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Climate change in cities: Vulnerabilities and strengths

Study highlights research shortcomings and points way forward

Street scene in St. John, Antigua

July 18, 2012 | Although urban areas are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, research often fails to provide officials and urban dwellers with information they need to prepare for hazards, according to a new meta-analysis (a review of multiple studies) published in Global Environmental Change.

Most studies that aim to assess the vulnerability of populations to temperature-related hazards such as heat and cold waves fail to take into account the strengths and assets of those populations, the new analysis concludes. It also found that research on urban vulnerability has predominantly focused on populations in the United States and Europe, with lower- and middle-income countries remaining understudied.

The incomplete picture of urban vulnerability has made it difficult for researchers to glean knowledge, identify patterns from case studies, and apply those findings in new contexts, the authors say. “Decision makers want information that is grounded in reality but that can also be applied to other contexts,” says lead author Patricia Romero Lankao, an interdisciplinary sociologist at NCAR.

Yet most vulnerability studies have been deemed case-specific and have left decision makers without the necessary tools to help citizens adapt. In the 2003 heat wave in Europe, which claimed 35,000 lives and hit elderly and isolated populations particularly hard, the governments of affected countries found themselves largely unprepared for the magnitude of the event.

A more integrated framework that recognizes common patterns of vulnerability across population centers would better help officials. The meta-analysis of 54 papers representing 222 urban areas across the globe found that 13 factors—including age, education, economic status, access to air conditioning, and social isolation such as lack of family support—are critical for assessing the vulnerability of residents. But the authors found little focus on the adaptive capacity of populations. “It’s not only whether you’re exposed or sensitive, but what assets and options you have,” says Romero Lankao.

She adds that improved information about both the risks of living in certain regions and the ability of populations to perceive risks and adapt could lead to more effective responses to hazards.

Patricia Romero-Lankao, Hua Qin, Katie Dickinson, "Vulnerability to temperature-related hazards: A meta-analysis and meta-knowledge approach," Global Environmental Change 2012: in press.