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Calamitous Climate: A Tale of Two Countries Illuminates the Necessity of Preparation   

By 3p Contributor

By Joyce Coffee and Rachel Jouan

In one month, three historic hurricane touched ground in the U.S. Now tragic wildfires surge in the west, intensified by an epic drought.  Likewise, in France, 80 counties faced drought in August, 14,000 hectares of wildfires so far in 2017, more than double the traditional toll. As this extreme weather continues to dominate the headlines, what can city leaders do to protect their communities – and using municipalities in the U.S. and France as examples?

It’s worth exploring. But, first we should mull two critical climate questions that serve as foundations for our exploration. Are the enduring structures we build able to withstand climate change? And are climate risks and opportunities shared equitably within our communities?

And to be clear about the risks we face, they generally fall into three categories:

·      Increasing mean temperatures and frequency of extreme heat: Scorching hot days and nights grow more frequent, along with the intensity and length of warm spells and heat waves. High temperatures dry vegetation and soils, potentially sparking more frequent fires, landslides or subsidence. Droughts become more frequent, threatening water supplies and aggravating conditions for wildlife. Increased heat hurts outdoor workers’ productivity and exacerbates illnesses, such as asthma and chronic pulmonary obstructive disease.

·      Increasing extreme precipitation and floods: The timing, amount and type of precipitation is changing, causing more intense seasonal rain or snow and flooding. Floods can break down electricity, transport, water, sewage and telecom networks, triggering economic damages, especially from disrupting business continuity.

·      Rising sea levels: Hotter air temperatures raise sea levels as warmer and less dense seas expand and polar ice sheets melt. Higher sea levels increase the risk of coastal storm surges and push salt water into wetlands, higher up tidal rivers and deeper into groundwater systems. This submerges property and damages infrastructure.

C40 – the network of global cities collaborating to provide climate solutions for their residents – offers a helpful climate hazard taxonomy to view these primary hazards and their related city climate hazards.


(ref: http://www.c40.org/researches/city-climate-hazard-taxonomy p.4)

So, how are cities to respond to the two climate questions? Here are five categories of municipal endeavors with examples of success from both France and the U.S.:

1.     Disaster risk reduction

Integrating disaster risk reduction into urban development policies and practice requires a new, systems-oriented, multi-timescale approach to risk assessments and planning. It’s necessary to reflect emerging conditions within specific, more vulnerable communities and sectors as well as across entire metropolitan areas.

Baltimore’s Office of Sustainability is taking steps to ensure that families, especially those in under-resourced communities, are prepared to respond to emergencies. Its “Make a Plan, Build a Kit, Help Each Other” events let residents create emergency plans and essential preparedness  and grasp how to respond in emergency.

2. Adaptations while reducing greenhouse gas emissions

Integrating mitigation and adaptation is a high priority for cities in planning, design, and architecture. Engineering, ecosystem and social-based solutions should be considered to generate actions with the greatest benefits.

For instance, in April 2017, New York City released preliminary Climate Resiliency Design Guidelines to support stronger and safer infrastructure and building designs in a hotter, more extreme weather- and flood-prone world. The guidelines incorporate predictive climate data into all city capital projects to anticipate hotter heat waves, heavier downpours and sea level rise. For instance, they use light-colored and reflective pavement and roofs, shade trees and other landscaping to decrease the urban heat island effect. They also decrease energy use for cooling and set storm drainage standards that require permeable pavement and other green infrastructure to increase stormwater absorption.

The Clichy-Batignolles urban project in the Paris area built a “climate-proof” urban area that is both attractive for residents during the summer time and able to absorb precipitation during heavy rain periods. A 10-hectares park – open 24 hours a day with pools, drinking fountains, water jets, along with cooling buildings that reflect sunlight and have green roofs, etc. – has reduced energy demand and stormwater treatment.  The volume of stormwater treatment declined by 50 percent.

3. Risk assessments and climate action plans co-generated with the full range of stakeholders and scientists.

Processes that are inclusive, transparent, participatory, multisectoral, multijurisdictional and interdisciplinary prove to be the most robust because they enhance relevance, flexibility and legitimacy.

