Climate Change and Planning: Responding to the Challenge

By Donaghy, Kieran | The Town Planning Review, July 1, 2007 | Go to article overview
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Climate Change and Planning: Responding to the Challenge


Donaghy, Kieran, The Town Planning Review


Climate is the typical behaviour of the atmosphere. It is usually described in terms of mean (or average) conditions and variations about these conditions, including extreme events and the frequency of their occurrence (Wuebbles and Edmonds, 1991). Climate change, then, is change in the average behaviour of the atmosphere as well as change in the patterns of variation around this behaviour. Climate scientists are as much, if not more, concerned about changes in variability as they are about changes in average conditions; changes in variability may entail fundamental changes in our knowledge base. Climate change is real, has been going on since the earth was formed, and is anticipated to continue for the foreseeable future. Since the industrial revolution, however, much of the change in climate has been discernibly induced by human activity and, in particular, activity producing emissions of so-called 'greenhouse gases' (GHGs) - carbon monoxide, methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases.

It is anticipated that anthropogenic climate change will have consequences for human health, ecosystems, economic activity, and social wellbeing that are on the whole more negative than positive.1 The human beings who appear to be most vulnerable to climate change are low-income and minority populations living in societies with developed economies, especially in coastal areas, and populations in countries with developing economies in equatorial latitudes.

It may be too late to avert such near-term effects of climate change as unusual fluctuations in temperature, the increased incidence of extreme weather events, persisting droughts in Australia, sub-Saharan Africa and other areas, flooding in coastal areas, and melting of glaciers and sea level rise, which may cover low-lying land masses such as islands in the South Pacific. But scientists (and environmental economists) generally agree that it is not too late to ward off possibly irreversible changes in climate and quality of life for future generations through efforts to mitigate emissions and adapt to the effects of climate change (Stern et al., 2006). Contributors to the Stern Review believe that mitigation of and adaptation to climate change can be brought about through a combination of command-and-control and market-inducement policies. They also estimate that the cost of effective mitigation and adaptation could be as little as 1 per cent of global GDP per year, and the sooner such measures are undertaken, the lower the cost will be. Most countries acknowledge this state of affairs and - with certain notable exceptions - the international community is generally in agreement that those countries that have produced the most greenhouse gases should bear the heaviest burdens of costs of adjustment.

In this Viewpoint I discuss the fundamental challenge that climate change poses for planning (broadly construed), responses that have been made on both sides of the Atlantic, and further initiatives that might be taken. I conclude with some general observations.

The fundamental challenge

Although climate change is occurring globally, it is experienced locally, where people live and work, and significant impacts have already been experienced in many locales.2 While discussions are continuing at the international level over how or if the terms of the Kyoto Protocol will be implemented by nations or what agreement might supplant this protocol, communities and regions at the sub-national level have no choice but to respond - and plan to respond - to the problems brought on by the effects of climate change. The impacts of events or conditions linked to climate change will be manifested in damage to infrastructure and housing, stress on public utilities and emergency services, fluctuations in pest populations and increased incidence of disease, damage to crops, and loss of goods in shipment or storage (IPCC, 1998).

The fundamental challenge that climate change poses for planning at the community and regional levels is one of understanding adequately and responding appropriately.

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