The next urban crisis: poverty and climate change

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With Maria Blair, Associate Vice President of the Rockefeller Foundation

The next urban crisis: poverty and climate change
Photo: © Jonas Bendiksen,
courtesy of the Rockefeller Foundation

We read Nicholas Stern’s blog post, “Low-Carbon Growth: The Only Sustainable Way to Overcome World Poverty,”  with appreciation and enthusiasm.  It is an insightful and important essay, illuminating the bedrock recognition on which effective 21st century development efforts must build: global climate change and poverty are inextricably interconnected.  The best way to break one is to bend the other.

Yet there is another dimension to this challenge: the dangers of global poverty and climate crises will be especially acute in cities because accelerating, unplanned urbanization around the world tends to concentrate low-income people in high risk areas, on ecologically fragile land, desperately vulnerable to the consequences of imminent and worsening climate disruption.

The reason is clear: more people live in cities than ever before.  In 1950, the earth’s total population was 2.2 billion and New York was the only metropolis with a population greater than 10 million.  In the years since, the planet’s population tripled, concentrating in cities, most of which are located in developing countries.  Within a decade, more than 500 cities will have populations exceeding one million.  By 2020, seven cities in developing countries will have more than 20 million inhabitants.

These are not cities with picture-postcard skylines.  UN-HABITAT projects that within three decades, one of every three human beings will live in near total squalor – packed tightly on low-lying land, lacking sanitation and clean water, increasingly susceptible to the wrath of a warming world.  Cities historically have been engines of vitality – crossroads of commerce and culture.  Now, they are at the epicenter of climate change’s impact.

According to the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the earth is likely to experience at least another century of warming.   The only realistic solution for cities is stronger resilience: integrated urban planning, land use regulation, water management, infrastructure investment, and emergency preparedness. The private sector and national governments alike must support these adaptation efforts with wider access to insurance, healthcare, and the financial resources to encourage and expand effective programs.

Greater resilience is possible – and without bank-breaking expense. There's often resistance to adaptive solutions for fear of huge costs.  The best ideas, however, are not necessarily the priciest, and many are already deployed in developing cities that have little flexibility in their budgets. Durban, South Africa, for example, incorporates ongoing climate risk assessment, adaptation, and mitigation into long-term city planning.

To pilot innovative services and solutions, the Rockefeller Foundation recently launched the Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network. This work emerged as one response to a consensus that communities in Southeast Asia’s urban areas find themselves in great peril.  During the next three decades, 60 percent of the world’s population increase will occur in Asia’s cities and eight in 10 of the countries most vulnerable to climate change’s reach will be located on the continent. By mid-century, climate change could subject 132 million people in Asia to resurgent hunger and poverty – and a full billion could struggle to find fresh water.

The Rockefeller Foundation's intervention is also designed to test strategies that can be adopted in other urban regions. The Asian Cities Network – an alliance of governments and donors, scientists, academics, and planners, health care and emergency service providers – will chart new approaches for cities everywhere to prepare for and recover from the global climate crisis’ very local impacts.  It will link circuitry to help diverse partners and policymakers learn from best-practices.  And it will aggressively court governments and donors who can bring successful approaches to scale.

We can all agree that solving the global poverty and climate crises are not contradictory, but rather complementary – and increasingly urgent – opportunities.  Yet, as a global community, we must redouble our commitments to equip those most vulnerable to the three-headed hydra of climate-risk, poverty, and urbanization, especially against the backdrop of continued economic contraction. Each successive day we do not act brings us all closer to catastrophe.  City by city, we can and must prepare to cope with what’s coming.

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Judith Rodin

President, Rockefeller Foundation

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