatchewan River, is no stranger to flooding.
Those impacts were on my mind as I attended a morning session, which raised examples of several cities that are grappling with flooding. It was shepherded by Patricia Romero-Lankao, a senior scientist at the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, USA, and a member of the Urban Knowledge-Action Network. The session addressed on how human factors, such as governments or social networks, play a role in how communities respond to and prepare for such disasters.
Patricia Romero-Lankao speaking at the CitiesIPCC conference. Photo: IISD/ENB | Mike Muzurakis
Raymond Kasei of the University for Development Studies in Tamale, Ghana, for example, brought up the case of a flood that hit Accra on 3 June 2015. About 200 people died during that event from rushing waters and subsequent fires. “If you went to Ghana today, and you mentioned the date 3 June, everybody would be very sad,” Kasei said.
The researcher referenced a hypothetical “70+ year-old granny” whose life could have been saved during that flood if she had gotten a simple message: “There’s an eminent flood. You need to move to a safe location,” Kasei said. “That message was missing.” He is now part of a team working to develop functional warning systems for future floods in Accra.
Romero-Lankao talked about her own experiences in Boulder, Colorado, in the United States, which saw the worst flooding in its history in 2013. Boulder has a lot more resources to bounce back from natural disaster than does Accra, but Romero-Lankao said that event “created effects that cascaded around the social fabric of boulder county.” Those effects included lost homes and shuttered businesses.
Boulder and Accra might not look like they have a lot in common. But what links urban areas around the world, Romero-Lankao said, is that when disaster strikes, it’s poor or otherwise vulnerable communities that suffer the most. “The ingredients for exclusion are there,” she said.
Later that day, I sat in on a session that highlighted one strategy for protecting urban residents from flooding and other climate impacts – green infrastructure. That approach might include expanding parks around rivers prone to flooding or installing green roofs in dense areas to sop up water during heavy rains. Timon McPhearson, director of the Urban Systems Lab at The New School in New York and a member of the Urban Knowledge-Action Network, participated in that event. He wrote for us earlier this week about the promise of "wrapping and embedding nature into our architecture."
Instead, participants tackled much bigger issues of consumption. “Modern urban civilisation is a product of abundant, cheap fossil fuels,” said William Rees, a professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. In a forceful talk, he made the case that climate change is only a symptom of a much bigger problem – namely, overconsumption in the Global North. “We are financing our current growth by liquidating our natural assets,” he said.
Halina Brown, a professor at Clark University in Worcester, USA, discussed what people in the north can begin to do about that liquidation. She urged listeners to move away from thinking about “behavioural change.” “When I think about behavioural changes, I think about switching off lights,” said Brown, who is also a member of Systems of Sustainable Consumption and Production Urban Knowledge-Action Network. Sustainable consumption “is much more about what we consider to be a good life.”
Maybe the best example of how attitudes have changed about what constitutes a good life, Brown said, are the homes we live in.
But some experts in the United States are thinking about how to go in the other direction – to shrink, rather than swell, homes. Brown brought up the case of a push in the city of Portland to create accessory dwelling units (ADUs), which this story refers to as “granny pods.” ADUs are small family houses, 75 square metres in area or even less, that can be built on lots with more hulking homes.
I chatted with Brown about shrinking houses for sustainability. Watch our conversation here:
The capper of the day came when Xuemei Bai, a professor at Australian National University in Canberra, mentioned Future Earth’s Urban Knowledge-Action Network in her plenary talk. It is a global network that brings together researchers, city governments, urban planners and more to address the most pressing challenges facing cities. Bai is a leading member of that network.