For the best experience viewing this site, please upgrade your browser to the latest version of Internet Explorer, Chrome or Firefox.

Local warming: U.S. cities move to front lines of climate change

By Deborah Zabarenko | 27 February 2013
(Reuters) – Like politics, all climate change is local.

As President Barack Obama makes this one of the central issues of his second term, and federal and state agencies push regulations to dull global warming’s edge, U.S. cities are already tackling the impact of climate change as it shows up on their streets: floods, droughts, storms and killer heat.

Whether it’s more seawalls and better storm drainage systems in Norfolk, Virginia; water harvesting and intelligent plantings in Tucson, Arizona; energy-efficient roundabouts instead of traffic lights in Carmel, Indiana, or green building and less car commuting in Fort Collins, Colorado, many American cities acknowledge they can’t afford to wait.

Nearly three-quarters of U.S. cities (74 percent) see environmental shifts that can be linked to climate change, but they lag behind all other regions of the world when it comes to planning to adapt to these changes and assessing how vulnerable they are, according to a survey by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the non-profit International Council on Local Environmental Initiatives, or ICLEI.

U.S. cities have traditionally focused more on mitigating climate change (cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions to curb the warming that causes problems) rather than adaptation to it, the opposite of most cities in the developing world, where vulnerability to climate-fueled natural disasters is already high, said ICLEI’s U.S. program director Brian Holland.

More than 1,000 mayors have signed the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement ( ), where they promised to try to beat global targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions in their communities, and urge Congress to pass carbon-cutting laws.

But calling it global warming can be dicey for urban leaders.

“Given the politicized view of climate change in this country, it seems that some cities are emphasizing risk management – that way they can get on with the important tasks of reducing risk and safeguarding local residents and municipal assets,” said MIT’s JoAnn Carmin, author of the 2012 survey of 468 cities worldwide, including 298 in the United States.

A prime example is Norfolk, home to the second-largest commercial port on the U.S. Atlantic coast and the world’s biggest U.S. Navy base, where coastal floods are a perennial problem. However, as more extreme storms have become more frequent, the fight against flooding has made Norfolk a model for other urban areas facing this aspect of climate change.


Norfolk has faced floods throughout its 400-year history, a consequence of building a city at sea level on reclaimed wetlands. But as the Atlantic warms and expands and much of the city sinks, high tides and storms hit harder than they used to, said Assistant City Manager Ron Williams Jr.

He said the city of 243,000 needs a total investment of $1 billion in the coming decades, including $600 million to replace current infrastructure, to keep the water in its place and help make homes and businesses more resilient when it strays. Paying for it will be a heavy burden, Williams said. The city is working with the state legislature and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and hoping federal block grants will help.

One proposed project, a flood wall to protect the historic Ghent neighborhood and others, would cost an estimated $20 million to $40 million. Williams said a similar barrier completed in 1970 banished perennial floods from what is now the high-rise downtown. That provided a great return on a $5 million investment, Williams said, with $500 million in assessed real estate value in the area that used to flood but now doesn’t.

Relative sea level around Norfolk has risen 14.5 inches (.37 metre) since 1930, when the low-lying downtown area routinely flooded. The floods are worse now, because the water doesn’t have to rise as high to send the river above its banks and into the streets, Williams said.

At the same time, severe storms are more frequent, he said: “We’ve had more major storms in the past decade than we’ve had in the previous four decades.” Regular precipitation and extreme rainfall events have increased too.

The threat of floods can feel like a chronic disease, said Henry Conde, a retired U.S. Navy captain who lives in the Ghent section: “There’s a low-grade fever, so to speak, or an awareness throughout the year. People are always on edge.”

Armpit-high waders, stand-alone generators and sump pumps are standard equipment for when the floods come and the power goes out, Conde said in an interview at his 115-year-old home. The Weather Channel is always on, and a tropical depression forming off the African coast amps up the stress level. Winter nor’easters can be just as bad as summer hurricanes. A heavy rainstorm or especially high tide makes front yards fill up like soup bowls and plays havoc with driving routes. The literal signs of flooding – “Streets May Flood” – are everywhere.


