Friday, November 14, 2014

IPCC Response Essay #9: Big Box Resiliency: U.S. Suburbs and Climate Change

Sarah Adams-Schoen, Assistant Professor of Legal Process at Touro College Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center and Director of the Institute on Land Use & Sustainable Development Law

Impacts from recent climate-related extremes, such as heat waves, droughts, floods, cyclones, and wildfires, reveal significant vulnerability and exposure of some ecosystems and many human systems to current climate variability (very high confidence). Impacts of such climate-related extremes include alteration of ecosystems, disruption of food production and water supply, damage to infrastructure and settlements, morbidity and mortality, and consequences for mental health and human well-being. For countries at all levels of development, these impacts are consistent with a significant lack of preparedness for current climate variability in some sectors.[1]

In North America, governments are engaging in incremental adaptation assessment and planning, particularly at the municipal level. Some proactive adaptation is occurring to protect longer-term investments in energy and public infrastructure.[2]

These statements from the Working Group II Summary for Policymakers (WGII SPM) in the International Panel on Climate Change’s most recent assessment report (AR5) hint at a failure across all levels of government in the U.S.—specifically, a significant gap between vulnerabilities and preparedness. Although WGII SPM recognizes the greater efforts of U.S. municipal governments, as compared to federal and state governments, U.S. municipalities still lag behind their counterparts throughout the world.

Living on Long Island, New York—home to the first planned suburb—I am reminded that suburbs pose their own challenges with respect to climate change. Although the distinct characteristics of suburbs may be appropriately outside the purview of the IPCC,[3] recognizing these characteristics, and the legal context within which they occur, is essential for effective preparedness in the U.S.—where the majority of the population resides in suburbs, suburbs have a higher per capita carbon footprint than urban areas, and suburbs are less likely to take action on climate change.[4]

Suburban communities need encouragement and support to assess their climate vulnerabilities, plan and implement adaptation and mitigation strategies, and, in some cases, expand their current efforts beyond building and vehicles initiatives to land use and planning measures.[5]

[S]o far, climate action has extended slowly to suburbia. Central cities in smart growth states have taken on climate change, but vast swaths of metropolitan suburbia continue to reproduce a political geography of local free-riding.[6]

AR5 highlights the importance of “city and municipal governments acting now to incorporate climate change adaptation into their development plans and policies and infrastructure investments,”[7] characterizing “[a]ction in urban centres [as] essential to successful global climate change adaptation.”[8] Additionally, AR5 finds that “[u]rban adaptation action that delivers mitigation co-benefits is a powerful, resource-efficient means to address climate change and to realize sustainable development goals (medium confidence based on high agreement, medium evidence).”[9] The role of urban areas, including their suburbs, “includes not only building [a] foundation of resilience . . . but also mobilizing new resources, adjusting building and land-use regulations and continuously developing the local capacity to respond.”[10]

Despite this critical role, climate adaptation planning appears to be a lower priority in the US than just about anywhere else.[11] According to a survey administered in 2011, the U.S. has the lowest percentage of cities pursuing adaptation planning out of all regions surveyed (59%), while Latin American and Canadian cities have the highest (95% and 92% respectively).[12] The U.S. also has the lowest percentage of cities that have completed an assessment of their vulnerabilities and risks (13%).[13]

Local governments throughout the US need more federal and state support.[14] To provide adequate guidance and support to local communities, state and federal governments need to take into consideration the context of those communities. Indeed, WGII SPM found that “[a]daptation is place- and context-specific, with no single approach for reducing risks appropriate across all settings (high confidence).”[15] Moreover, effective adaptation planning and implementation, as well as mitigation, may benefit from recognizing not only that suburbs are distinct from urban cores, but also that different types of suburbs exist, each of which provide distinct challenges and opportunities for building community resilience.[16]

We have an opportunity now to create communities that are resilient to climate-related risks, and that provide mitigation co-benefits. Sixty-six percent of the buildings in existence by the year 2050 will be built between now and then.[17] By 2040, the U.S. is projected to add 93 million new homes to accommodate its rapidly growing population. Based on current trends, most of these homes will be single-family homes that are significantly less energy efficient than their multifamily counterparts; and, based on current planning practices, the occupants of these single-family homes will continue to commute by car to work, play, and shop.[18]

It is therefore crucial that local, state and federal governments act now to assess the role of suburbs in climate change adaptation and mitigation, and support these entities in their development of adaptation plans, policies and infrastructure investments. Otherwise, we are likely to see, at best, the continued “incremental adaptation assessment and planning”[19] with little implementation observed in WGII SPM, and, at worst, maladaptive changes in suburban infrastructure and land uses.

[1] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability: Summary for Policymakers 6 (2014) (footnote omitted).

[2] Id. at 8.

[3] As used in the AR5, the term “urban” appears to encompass suburbs. IPCC, Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the International Panel on Climate Change, ch. 8 at 6 (2014) [hereinafter WGII AR5].

[4] John R. Nolon, The Land Use Stabilization Wedge Strategy: Shifting Ground to Mitigate Climate Change, 34 Wm. & Mary Envtl. L. & Pol'y Rev. 1, 3-4 (2009).

[5] Hari M. Osofsky, Suburban Climate Change Efforts: Possibilities for Small and Nimble Cities Participating in State, Regional, National, and International Networks, 22 Cornell J.L. & Pub. Pol’y 395, 440 (2012).

[6] Yonn Dierwechter, Metropolitan Geographies of US Climate Action: Cities, Suburbs, and the Local Divide in Global Responsibilities, 12 J. Envtl. Pol'y & Plan. 59, 79 (2010); Osofsky, supra note 81.

[7] WGII AR5, supra note 3, ch. 8 at 6.

[8] Id. at 3.

[9] Id.

[10] Id. at 6.

[12] Id. at 14.

[13] Id. at 10.

[14] Id. at 24.

[15] WGII Summary for Policymakers, supra note 1, at 25.

[16] See Osofsky, supra note 81; Russell Lopez, Urban Sprawl in the United States: 1970-2010, 7 Cities & the Env’t (CATE), Article 7 (2014).

[17] Nolon, supra note 4, at 6.

[18] See id.; Lopez, supra note 16.

[19] WGII Summary for Policymakers, supra note 1, at 8.

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