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CLIMATE CHANGE AND SEA-LEVEL RISE: A looming threat for global cities and coastal regions

Common Dreams just published a fascinating — and alarming — map of U.S. cities (see above) projected to be flooded by a four-foot rise in sea-levels, based on carbon pollution already in the atmosphere. Additional carbon emissions will lead to greater sea-level rises. The lead author of the map, Dr. Ben Strauss, summed up the outlook as follows: ”Hundreds of American cities are already locked into watery futures and we are growing that group very rapidly.” Worst hit will be the populous states of Florida, Louisiana, and Texas, followed by North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts.

Altogether, this four-foot rise in sea levels will submerge more than half of the population in 316 coastal cities and towns (home to 3.6 million) in the lower 48 states. Among the most devastated cities will be Miami and Jacksonville Fla., Sacramento and Long Beach Calif., and Virginia Beach, Va. The larger cities of Boston and New York City will face somewhat less but still substantial risk from climate change. I encourage everyone to examine carefully the original interactive map with its full state-by-state lists of affected U.S. cities here, not to be alarmist, but to get a realistic sense of the future impacts as they are unfolding now.

The other map indicates the flood projections for a sea-level rise of 1.35 meters in New York City. It is from a recent article by William Solecki on “Urban environmental challenges and climate change action in New York City” (Environment and Urbanization 2012 24: 557). Solecki reviews how NYC has begun to define and implement a series of climate actions over the last decade and a half, particularly through the Bloomberg administration’s sustainability program, known as PlaNYC. While NYC has taken a leadership role in promoting urban resilience and sustainability planning, its approach has been “largely technocratic and managerial” and constrained by both budgetary and jurisdictional limitations, according to the article.

If a rich city like New York cannot do more in the face of such severe weather events as Hurricane Sandy, I am afraid of the outlook for less affluent localities around the world. Such “extreme” weather events clearly are becoming more common with the onset of global climate change. On the other hand, I am glad that we have begun a discussion about the importance of urban resilience in these circumstances, even if so much remains to be done on so many levels and in so many places. Will our efforts be too little, too late? Time will tell, but for now these ominous trends underscore the urgent need to reduce our carbon emissions. For more on urban and regional issues, see Urban Geographies: Cities of People, Places, and Projects