How Can We Prepare?
The efforts of four U.S. cities exemplify ways in which municipalities can prepare for the consequences of climate change. Learn how cities are taking action against:
Chicago curbs urban flooding with permeable pavement
The frequency of heavy rains in Chicago has doubled since the early 1900s. Scientists project the city will face an 80-160% increase in days with 2.5 inches or more of precipitation by the end of the century. Consistent with those trends, on July 23, 2011 Chicago was drenched with 6.86 inches of rain, making it the wettest calendar day in the city's history.
The Windy City wasn't designed to handle so much rainfall. Its 13,000 concrete alleyways were built without any system for drainage, making the city particularly vulnerable to flooding. Rain quickly pours off of hard surfaces, routinely filling basements with storm water and rendering low-lying roads and underpasses unusable.
With streets, alleys and parking lots accounting for nearly 40 percent of the city's groundcover, city planners understood that improving the city's paved surfaces was a necessary step to reduce flooding in a warmer, wetter future. In 2006, the city began testing how to repave public alleyways with materials that allow water from heavy rainfall to seep into the ground. Today, Chicago has over 55 acres of permeable pavement and more than 100 green alleys throughout the city, all a part of a comprehensive design strategy to address the effects of climate change.1
Tucson fights prolonged drought with ambitious water conservation program
The Southwest is rapidly warming and precipitation patterns are shifting, posing a significant threat to the region's scarce water supplies. The U.S. Global Change Research Program warns "the combined effects of natural climate variability and human-induced climate change could turn out to be a devastating one-two punch for the region."
The City of Tucson understands these threats and in collaboration with the University of Arizona assessed how the changing climate will affect the city and its residents. This climate vulnerability assessment will enable the city to better prepare for more severe drought conditions and the increased risk of water scarcity and wildfires.
Even before this assessment, Tucson — faced with the reality of limited water supplies and a growing population — made protecting its water resources a priority. As a result, in 2004 Tucson embarked on a multi-year study of the city's water resources, infrastructure and use. The outcome was a comprehensive plan with the goal of ensuring Tucson's water needs are met through 2050.
The water strategy is an example of forward thinking conservation. The plan — which is already taking the right actions to prepare for water scarcity — is set to incorporate climate change into an updated version this year.
Many of the plan's current initiatives will also address the changing climate by focusing on improving water conservation for both residents and businesses. For example, Tucson established rebate and incentive programs to help minimize per capita water use. The city also helps residents and businesses with the cost of installing water saving plumbing like high efficiency toilets and urinals.
Tucson is encouraging households to install "gray water systems" which collect wastewater from sinks, showers, and washing machines for reuse in irrigating the home's lawns and plants. For businesses, the city provides public recognition to companies that are "water smart," create plans that evaluate water use and establish water budgets.
In addition to preparing for the impacts of climate change, Tucson is also tackling the root cause of the problem — carbon pollution from fossil fuels — by embracing solar energy. From pizza shops to bus stops, traffic lights to water pumping equipment, Tucson is taking advantage of this abundant source of clean energy.2
Grand Rapids beats extreme heat with more green spaces
Heat waves are among the most deadly forms of extreme weather in the United States. Children, the elderly and the poor are most at risk, especially those living in cities, where the dense tangle of streets, parking lots, and rooftops retains heat and elevates air temperatures even further. This so-called "urban heat island effect" is further exacerbated by automobile emissions and heat discharged by air conditioners, posing a serious challenge for many cities.
To protect its residents from extreme heat, Grand Rapids has incorporated a plan to cool their city as part of its five-year sustainability plan. A core component of their strategy is increasing vegetation, planting trees and creating more open green spaces, which help reduce air temperatures. The city plans to increase its tree canopy cover to at least 37.5 percent between 2011 and 2015. Grand Rapids also plans to transition the majority of its landscaping to native plants and grasses that require less water, helping the city meet its water conservation goals while also serving to offset the effects of increased heat.
The city also plans to dramatically reduce its carbon footprint by taking on an ambitious goal of securing 100% of its energy supply from renewable sources by 2020.3
Miami protects coastal homes and businesses from sea level rise
Cities hugging Florida's coasts are extremely vulnerable in to rising sea levels — a threat which contaminates drinking water with salt, elevates storm surges, accelerates beach erosion and threatens coastal infrastructure. According to a Tufts University study, sea-level rise by 2060 may inundate 4,700 square miles of Florida, an area including 70% of Miami-Dade County and encompassing residential real-estate valued at $130 billion.
In 2006, Miami-Dade County formed a task force to understand how projected sea level rise would impact the county and its residents. As a result, the county developed detailed maps to help city officials collect information about locations and critical infrastructure that are at greatest risk of inundation from sea level rise.
Based on these findings, Miami prioritized and accelerated restoration or retrofitting efforts for protection of key coastal structures. The county has begun work on existing canals to increase resiliency against rising sea levels. They have identified roadways vulnerable to sea level rise and are working on modifications necessary to avoid flooded homes and highways.
New climate preparedness zoning, building codes, and permit process modifications all take sea level rise impacts into account, while outreach and education programs are being implemented to inform citizens about the risks climate change poses to their communities and how they can individually prepare.
In addition to preparing for the effects climate change, Miami is also making strides to reduce its carbon footprint and adopt more renewable energy. By 2015 Miami plans to reduce its per capita non-renewable energy use to 20 percent below 2007 levels.4
How You Can Help
Forward-thinking cities are addressing these escalating threats through implementation of practical measures that make their communities safer and healthier. This includes improving air quality, protecting limited water supplies, reducing urban flooding and empowering citizens to better protect themselves and their homes. With your help your community can take action too.
The Earth Hour City Challenge offers a platform and benefits package that will empower and reward participating cities that take steps to reduce their carbon footprint and prepare for climate-related severe weather.
More and more, communities are facing problems like water scarcity, floods and extreme heat. See how your city is at risk from extreme weather, and then tell your mayor to prepare!
- Chicago's climate adaptation plan (PDF)
- Chicago's climate action plan (PDF)
- National Weather Service's official records for Chicago
- Climate Change in Chicago: Projections and Potential Impacts (PDF)
- National Wildlife Federation: Heavy Rainfall and Increased Flooding Risk to the Central United States (PDF)
- New York Times: A City Prepares for a Warm Long-Term Forecast
- Tucson;s water rebate program
- Overview of Tucson's water plan (PDF)
- Tucson's entire water plan from 2000-2050
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) page on heat waves and climate change
- Grand Rapids' sustainability plan (PDF)
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Coastal Service Center's work with Miami-Dade County
- Overview of Miami's Climate Action Plan
- Full Version of Miami's Climate Action Plan (PDF)
- South Florida Regional Planning Council, Miami-Dade and Climate Change fact sheet (PDF)
- Tufts University report, Florida and Climate Change (PDF)
- U.S. Global Change Research Program 2009 Assessment (PDF)