Many of Norfolk’s water issues are in line with what scientists have projected to be 21st century results of human-spurred climate change, but Williams does not make this link: “The debate about causality, we’re just not going to get into.”

That may be a moot point. Norfolk has become a leader for other coastal cities on how to adapt to climate change, according to Cynthia Rosensweig, a NASA climate scientist who advises New York City on its climate response. Rosensweig, Williams and others note that building in resilience before disasters hit is less expensive than rebuilding afterwards.

Superstorm Sandy’s strike on New Jersey, New York and Connecticut heightened awareness about the need to prepare for incoming water. Sea levels are rising along almost every part of the U.S. coastline, except in Alaska, where they’re dropping, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ( ).

Despite political wariness about the language of climate change, city leaders can reach consensus and act, said Jim Brainard, the Republican mayor of Carmel, Indiana, and head of the Energy Independence Task Force for the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Words are important, Brainard said by telephone from the mayoral group’s January meeting in Washington. His committee used to be called the Climate Protection Task Force, but conference staff and Republican colleagues urged the name change. “It politically probably helped them,” Brainard said.


City leaders can often do more to protect the climate and improve the environment than state or federal officials can, Brainard said, because, “We don’t have the American Petroleum Institute breathing down our throats.”

Carmel, Indiana, where Brainard has been mayor for 18 years, has transformed itself from a bedroom community for Indianapolis to a city of 85,000, and part of that is cutting down on its carbon footprint. Street lights are powered by energy-efficient LEDs, most city vehicles run on hybrid or alternative fuel and the wastewater plant powers itself on the methane it emits. Traffic roundabouts have replaced traffic signals, saving $150,000 for each one and saving Carmel drivers about half a million gallons of vehicle fuel a year, since there’s very little gas-sucking idling at a roundabout, Brainard said.

Carmel is not at immediate danger of the more violent impacts of climate change, but these carbon-cutting changes have made the city more attractive, Brainard said: “Even folks that haven’t been yet convinced that climate change is caused by human activity will often still agree that if we can get a decent return on investment, it’s a good thing.”

Fort Collins, Colorado, has been combatting climate change since 1999 through a so-called “no regrets” plan, Lucinda Smith of the city’s environmental services department said.

Recognizing that climate change can be controversial, the city of 144,000 pushed for projects that make air and water cleaner and shore up the water supply, co-benefits citizens can appreciate, beyond cutting Fort Collins’ carbon footprint.


Water scarcity is often the issue in Colorado. Drought contributed to wildfires that burned 83,000 acres (33,589 hectares) and destroyed nearly 200 homes last summer. Warmer winters have cut down on mountain snowpack, which means less water to get through the dry summers, Smith said. It also has allowed the forest-munching pine beetle to live and breed more.

The biggest challenge beyond water supply and quality is transportation, since most residents travel the sprawling city in personal vehicles. To encourage other non-carbon forms of transport, Fort Collins has gotten federal funds to build a five-mile (eight kilometre) corridor through the center of town, with designated bike and pedestrian paths and a bus lane projected to be twice as fast as car travel in the same area. Sixty percent of the city’s employment is within one mile (1.6 kilometre) of the corridor, Smith said.

What happens in the Rocky Mountains affects life in the desert Southwest, so if winter snows are light around Fort Collins, water gets even scarcer for people in places like Tucson, Arizona, which draws from the Colorado River.

With summer temperatures routinely over 100 degrees F (37.7 degrees C), Tucson is already at the edge of what is physiologically tolerable, Ethen said. That makes a good case to capture rainwater and get rid of lawns in favor of drought-tolerant vegetation, located in take advantage of conserve water and cut down on heat-trapping emissions.

The problem for the nearly 1 million people who live in and around Tucson is what may come by century’s end, Ethen said: temperatures up to 130 degrees F (54.4 degrees C), and an additional 25 days where highs reach 110 degrees F (43.3 degrees C) or above.

As residents of one of the oldest continuously occupied settlements in the United States – the first inhabitants arrived more than 4,000 years ago – Tucson citizens are ready to discuss adapting to a hotter, dryer future.

“We are a place that has learned how to subsist in our very harsh environment,” Ethen said. “I think that makes people more aware of their environment and the challenges it presents.”

A shorter version of this story is available here


Climate and Energy

Related Articles