Last week marked the beginning of what many are calling the most important negotiations in a generation — the United Nation's climate change conference in Paris, France. Over 50,000 representatives from more than 190 countries are coming together in the hopes of reaching an agreement to reduce carbon output and prevent the most calamitous outcomes of man-made global warming.
There can be no doubting the importance of marshaling the world's collective resources in pursuit of that goal — and having the world's leaders in one place presents a massive opportunity to achieve it. But unless we think broader, unless we think about the world's problems in an interrelated fashion, and unless we are thinking about addressing many other pressing challenges, we are missing a massive opportunity. And we are putting ourselves at risk.
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This is not just because we are threatened by far more than climate change (that's obvious), but because the effects of climate change are so much broader than we think.
And at the same time, the outcomes we are worried about climate change causing — illness, food shortages, lost economic growth — are also being caused by many other factors. In particular, there are two aspects of climate change thinking that often get overlooked.
One is that climate risks are not just environmental, but also related to the social and economic health of a city. Take New Orleans, which faces hurricanes and other coastal events. These risks aren’t just related to sea level and water temperature, because they are also linked to poverty, crime and economic opportunity.
Hurricane Katrina exposed these underlying weaknesses when it struck 10 years ago; New Orleans would have been able to come back much quicker if these stresses weren’t as acute. This leads to what is perhaps a surprising conclusion: cities can mitigate their climate risk by addressing social and economic concerns as well. And there is collateral benefit — by addressing these issues, cities will be better positioned to thrive in both the good times and the bad.
Likewise, as they commit resources to address climate change and reducing their carbon footprint, cities should use the opportunity to make themselves stronger across a range of challenges. For example, Paris can address its key environmental challenges (urban flooding, the heat island effect and air pollution) at the same time as it considers how to better integrate new immigrants from West Africa, North Africa and the Middle East. Both efforts will involve examining urban density, green space, sustainable transportation and where people live. Better green space and connected neighborhoods could mitigate flooding, improve air quality and link otherwise isolated areas with the central city. If Paris can think about those two efforts together it can improve its environmental profile and mitigate radicalization, making itself stronger for whatever the next crisis is.
So how can cities do all of this? By utilizing “resilience,” a framework that allows cities and others to think about challenges in an interrelated fashion, cities can prioritize what needs to be addressed and work to solve multiple problems at one time. It embodies the idea that challenges are interconnected and that problems can’t effectively be solved while thinking about it in a silo, or isolated manner. Now there is tremendous opportunity to bring this approach to the climate change negotiations and, just as importantly, to subsequent action.
This sort of thinking, where governments do the most with the resources they have and view all their challenges as interconnected, has already begun to take hold. On Wednesday, 100 Resilient Cities — pioneered by The Rockefeller Foundation — announced that 21 cities are taking 100RC’s “10 percent Resilience Pledge,” where mayors are pledging 10 percent of their cities’ budgets to resilience projects and initiatives. That is a good start. But we need more than just the world's most innovative cities to adopt this thinking. If we don't, and we look to solve climate change as a standalone problem, we are missing a major opportunity, and exposing ourselves to the many other risks we face in the world.
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