Cities Are Becoming Sanctuaries For Climate Policy, Too

The Trump administration may deny climate science, but cities are already moving to adapt to it.

Yesterday, The New York Times published a complete draft of a climate change report by scientists from 13 federal agencies. According to the Times, its authors feared the Trump administration would suppress its conclusions–including its statement, made with “very high confidence,” that human activities are the primary cause of global climate change.


The 600-plus page report is an expansive look at the state of existing climate science, detailing rising temperatures, increased precipitation, extreme weather like tornadoes and cyclones, and much more. But since it “directly contradicts” the president’s stance on climate change, it’s also kindling for the ongoing debate over the climate on the federal level–one that’s unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.

Yet, as the report illustrates, federal policy is only part of the puzzle. Not only does the document show how cities both contribute to and bear the brunt of climate change today, it also provides a nugget of hope, suggesting that cities can adapt and even mitigate some of the report’s worst scenarios. In fact, similar to the way sanctuary cities are standing against Trump’s immigration policies, some cities have already pledged resources to more resilient urban design–even if the federal government won’t.

[Photo: Pawel Nolbert/Unsplash]

The Science Is Clear: Cities Are Already Suffering

If you read the report with an eye toward the urban, there’s plentiful science that shows how that climate change is already affecting cities–home to 81% of the country’s population, according to the World Bank.

The impact of sea level rise is particularly significant for coastal cities: Since the 1960s, coastal flood advisories from the National Weather Service have increased 5 to 10 times in cities like Philadelphia; Baltimore; Charleston, South Carolina; and La Jolla, California. In many cities, this flooding is already a normal occurrence. More than 25 cities on the East and Gulf Coasts have seen increases in minor tidal floods over the last several decades, and that’s only going to continue in the future. If sea levels were to rise one meter, cities on the Gulf Coast, the Eastern seaboard, the West Coast, and island states and territories could experience 25 times as much moderate flooding in the next three decades.

The urban heat island effect is another way climate change disproportionately affects cities. UHI occurs due when dense buildings and hard surfaces retain heat from the sun, causing the temperature to rise in their immediate vicinity. The report says that the UHI effect raises temperatures in cities by between .9 and 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and 1.8 to 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit at night. In cities located in biomes dominated by temperate forests–like the Northeast–UHI can raise temperatures as much as 14.4 degrees Fahrenheit. The report declares with “high confidence” that UHI will only increase as cities get bigger.

But while climate change is hitting cities particularly hard, those cities also contribute to it. The report points out that urbanization accounts for almost 2% of the carbon released from the biosphere into the atmosphere, even though cities only account for 1% of the total land in the United States. Urbanization also fuels the production of concrete, which is responsible for 5% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. Cities–or more specifically their buildings, industry, and vehicles–produce large amounts of emissions, adding to the rise in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

[Photo: Pedro Lastra/Unsplash]

They’re Also Already Adapting–With Or Without Trump

Despite cities’ current contributions to climate change, the scientists write in the report that there are some major uncertainties about what role urban areas will play in the future: because they have the ability to adapt.

The report states that the cities of the future may not look the same as those of today in terms of energy consumption and efficiency, and that our inability to predict how cities will adapt hinders our ability to predict how they’ll impact climate change. Because cities are far more adaptable than whole countries, there’s a chance that reimagining the way cities are planned and built could mitigate climate change’s effects.

In truth, cities have already taken that to heart. New York City recently released its first ever Climate Resiliency Design Guidelines for government projects. Mayors from 365 cities have banded together in their efforts to curb climate change in their states. Many cities now have chief resilience officers whose entire job it is to plan for how their cities will adapt to the shocks and stresses of the coming century.

The report’s science is frightening, and the fight over climate science on the federal level will have a serious impact on funding for mitigation efforts, but it also contains insights about how cities have outsized power to act as a bulwark against climate change in this crucial moment.


About the author

Katharine Schwab is the deputy editor of Fast Company's technology section. Email her at and follow her on Twitter @kschwabable