Adapting cities to climate change: Book Review

by: Peer-Daniel Krause, MA Candidate 2014, School of Community and Regional Planning, University of British Columbia

Although climate change affects the planet as a whole, not everywhere nor for everyone will its results be felt the same way. From sea-level rise in low-elevation coastal zones to extended periods of drought in areas of arid and semiarid climate to cold waves in northern continental climate zones, hazards take on different forms. The ability to adapt to hazards as risks, however, is a function of a number of factors that are not evenly distributed across the planet or its populations.

This book aims to explain and offer approaches against the rising pressures of climate change on cities and their vulnerable populations in low- and middle-income countries. It addresses the observed lack of adequate research of the urban and establishes linkages between issues of development, risks and natural hazards in the context of climate change. It is part of a greater shift in scientific discourse from mitigation to adaptation. From a social constructivist position in disaster and risk management, the authors advocate for careful assessment of local contexts and integrated adaptation approaches. To pursue this path the authors rely on scientific data to make their case for the particularity of the urban populations of the ‘global south’. Patterns of data reliance emerge in relation to the contribution researchers who are almost exclusively part of nationally embedded institutions of research or governance. All articles rely to at least some extent on information provided by large international institutions like the IPCC or the World Bank for demographic and climate analysis. In the case of regional or city-specific foci, national institutions are cited. More often researchers, as champions of their field, contribute through their personal knowledge. The authors’ backgrounds are reflected in the tendency to favor institutional responses to climate change, as opposed to civil society or the business sector.

Although based on independent articles published in the journal Environment and Urbanization between 2007 and 2009, the book appears as a coherent piece when examining its structure. It is divided in three main parts on Risk and Vulnerability for Cities (Part 2), Case Studies on Adaptation (Part 3) and how to Move Forward (Part 4). Two modes of inquiry are used to assess climate change’s implications:

  • Firstly, through individual or comparative case studies dealing with the whole picture of climate change related risks (or adaptation efforts) in individual cities or regions
  • secondly, the implications of climate change related risks (or adaptation efforts) for specific aspects within the urban context – mostly based on examples from a specific world-region

A great emphasis lies on the analysis of the perceptions and the state of climate change risk and vulnerability in low- and middle-income countries (Part 2). Case studies (Part 3) provide success-stories and opportunities for transfer of knowledge. In the last section (Part 4) an agenda for steps forward precedes the concluding chapter.

Comparatively we gain the insight that common problems persist across different contexts – namely the incapacity of urban governance to deal with an increasing urbanization process, as well as the antagonistic relationship between urban governments and low-income groups (p.7). Understanding the urban context and drivers of urbanization, as well as Low Elevation Coastal Zones renders common threats and heightened exposure, while learning that the local development context determines the way it is being dealt with.

A great strength of the book is the spatial reference of each chapter. It is effective in showing the importance of local planning culture, its political obstacles and location specific threats and drivers of vulnerability. Working our way through the chapters, we learn of specificity and commonality. The analysis clearly benefits from the author’s in-depth knowledge of the field. Each chapter and each group of authors contributes differently to the discourse around the urban and its adaptive potential. Some topics include the importance of the economy as a driver of settlement in city-regions and economic investment in coastal areas in particular, the importance of small scale hazard data or the stigmatization of the poor. Some analysis results in an emphasis on the importance of governmental intervention through incentives and regulations and others stress the importance of Civil Society and local empowerment.

A smaller, subsequent portion of the book is dedicated to adaptation champions from South Africa, as well as an appeal for realignment of resources for adaptation to changing weather extremes, especially in water resource management. It is illustrated how an adaptive strategy benefits from local resource-building and data analysis to brace itself for change. Asking the question about the way forward at last, the ongoing urbanization processes in many countries present an opportunity to join development efforts with climate change adaptation funds, but the essential lack of resources and governance ability is hard to overlook.

In this regard, the book’s content reflects the ongoing search for tangible strategies for action under the current global governance model. So far few of the world’s ‘developing countries’ can showcase significant success in addressing risks stemming from neither climate variation nor climate change. Thus, the authors seem bound to continue giving significantly more weight to the assessment of the current state of selected aspects and localities of these risks, rather than how to address them.

Adapting Cities to Climate Change’ successfully points to the arising and already present vulnerability in the human/social dimension due to inadequate governance and negligence of those most at risk. The current situation is likely to perpetuate without adequate interventions in the light of climate change. While the book enhances the understanding of mechanisms which decrease exposure, advance preparedness or lead to the aversion of disasters, the final question of how to address these challenges deserves critical attention. The core message of context-dependent and ‘pro-poor’ intervention, through careful content and data assessment, leading to an integrated approach of adaptation to climate change with already present hazards, ultimately demands adequate resource allocation. The problems which impede successful adaptation in low- and middle-income countries, however are not new and suggestions on modes of intervention are subject to the usual handicap of international development/humanitarian aid.

The book makes clear that the scientific knowledge of ‘what ought to be’ is laid. However, even if, as also noted by the authors, local government were to take a ‘pro-poor’ stance and show adequate organizational capabilities, room for long-term maneuvering is rarely given as long as social problems are already pressing and continue to be exacerbated through global economic disparities. In this regard, the book successfully manages to relate old problems to new challenges brought to us by climate change, but does not provide new answers to old problems.

The conclusion of the book touches upon the underlying problem of global inequality and the absence of governance frameworks to solve our multiple tragedies of the commons. It reflects what is really needed: effective means to achieve the ends, which in this particular case mean the equitable redistribution of resources to enable successful adaptation in the places it is most utterly needed. The book is very successful in making clear that it will not be the ‘global north’, and most likely not the elites of the ‘global south’, but the most vulnerable falling through the roster of collective protection, who will suffer the consequences of changes to come. The international scientific community must, by any means, combine its effort to not only contribute to the slow and cumbersome process of place-based impact assessments, but at the same time consider the vulnerabilities of those that will not have the means to brace themselves on their own behalf.

This being said, I personally enjoyed the reading for the value of its analysis. The book does not fall short on elaborating that national and international governance systems have tried for many decades to develop mechanisms that would at least suffice claims for basic needs or initiate successful development.  However as it claims to “propose innovative agendas for adaptation” it fails to bring forward any proposal which bears the potential to make a real change as most countries under consideration have in the past lacked the ability to effectively initiate long-term governance.

I personally grow frustrated with the idea of many more years of wasted resources in which academia brings forward ideas of ‘what should be done’, rather than anything that really can be done as long as ‘colonial structures’ perpetuate the planet’s economy. Reading the book I became excited with the idea of local answers for local problems and continue to believe in the need of integrated approaches for change, but it became apparent that the proposed answers were of essentially no value as long as we live in a world in which capital has the ability to deprive local governments or CSOs of effective mechanisms to determine local future. The answer to such an overarching question cannot be found in natural sciences as they are inherently social. Instead we have to resort to answers of value. We can up to now only imagine a different world – and answers which do not ask essential questions lack essential meaning.