November 24, 2012 Leave a comment
If nations like the USA and Japan can’t escape apocalyptic scenarios after hurricanes or tsunamis as events over just the last decade have shown, what would be the situation in Lagos, Dhaka, or Jakarta?
The greatest invention of humanity is, inarguably, the city. The city has been the catalyst and engine of economic and intellectual development throughout human history – whether the progenitors of those developments loved or hated it. Cities form their distinct identities, collectively established by and yet projected upon their inhabitants, and are endlessly compared to one another – Buenos Aires is the Paris of the Southern Hemisphere, Edinburgh a rather rainier Athens.
Over the last few weeks, two of the world’s most well-known cities were hit by extreme weather. The New York metropolitan area bore the brunt of Hurricane Sandy in the week before the US election, with a whole concatenation of disaster encompassing flooding, power cuts, and the wholesale destruction of coastal communities. Less drastic (if only because the place is already so waterlogged) was the flooding in Venice two weeks later, a result of heavy rains in northern Italy, and in contrast to the images of utter devastation of the Atlantic seaboard, newspapers and websites ran photos of tourists good-naturedly wading through waist-deep water.
New York City and Venice both have extraordinary histories. New York, the best harbour on America’s Atlantic coast and one of the best in the world, was the conduit between the goods produced in the heartland and the markets of the Western world. Even more famously, it was the point of entry for millions of immigrants over many decades, endowing the place with its notorious cosmopolitanism. Venice has a much more sedate, genteel image of decorated palazzos and piazzas, but in its day was as much an economic heavyweight as New York is now.
As different as the two cities are, they, along with the mushrooming populations of the world’s coastal cities, are under increasing existential threat. Statistics from the Venice Commune’s Tide Monitoring and Forecast Center show that of the fifteen or so occasions over the past hundred years when high tide breached the 140cm mark, six occurred since 2000. The governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, has spoken of the challenges he has faced as three successive hurricanes roared up from the Caribbean into the United States. And though it passed with little remark in parliaments around the world, this summer saw an unprecedented thaw in the Greenland ice sheet. All indicators, of global temperatures, precipitation, and the likelihood of extreme weather events continue their steady climb upwards.
New Yorkers are resilient in the face of adversity, Venetians are resigned to it. Governor Cuomo and New York City’s mayor Michael Bloomberg have both called for investment in building levees and flood defences in preparation for further deluges, cheaper surely than spending billions of dollars in rebuilding every time disaster strikes. But the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy is likely to linger longer in the American memory than did, for example, the tsunami on Boxing Day in 2004 in the Indian Ocean in which hundreds of thousands of people died and millions were displaced, mostly in Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka. It might even be better-remembered than was Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, given New York’s position as the country’s economic and media focal point.
As Venice was a past keystone of the world economy and New York is a current one, in the developing world other coastal cities in key areas are catching up fast. Shanghai is vying with Tokyo to be the financial centre of East Asia. The port cities of South America and Africa are modernising and expanding as the mineral and agricultural products of those continents are produced and traded with increasing efficiency. But while coastal cities in the developing world are growing quickly, both spatially and economically, many of their inhabitants continue to live precariously on the edges of these conurbations, in shanty towns and slums that lie outside the neat rules of city planners. Moreover, local and national governments may not be able to summon resources or may not worry overmuch if such communities are affected by storms or flooding or any of their after effects. If nations like the USA and Japan can’t escape apocalyptic scenarios after hurricanes or tsunamis as events over just the last decade have shown, what would be the situation in Lagos, Dhaka, or Jakarta?
The narrative that has gained traction over the last few decades is that economic supremacy is shifting away from the developed world to the developing. While there is more nuance in the economic picture than that, the worsening effects of climate change are anything but subtle. Although the media dwells far longer on the damage caused in well-equipped, well-prepared places, it is people living out of sight of Western media that face the most immediate threat from the effects of climate change now and in the future. In order to preserve the cities that are only just realising their own economic prosperity, there should be as much focus internationally on protecting them as there is on preventing climate change further.