Friday, July 19, 2013

Adapting to Climate Change

I have been spending this week on a Global Leadership Fellows training at Columbia University, working with the Earth Institute and the Mailman School of Public Health to understand the impact of climate change on urban areas. In particular, we have been looking at New York City's climate change adaptation plan in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

The Economist estimates that 64% and 86% of the developing and developed world (respectively) will live in cities by 2050. As urban populations increase and weather patterns change due to global warming, how can cities best prepare themselves for natural disasters, heat waves, and decreased access to water and other key resources? The challenges are immense and complex.

During Hurricane Sandy, flood waters surpassed previous flood records and reached 16 feet in a city where infrastructure was built to withstand 12 feet. Neighbourhoods were destroyed, a power plant substation exploded (leaving parts of the city without electricity for days), supply chains were disrupted, and waste water overflowed.Vulnerable populations were particularly at risk; hospitals were evacuated. A number of elderly and disabled individuals died during the storm.  This is just one example of the havoc that a single natural disaster can cause. As natural disasters become more common and resources become increasingly scarce, cities need to focus on resilience. Updating infrastructure is just one piece of the puzzle.

What is the role of technology in climate change adaptation? Renewable energy plays a key role, both in reducing the dependence on fossil fuels (which become scarce as supply chains are disrupted) and, more importantly, provide clean energy that reduce greenhouse gases. Social media and text message updates can disseminate information to the public. Smart grids and feedback on energy usage can be used to reduce demand. We can use big data to create a comprehensive registry of vulnerable populations. Technology can also improve communications among stakeholders (local governments, community organisations, civil society, and corporations) who need to work together to provide a more effective and coordinated response.

Climate change is our new norm. How can we think creatively, strategically, and pragmatically to adapt? And how can we prevent it from getting worse?

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