Cities Must Assume "Wartime Footing," as Climate Disasters Spiral

Patrick Sisson
Fire scene -  Photographer: Philip Pacheco/Bloomberg

July 20, 2021

A new report argues that cities must assume a wartime footing to protect critical infrastructure and prepare for a more dangerous future. 

When record-shattering triple-digit temperatures hit the Pacific Northwest in late June, some scientists saw more than just an extraordinarily unusual heat wave amid the severe drought and wildfires already afflicting the Western U.S. this summer. Researchers with the group World Weather Attribution studied the event, which impacted nine million people, killed hundreds, and obliterated local heat records by as many as nine degrees, and determined it could be something of a landmark in the escalation of the climate crisis — a weather event so off the charts that it would have been statistically impossible in a world before human-caused climate change. As Dutch climate researcher Geert Jan van Oldenborgh put it during an episode of The Daily, “we could be past the threshold that made these kinds of heat waves certainly much more likely.” Weather extremes once expected to come in decades are occurring today. And too many cities are dangerously unprepared. 

new joint report by McKinsey Sustainability and C40 Cities, a coalition of municipalities collaborating on environmental policies and initiatives, argues that cities need to assume what could be considered a wartime footing against the rapid escalation of the climate crisis, preparing to face and adapt to extreme weather that has already arrived.

The ongoing heat emergency in the West, like the devastating flooding that swept towns in Germany and Belgium last week, represents the beginning of what these experts predict could be a continuing string of catastrophic natural disasters caused by a changing climate. In India, hundreds of millions face the possibility of lethal heat waves; in Vietnam, floodwaters engulfing Ho Chi Minh City could cost the city billions of dollars; and over time, the impacts of rising sea levels could strip tens of billions of dollars from the value of coastal real estate in Florida. 

As two of the authors of Focused Adaptation: A Strategic Approach to Climate Adaptation in Cities told CityLab, they feel the dialogue around climate action has shifted, seemingly in the space of months. Instead of debating when severe climate changes will manifest, the conversation is increasingly based on the understanding that it’s too late to stop these serious impacts. Simultaneously, there’s a unique overlap of increased awareness of the dire impacts of climate change, real-time examples of its dangers, and a generally positive climate for investments and spending on resiliency that could combine to fund more widespread adaptation. 

“Cities around the world are in a moment where they are making choices about investments to adapt, and are faced with a dizzying array of options on where to place money, time and intention,” said Brodie Boland, one of the report’s co-authors and a McKinsey expert on climate risk. “We wanted to provide a guide for city leaders to get a toehold on the issue and get a place to start. Instead of planning mode, we’re in immediate action mode.”

The report outlines 15 strategies, chosen for being the most high-impact, easy-to-implement means of making global cities more resilient, and help local leaders work through the “multifaceted, decentralized, and unequal consequences of physical climate hazards.” Four of them are universal solutions every city should adopt: increasing awareness through research and risk assessments, incorporating climate risk through city actions and policies like zoning and urban planning, optimizing responses with early-warning systems, and enhancing financing programs like climate insurance. The remaining 11 offer contextual strategies based on climate and geography for issues like droughts or flooding. Overall, nature-based solutions, such as planting heat-mitigating street trees or installing natural infrastructure like salt marshes as coastal barriers, are the most attractive in terms of feasibility and impact across many crises. 

“Everything around you is designed with a certain environmental condition in mind,” said Mikhail Chester, director of the Metis Center for Infrastructure and Sustainable Engineering at Arizona State. “And because of that, everything is at play. Every piece of infrastructure is vulnerable. But that narrative is paralyzing. If I can’t even fix the roads today, how do I fix everything?” 

While the report doesn’t estimate the total potential cost of funding needed adaptation measures, a growing body of research suggests that these improvements are money well spent. The cost-benefit ratio for U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) mitigation grants, for example, is 1-to-4.   

Many cities have proposed emissions reduction plans or set ambitious targets for transportations and energy shifts, but many have yet to complete exhaustive risk assessments. CDP North America, a nonprofit that assesses climate and environmental risk, tracks the climate plans of  more than 800 global cities; 93% of them recognize climate risk, but 43% don’t have adaptation plans to keep people and critical infrastructure safe, according to Katie Walsh, CDP’s head of cities, states, and regions. Local leaders told CDP that budgetary issues, housing issues and the challenge of poverty were the main deterrents to action. 

And it’s often not just enough to complete a traditional risk assessment, Boland says. It’s about shifting the analysis to recognize new, faster trajectories of change, and figuring out the degree of impact those hazards will have on the current built environment. Previous guideposts like flood maps, which have been based on historical patterns, need to be more predictive. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration 2021 State of High Tide Flooding and Annual Outlook, released last week, found record-setting high-tide flooding last year across the entire nation, and twice as many high-tide flooding days than 20 years ago. 

Currently, says Chester, the U.S. has what he calls “Band-Aided” infrastructure, which suffers from years of disinvestment and neglect. Now cities need to “make surgical investments and triage like wartime.” That requires thinking about critical infrastructure and climate forecasts and identifying systems and structures they can’t afford to let break down.  It’s also vital to recognize new or rising risks: A new report looking at “double disasters,” or extreme weather followed by an industrial accident, found a third of U.S. chemical facilities are subject to risks like flooding, storm surge and wildfire.

A family watches the agitated waters of the river Inn in Austria following heavy rainfall causing damaging floods in July. 
Photographer: Manfred Fesl/AFP via Getty Images

“We can’t upgrade everything out there as fast as climate change is coming down upon us,” Chester said. The report notes the significant danger of our interconnected cities, and how flooded roads can knot up traffic and knock out public transit, or storm surges can pound coastal property and sever key power lines. “Climate change is simply moving faster than we can change infrastructure. That infrastructure will fail. We need to think about what happens when infrastructure fails. Have you designed failure into the infrastructure system itself?”

Inasmuch as there’s good news in this report, it’s the fact that there’s increasing financial support for investment in adaptation. Walsh says there’s a growing appetite from the financial world for environmental impact bonds, a shift corresponding with the rise in Millennial and women investors, who demand greener options. In late June, Buffalo, New York closed on a $49 million deal to fund green stormwater infrastructure, the largest such environmental impact bond deal in U.S. history. Last week, a network of institutional investors, under the Investor Agenda network, who collectively manage tens of trillions of dollars of assets, released a letter aimed at U.S. policymakers about the infrastructure deals, arguing that “this historic effort must include visionary climate policies matching the scale and urgency of the systemic and economic risks that lie ahead” and promising to match such efforts with their own investments.