Climate Change in the City

By Kaleigh McGregor-Bales

As I walk through the streets of Durban between the hostel, my favourite cafe and the conference centre I find myself admiring the beautiful colonial architecture. The story behind the buildings is far from beautiful. During apartheid, people of colour were forcible removed from ‘white only’ neighborhoods and relocated  to townships on the outskirts of the city. Since ‘the end of apartheid’ (I put that in quotations because many apartheid era policies and practices are still alive today), communities continue to be forcibly relocated to the townships. The townships and other slum areas around Durban often lack municipal services including  sewage, electricity, roads, and clean water.  This makes them especially vulnerable to climate change and is characteristic of the situation in cities around the world.

Rapid urbanization is occurring around the world driven by multiple economic, social and environmental factors including land degradation, ‘free trade’ policies, debt from loans, land expropriation and war. Climate change creates unique economic, health, physical and social problems for expanding cities. Climate change can impact energy, food and water supplies, industry, infrastructure and access to goods and services. The impacts are felt disproportionately by marginalized and poor segments of the population.

By 2030 three-quarters of the world’s population is expected to live in cities. The economic and political structures (‘Free trade’ policies, debt from loans, land expropriation and war) that force the migration to cities also prevent the urban poor from escaping poverty. These same unjust and destructive economic and political structures are a root cause of climate change that in turn impacts the poor the most.

Having a high density of people living in a small area can create vulnerability to the impacts of climate change. Cities are vulnerable not only to an increase in temperature, but to sea-level rise, and more frequent and severe extreme weather.

Climate change is going to increase temperatures and this is amplified in cities because of the urban heat island affect. Concrete and asphalt hold onto heat and because of this the air temperature in cities is frequently up to 5°C warmer than the surrounding rural and suburban areas. Hotter temperatures cause severe health problems for residents, especially older individuals, people of limited mobility, people with health conditions and people of low-income who can’t escape the heat.

Coastal cities are vulnerable to rising sea levels, which can cause damage to infrastructure and force relocation. Rising sea level can cause saltwater intrusion into fresh water sources threatening drinking water. More frequent and severe storms threaten infrastructure, and cause flooding and the spread of disease.

While climate change will affect everyone living in cities the impacts will be felt the most by the urban poor.  People of low-income in cities are the most vulnerable. They are likely to live in the least desirable and most dangerous places like along beaches that are vulnerable to flooding, on slopes prone to landslides or in shaky structures vulnerable to earthquakes. They are also less able to escape extreme heat or natural disasters. Unusually heavy rainfall in 2010 in Rio de Janeiro washed away slum settlements that were built precariously on steep slopes above the city centre and caused multiple deaths among the cities poorest residents.

Mexico City is one of the densest cities in the world. The city is experiencing higher rainfall and more frequent flash flooding and this is expected to continue to rise as a result of climate change. Inadequate sewage management infrastructure and poor drainage make flooding even worse and contribute to the spread of disease. Informal settlements and slums within the city are most often located in areas prone to flooding and landslides so are particularly vulnerable.

32.7 per cent of the world’s population lives in slums, which are often located in areas that are undesirable to the wealthy and very vulnerable to climate change, like on floodplains or steep slopes. Further, in these areas little to no infrastructure exists to provide protection from extreme weather events or to provide transportation or escape.

A growing percentage of the world’s population is living in cities and climate impacts may force the migration of more people who lose their homes or livelihoods. Days before COP 17 started flooding caused of the death of eight people when their houses collapsed on them. Cities  around the world are vulnerable to the increasing impacts of climate change. Disproportionate impacts are felt in marginalized and poor segments of urban centres. The disproportionate and discriminatory impacts of climate change make it imperative to not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions but to dismantle the oppressive structures that exacerbate climate change, poverty and inequality.


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