City resilience: developed cities just at risk from climate change
By Kit England

Wednesday, 21 January

It might strike you as odd to see someone from the UK blogging about disaster risk reduction. Most people in developed economies think disasters happen somewhere else; ask them to recall a disaster and people will probably talk about the 2004 tsunami, or the Haiti earthquake.

They probably wouldn’t talk about the UK, or mention climate change and extreme weather. The stereotype that all the English talk about is the weather may be true, but society at large doesn’t talk that much about its impact. These events cause widespread disruption, and affecting livelihoods; what’s more the incidence of them seems to be on the rise. Whilst US scientists have confirmed 2014 as the hottest year on record globally, the UK climate change projections tell us this is set to continue. We’ll see hotter drier summers, warmer wetter winters and more extreme weather events, such as heavy rainfall, heatwaves or periods of snow and ice.

The UK has already experienced these kinds of events but so far they’ve been chronic; they cause limited disruption which we rebound pretty quickly from. However, their nature has started to change. Flooding in Somerset affected over 1,000 houses, a railway line collapsed at Dawlish, whilst there have also been significant floods in Hull, Carlisle, and Newcastle. The multi-agency reviewed we conducted after the 2012 flooding in Newcastle highlighted stark impacts; 1,200 properties flooded (500 internally), £9.2m damage to the road network, closure of the local metro and lines of the national rail network, and loss of power to 23,000 homes. Viewed in this context, climate change is a risk multiplier, and the thinking about what this means as set out in the National Climate Change Risk Assessment paints a depressing picture.

It doesn’t need to be this way. Whilst mitigation and restructuring our economies to break the link between consumption and emissions are front-line and urgent responses, a certain amount of climate change is now locked in. And like it or not we’re going to have to deal with it. Like most things, prevention is better than cure and increasingly, local governments are assessing and acting on risks to people and the areas that support them.

One set which are leading the pack are the Core Cities, a group of the 10 largest City local governments outside of London. In 2013, the group developed a ground-breaking agreement with the UK government to accelerate their work on adaptation as part of the National Adaptation Programme. This commitment was based on the realisation of enlightened self-interest, and now Core Cities have become a key part of global movements such as UNISDR’s ‘Making Cities resilient’ campaign, the Rockefeller Foundation’s ‘100 Resilient Cities’ initiative and the European Commission’s ‘Mayors Adapt’ scheme.

So what’s driving this? Well, increased impacts from extreme weather is definitely a factor. This wrecks lives, is holding back economies, and creates increased pressure and awareness from the public for action. In the UK, local government has been gaining confidence and independence; we no longer need others to tell us to get on with things.

We’re also getting better at understanding how to respond. The Joint Research Centre is helping us learn how best to assess supply chain risk, the European Environment Agency is helping understand the best practice in sectors such as transport, whilst the Joseph Rowntree Foundation is helping us understand that climate change reinforces inequality, and how to counter this.

As an environmentalist, it’s often hard to be cheerful, but the globalised nature of the world means resilience and adaptation action in developed economies is creating ripples through supply chains, knowledge exchange, and global governance mechanisms, such as the UNISDR 2015 conference is creating new coping mechanisms new ways for local places to prosper. This is critically important to buy us the time that we need to ensure we get global agreements in place to limit the most damaging effects of climate change. Fingers crossed for Paris.

Kit England works in Policy and Communications for Newcastle City Council. He is also chair of the Core Cities working group on Climate Adaptation and Resilience. His Twitter account is @kitengland.