Cleveland’s asset-based Neighborhood Climate Action Toolkit was created in partnership with community development corporations. It  helps residents to identify and advance neighborhood priorities that further the city’s climate action goals. In addition, Minneapolis unites community representatives and city staff to plan its Green Zones initiative. They actively avoid deficit-based planning, which focuses on the community’s vulnerabilities, and are building on existing community assets via access to a wealth of community knowledge and networks.

Paris’ adaptation strategy reflects a long process (2010-2015) that mobilized all departments and many institutional, operational and scientific partners. Key aspects of its design and application include raising awareness and recognition of the collective benefits of adaptation. In 2010, the exhibition, « +2 °C... Paris s’invente » (Plus two degrees Celsius, Paris invents itself) demonstrated how concrete adaptation will benefit all Parisians through development of a science-based adaptation strategy against extreme events and to ensure food supplies and foster a more sustainable city.  The strategy included more than 100indicators (e.g., the number of Parisians who live more than seven minutes walking distance from a cool space; the number of free drinking fountains in Paris, the surface area in an electrically fragile zone in case of massive flooding).

4. Needs of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable citizens.

Greater climate change impacts impact the urban poor, elderly, minorities, recent immigrants and, otherwise, marginal populations. Equity and justice improve wellbeing and social and economic development are foundational to effective climate change action.

In Seattle, city and community leaders seek to deepen connections between race, social justice and environment. The Equity & Environment Initiative created The Community Partners Steering Committee to “ensure that those most affected by environmental inequities would lead in creating the agenda.” This process has highlighted community priorities that create climate action and social cohesion, including safety and walkability, public transit, green space and gardens and youth programming.

In Nice, social services put a targeted action plan in place affecting those most sensitive to climatic crisis. A database registered the most isolated and vulnerable based on medical and social services networks and local media. So, during heat waves, volunteers call and visit the most vulnerable residents every other day, offering advice on good practices to combat high temperatures. This initiative reduces the sensitivity of isolated and vulnerable people and increases the social link and solidarity between youth and elderly.

5. City climate adaptation described in terms of lives, livelihoods and dollars saved.

Quantifying the benefits of climate adaptation proves essential to attract future capital.  Such access to both municipal and outside financial resources funds climate change solutions. Sound urban climate governance requires longer planning horizons, effective execution mechanisms and coordination. Connecting with national and international capacity-building networks helps to advance the strength and success of city-level climate planning and implementation.

Resources for the Future quantified the benefits of a green infrastructure investment around St. Louis on the Meramec Greenway. They figured the benefits reduced flood damage and enhanced property values by amounts three times greater than the flood damage-reduction benefits.

By buying property in urban areas from families who had been flooded often and volunteered to participate, Missouri saved roughly $100 million—earning a 212 percent return on its buyout investment.

Albuquerque and Santa Fe, New Mexico, as well as several Indian tribes worked with federal and state governments, water managers and companies to create the public/private Rio Grande Water Fund to restore forests and to pay for clean water protection and forest thinning to decrease the threat of wildfires.

Washington, D.C., issued the performance-based Environmental Impact Bond to reduce flood risks and ensure that city residents have access to clean water. Funds are invested in green infrastructure and paid back to social impact investors as performance targets are met.

Insurance company FM Global estimates that businesses that made a $7,400 investment to reduce extreme weather risk ahead of Hurricane Katrina averted an average of $1.5 million in losses.

Cities must start immediately to develop and apply climate action

We are in the greatest period of urbanization and rapidly changing climate in recorded human history. Cities that ask the climate adaptation questions now and take steps such as those described above will create the transformation that saves lives and livelihoods in the face of climate shifts. In the process, they will avoid counterproductive maladaptations; help deter locking-in that can damage long-lived investments and infrastructure systems; and ensure cities’ potential for the transformation required to lead climate change. Cities that create resilience will avoid being in the headlines after disasters. Rather, as Chicago has, they will begin to tout their resilience as a business asset

Joyce Coffee is president of Climate Resilience Consulting, working with leaders to create strategies that protect and enhance markets and livelihoods through resilience to climate change. Rachel Jouan is founder of Climate Adaptation Consulting in France, working with local, national and international governments to increase resiliency through adaptation to climate change.


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