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Every City For Itself: Adapting to Climate Change

What cities are best prepared for climate change, and which will falter? Josh Stephens reviews <em>Climatopolis: How Our Cities Will Thrive in a Hotter Future</em> by Matthew Kahn.
April 7, 2011, 11am PDT | Josh Stephens
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A great deal of literature has already anointed the hero in the fight against climate change: the city. Beginning with David Owens' Green Metropolis and including the work of Paul Hawken, Ed Glaeser, and countless others, the city has come to symbolize all the ways that humans can live densely and tread lightly on the Earth.

These accolades might be premature. In his brief but wide-ranging book Climatopolis: How Our Cities Will Thrive in the Hotter Future, Matthew Kahn renders no such heroes.

Kahn, a professor of economics and public policy at UCLA, does not say that we are doomed, even in the face of a three-foot sea level rise. He does, however, explain a host of reasons why the desire to defend against and adapt to a changing climate will be fraught with complications, many of them based in basic economic principles and faulty public policy. To Kahn, climate change is just a structural shift that will send us scrambling to reach a new equilibrium; it will not be a clarion call for purposefulness and altruism.

To a great extent, Kahn hams it up in the role of the circumspect economist. His prose is self-consciously lively and fun, perhaps to make up for the fact that his book has no grand narrative or particularly inspirational message. The playful attitude gets wearisome when he drops pop culture references ad nauseam, or constructs a whole chapter around Kobe Bryant. Pandering aside, Kahn is deadly serious about his message that market forces, as much as climactic forces, will determine who wins and who loses in the coming century.

Kahn considers climate change a certainty, as does the scientific community. He then assumes that individuals and institutions will eventually adapt to these changes whether they believe in them or not, such that choices about urban growth, energy consumption, and living patterns will be dictated by subtle and not-so-subtle strategies of adaptation. We may find, for instance, that real estate in Fargo grows more expensive (because Fargo will get warmer without becoming oppressive) while real estate in inland Southern California will go in the tank (see below).

Kahn introduces the notion of "climate bundle," which accounts for changes not only in temperature but also in precipitation. With this holistic perspective, Kahn places his bets on five U.S. cities that will weather the permanent heat wave well without having to adapt: Salt Lake City, Milwaukee, Buffalo, Minneapolis, and -- no kidding -- Detroit. After a half-century of migration to the West and South, it appears that the Great Lakes region will rise again. (Internationally, Kahn bets on Moscow, Beijing, Paris, Crakow, and Calgary -- all chilly inland cities, at least for now.)

Kahn isn't saying that these cities are particularly green or that they even need to be green. Rather that they have the greatest possibility of maintaining, or improving, their current quality of life. Ironically, writes Kahn, the supposedly heroic cities -- the New Yorks, San Franciscos, and Portlands -- are unlikely to do anyone much good because "the cities with the smallest carbon footprint are the least likely to permit new housing to be built." In other words, Prius-driving yuppies don't want to let in any more Prius-driving yuppies. (And Kahn believes growth is essential for economic survival?)

Unlike its Northern California neighbor, Los Angeles has never been a model for sustainability, and Kahn spends a whole chapter elaborating on the fate of his adopted home. He notes that with a 13-degree rise by 2070, the city with the mildest weather in the country will end up feeling like Jacksonville, Florida. Whether the beautiful people will want to subject their hair to that kind of climate remains open to debate. Currently, places with warm winters and mild summers command huge premiums in real estate values. That may go away. Kahn figures that the rich will continue to cluster along the more temperate coast (which, he writes, would be maximally efficient if it assumed the density of Manhattan -- if only Angelenos would accept density and, perhaps, part with some of their golf courses), while the inner-city poor and inland suburbanites will swelter. Wearing his dispassionate-but-wry economist's hat, Kahn notes that those places "will suffer home price declines as their climate amenity premium vanishes."

Climate changes, writes Kahn, will be accompanied by an infinite number of economic signals, many of which will serve to highlight current market failures that are brought on by shortsighted policies or structural inefficiencies. One lousy policy, writes Kahn, is that of cheap water and power in Southern California. He writes that prices should be allowed to rise as these resources become increasingly scarce. Instead, Los Angeles' response to its decades-old water crisis is to tell people not to hose down their driveways. Talk about a drop in the bucket. In light of this kind of half-hearted measure, Kahn advocates old-fashioned, efficient pricing signals to encourage consumers to do what is necessary.

Los Angeles is not, of course, the only city that has to cope with climate change while also trying to maintain it status in the world. Kahn visits New York -- often considered the darling of sustainable living -- and points out that it, too, has plenty of adapting to do. Climate change presents New York with a new forum in which to compete: every city is going to experience climate change differently, and every city must devise and pay for its own adaptive measures. In the most crass terms, if a city fails to make the right investments, then--polar bears be damned--its homeowners and business-owners are going to wake up to severely depressed real estate values. In this sense, Kahn sees public policy as a way to protect an investment known as "life as we know it."

This attention to the landed classes, though, highlights a problem that will arise largely in cities of the developing world. In the chapter entitled "Bono's Anxiety," in reference to the U2 frontman's concern for the global poor, Kahn explains why the poor will suffer most from a changing climate. While rural lifestyles and agricultural output will be upset by changing weather patterns, in the cities "climate change will increase inequality across Indian states, because more educated areas will fare better as their politicians work for the people, unlike those in poorer, more backward regions." India's only hope may lie in "leapfrog" development, in which it waits for the developed world to devise the right technologies and techniques and then adopts them in one fell-swoop.

In his penultimate chapter, on "opportunities" that will arise from climate change, Kahn attempts to put a positive spin on the looming tragedy. He explains how some places will end up with better skiing and how carbon pricing will lead to a resurgence in the shipping industry. He is not, however, so sanguine on the popular notion of creating clusters of "green jobs." He writes, " for every one hundred new jobs created in a city, only a small share of jobs (less than 10 percent) go to unemployed residents." He is skeptical of subsidies for green industries or other interventions, preferring instead a carbon tax that will force all other industries to adapt of their own accord to higher energy prices.

Even without those policy changes, Kahn's ultimate message is that the climate is not going to wait for them or for any other adaptive strategies. It is already brewing in the stratosphere, heating up little by little, irreversibly building up to the moment when we finally cannot ignore it any longer. And when that moment comes, we will have to adapt whether we like it or not. For that reason, Kahn's account has an air of futility. He offers recommendations mixed equally with predictions -- about human behavior and the economic forces that compel people not to make the right decisions. Ultimately, it's a breezy primer on the world to come but one that is neither scary enough to inspire action nor entertaining enough (try though it might) for anyone to take notice. We will simply have to wait for some other hero to come along.


Josh Stephens is editor of the California Planning & Development Report. A Los Angeles native and longtime journalist, Josh Stephens has covered planning, land use, and architecture as an editor and freelance journalist for the better part of a decade.

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