Urban Living Faces Challenges As Climate Change Worsens

Sep 29, 2018

For years the climate has been a part of the global conversation; however, the public has gotten so used to hearing about climate change that for many, it has become an accepted issue. We know it’s happening and recognize that it’s too late to do anything to stop it, so the general population does nothing at all. That is a dangerous mindset.

Around 55 percent of the world lives in an urban area in 2018, and a United Nations study released in May estimates that will increase to around 68 percent by 2050. But the effort surrounding climate change is almost always based off of its impact on the glaciers in Antarctica or fish having to find a new habitat due to rising heat levels in the ocean. 

Rarely do these efforts center on the immense impact climate change has on cities. Since climate change efforts don’t focus on cities, many people living in urban areas are unaware of the impact global warming is having on their lives.

The signs of climate change are crystal clear in almost any city in the world. Director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State, Michael Mann recently stated, “The impacts of climate change are no longer subtle. We are seeing them play out in real time in the form of unprecedented heat waves, floods, droughts, and wildfires. And we’ve seen them all summer.” These heat waves have had a particularly strong impact on cities due to their already dangerous status as heat islands.

Urban areas, like NYC and Boston, are examples of microclimates called heat islands. A microclimate is a climate within a small contained area that differs from the climate surrounding it, and a heat island is a microclimate created by the abundance of concrete and metal within a city. Since New York City and Boston are heat islands, they are hotter than the rest of the state and often have lower air quality which can create even higher temperatures.

Currently, climate change is increasing the heat in cities, and this can cause a multitude of health and financial problems for anyone living in a city. The EPA released a study in April 2017 detailing some health and financial risks climate change is creating for cities. For example, consistently high temperatures can cause a litany of heat-related illnesses for the elderly due to low mobility and reduced incomes. Children are also susceptible to heat-related problems such as aggravated asthma and other lung diseases due to air pollution, which is typically worsened by heat waves.

It’s not just health that city dwellers should be worried about though, climate change is taking a toll on pocketbooks too. While the summers heat up, air conditioners are getting more use than ever in cities. Although A/C may be a great temporary cooldown, it can have significant downsides. The EPA estimates that if the United State’s climate heats up by around 1.8 degrees fahrenheit, then the use of electricity solely for cooling will increase by 5 to 20 percent. The predicted increase will cause stress to urban infrastructure and more frequent, long-lasting blackouts. It will also cause an increased demand for additional electric generating capacity by 2050, which will end up costing U.S. residents hundreds of billions of dollars, according to the EPA.

One Portland resident I interviewed recognizes the impacts his city has on the climate and suggests that cities begin to, “impose new requirements on building, on development, on zoning.” Another suggested, “If we’re going to make any impact we have to accept the risks of nuclear energy.” He also said in reference to solar and wind power, “When the sun isn’t shining, and the wind isn’t blowing, you don’t have energy unless you have the batteries to store it,” and “If we’re going to make any real impact nuclear has to be a part of the equation.”

Cities across the world are making efforts, some including nuclear power and building regulations, to reduce their emission of greenhouse gasses, but what can individuals do? 

Well, if you have a roof garden or porch, you can plant small shade plants or other greenery to reduce the amount of solar radiation absorbed and therefore decrease the overall surface temperature. And although it may sound cliche, it really does help to take public transportation such as the subway, bus, or UberPool. 

If you’re looking to save electricity, you can make a routine out of turning all lights and electronics off before you leave the apartment, switch to energy efficient light bulbs, and try to air dry your clothes if you can or opt for wool dryer balls. 

Then, if you’re willing to add a couple larger lifestyles changes you can begin to cut the number of groceries you buy and try to buy food locally if possible. If you begin cutting down on groceries and only buying the necessary foods, like one jug of juice for your apartment rather than three, you can reduce the carbon footprint created by food waste. It’s also beneficial to dedicate some time to advocating for extended bike lanes or mass transit.

These are all fairly small actions that can be taken by anybody but they are especially easy for those living in urban areas. If you live in a rural or suburban area and are also ready to take bigger steps to help out, there are plenty of options. For one, you can plant large shade trees in your yard, switch to a green roof or install cooling pavements to lower the surrounding temperatures. 

The drastic changing of Earth’s climate is an issue that will impact each person on Earth if it is not seriously dealt with in a matter of years. It affects far more than just the glaciers in Antarctica. The general population needs to realize that climate change is not just going to change the future for good but is already forcing negative changes in our day to day lives.

We’ve already caused significant damage to the Earth and our future here, but we have a chance to prevent any more damage. As a citizen of Portland pointedly stated, “It’s coming, it’s happening, and you just have to keep that in mind.” 

You don’t have to be a scientist or environmentalist to make a real change; you just have to care.

Grace Flynn is a student at Gorham High School.