According to JoAnn Carmin, cities that start programs addressing climate change have already cleared a significant hurdle—but it’s the first of many. Carmin, an associate professor in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, recently gave an MIT News interview in which she pointed out that one mayor’s pet project may become marginalized under his or her successor. The cities best positioned to sustain such initiatives, Carmin has found, are those with involvement at multiple levels of government—national, municipal, and local—as well as the citizenry at large.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development commissioned Carmin—who is also a contributor to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released in full last month—to survey urban leaders worldwide on their approach to existing and projected climate problems. Her resulting report touches on engineering solutions, such as underground reservoirs constructed to handle Copenhagen’s increasing rainfall, as well as regulatory steps like Seattle’s limits on new constructions in floodplains. It also looks at adjustments to cities’ traditional planning methods. A committee formed in Quito, Ecuador, for example, brings together government officials with members of the research community—a crucial step toward, as Carmin puts it, “providing an ongoing exchange between those who are doing the science and those who need the data.”
According to Carmin, flexibility is also key for urban leaders approaching complex climate change issues. “Rather than saying, ‘We can’t do anything until we have certainty,’ they’re saying, ‘Let’s work with what we know now, but work with the uncertainty in mind.'” And just as today’s solutions may not fit tomorrow, Cape Town’s solutions may not fit Tokyo. “To have strong gains, a program really has to be tailored to a city.”