Monday, October 08, 2007

Resilient Cities

There is a new weapon in the fight against climate change. It is called "adaptation", and until recently it was considered taboo, mostly because adaptation was considered to be an admission of defeat. In reality, scientists now acknowledge that the battle to stop catastrophic climate change was lost decades before we began any serious debate about reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate change is no longer the stuff of portents and predictions. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have increased by 50 percent or more. The famed Northwest Passage is free of ice for the first time in recorded history. With one of the hottest and definitely the driest summer on record behind us, autumn has arrived with more scorching temperatures and cloudless blue skies.

In order to stabilize our climate we need to reduce our current emissions by 60 to 70 percent. Despite this, greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise and our national and international leaders continue to procrastinate, putting rhetoric ahead of action, and political self-preservation over the health of the planet.

"Adaptation is different," writes Scientist Emeritus Ian Burton in his preface to The Clean Air Partnership report, Cities Preparing for Climate Change. "The benefits of adaptation fall largely where the costs are expended."

Not surprisingly it is those same areas that are most likely to be hardest hit by the impacts of climate change - our cities. According to the same report, "Cities are vulnerable because they concentrate people and buildings into a relatively small area."

With more than 64 percent of Canadians now living in urban centers of 100,000 or more, severe weather events can have devastating results. The interruption of such basic services such as water and sewage, energy, transportation and waste removal are centralized, severe storms can (and have) crippled our cities.

The 1998 ice storm in eastern Ontario and Quebec crippled the nation's capital and left hundreds of thousands of people without heat or water. In 2003, Hurricane Juan ripped through Halifax, destroying much of the city's Point Pleasant Park. Six months later, Halifax was hit with a record 100-inch snowfall. In 2004, floods devastated Peterborough causing millions of dollars in damages. And last winter, the nations watched as thousands of trees in Vancouver's Stanley Park, one of our great national jewels, were flattened by record winds.

What's remarkable about these events is that in every case, these afflicted cities have recovered. They are now stronger and more capable of withstanding future onslaughts because they have been willing to adapt. Their stories were the recent focus of a symposium held in Toronto that launched the newly created, Alliance for Resilient Cities. The Alliance is a collaborative network of municipalities and other decision makers that was spawned by The Clean Air Partnership (CAP).

"Why resilient cities?" asked CAP's visionary Executive Director Eva Ligeti in her opening remarks at the symposium. "Resilience is the ability of a system to withstand stress, and to adapt to changing conditions. Climate change is creating a great deal of stress for cities, and this will continue for the foreseeable future."

"If a city protects itself from storms, floods, droughts, heat waves, invasive pests, species, and diseases, it is the people of the city who benefit," wrote Burton. "Their environment is better, their health is more protected, and their economic activities are less liable to damage and disruption."

The point that Burton makes is a valid one. While mitigating greenhouse gas emissions requires policy direction from senior levels of government - those very levels that are seemingly paralyzed to do anything - municipal leaders have a very different role to play. They directly care for their own citizens. "That’s what they are elected to do."

What makes climate change adaptation such an elegant answer is that many of the measures designed to make cities less vulnerable, such as energy self-sufficiency and energy and water efficient design, walkable cities and better urban transportation, also help mitigate climate change as well.

This is exciting, empowering and finally a major step in the right direction. And thanks to the Alliance for Resilient Cities, this brave new direction also has leadership.


For more on The Clean Air Partnership and The Alliance for Resilient Cities, presentations from Symposium, as well as the report, Cities Preparing for Climate Change, visit


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