The global focus on climate change is hiding the slowly devastating effect it is having on European cities. Diana Vonnak examines urban climate change, public perception, and what needs to change to help European mitigate its impact.

Hurricane Katrina and Sandy, tsunamis in Thailand and Sri Lanka, floods in Himalayan high altitude deserts and melting Arctic ice. The list of examples of devastating weather conditions, the frequency of which has been shown to increase due to human induced climate change all share a common feature: none of them were in Europe.

Out of the estimated annual 400,000 climate change related deaths only a tiny fraction is happening directly in front of our eyes, as a striking 98% of the victims are people from developing countries. Climate change reinforces global inequalities yet again in many ways. This being the case, apart from occasional sarcastic worries about Amsterdam and Venice disappearing under water, climate change is seldom part of the daily reality of Europeans.

Without denying their importance we need to go beyond the Amsterdam-Venice example, as they are both in a rather unique situation: their design was based on a consciously engineered symbiosis of humans and the sea from the outset, so the recent intensification of climate related threats is not new for them. They might be hit exceptionally hard in the following decades but at least there are strategies already in place for adaptation. Instead it is worth getting an overview of places with poorer media coverage in order to get a glimpse of the real stories of global warming in Europe as seen from the ground after we touch on what urban climate change actually means in the continent.

Ubiquitous and intangible – indifference towards climate change

On my way to a remote village in the Himalayas I spent some time in Leh, the main city of the region. A few years ago the neighbouring areas were hit by flash floods so severe that local people lacked even the vocabulary to describe it, as their knowledge was that of a cold desert landscape with barely any water. Now houses were ruined and dozens killed by violently abundant water, something beyond the comprehension of those villagers who never left the region. I was struck by the change of attitudes I experienced among these local people, who nurtured an extraordinarily resilient willingness to fight extreme weather. As these events were impossible to explain away and were traumatic enough to have a persistent impact on their lives, they wanted to prepare themselves.

Perhaps too much attention is being to the flooded St Marco’s Square, Venice | Photo: Roberto Trm, CC BY-NC 2.0 (flickr)

Of course one does not necessarily need traumatic experiences to realise the presence of climate change, but the slowness of it and the difficulties in disentangling it from normal cyclic changes do pose a threat. Cognitive psychologist Ben Newell argues that the lack of personal experience is a strong component of people’s indifference: both symptoms and responsibilities are alienated and diffused so much, that they fail to engage European citizens. Unless they are, for example, among those Britons who experienced exceptional floods in the recent few years and thus are more concerned than the rest of us, as studies have shown. So climate change is a messy, omnipresent issue and we seldom care about it in our general prosperity and temperate climate. A recent Eurobarometer survey showed that only 50% of Europeans think that climate change is one of the world’s most important problems, which seems to suggest that a precondition of action is to convince the population that climate threats are real.

EU policies have repeatedly emphasised the need for bottom-up, grassroots initiatives.

According to EU reports, the impact of climate awareness campaigns on behavioural changes and the public attitude is extremely fluctuating. When the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) received a Nobel Prize, or when there is an occasional weather catastrophe in the news, climate awareness soars significantly, only to be shaken and dismissed when the same IPCC makes some mistakes in certain calculations. This means that there is a strong need for a continuous campaign that could outbalance the ups and downs of public climate empathy. The EC’s project “You Control Climate Change” and the also EU-sponsored ESPACE, “European Spatial Planning – Adapting to Climate Events” are among the notable top-down initiatives, but EU general policies have repeatedly emphasised the need for bottom-up, grassroots initiatives and ultimately the engagement of the entire civil society. And emphasised rightly so. For that we need to see what the exact impact to climate change is.

Cities, floods, air conditioners

Roughly 75% of Europe’s population lives in cities, thus whatever impact climate change is having on our lives, it will be affecting urban dwellers the most – at least in numbers. Damaged agriculture will cause problems for urbanised regions as well, as they might not be able to supply cities with enough food, but changes will be visible even without leaving urbanised areas themselves. Increased temperatures would mean changing consumption patterns because of new demands for air conditioning and water. Soil sealing – the covering soil for roads of housing can itself aggravate urban temperature and worsen water drainage problems. The danger of flooding calls for improved architectural designs that could have higher water resilience, preferably together with a more sustainable drainage system. In short, much of the impact of climate change call for systemic changes on the level of city planning, as individual efforts are often insufficient in their scope and effectiveness.

A London of hot and dry summers?

The UK, according to most climate models, is not among the most threatened countries in Europe. Yet London is in a unique situation as a metropolis of unparalleled size in the continent with a significant social inequality problem: even less devastating events could hit the urban poor hard. Moreover, in such situations, when an elderly Londoner gets a stroke during a heatwave it is much more difficult to point at climate change as a reason, than in the case of an elderly American drowning in the flood caused by hurricane Katrina. This is partly because climate science mostly highlights the overall trend of more extreme weather conditions, thus the question of the proportion climate change actually causes certain events is difficult to judge. But we can safely say it is there.

Heatwaves in London could become increasingly common | Photo: David Mills , CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 (flickr)

E&M asked UCL’s Anna Mavrogianni, a London-based researcher of climate change and the built environment about the core issues of urban climate change in general and in London specifically. Mavrogianni highlighted the manifold nature of climate change: there is an altered weather paradigm imposing new risks; these risks are unevenly distributed often hitting vulnerable groups more; along with mitigation strategies we have to design innovations to effectively tackle improve the resilience of cities. Moreover it is rather difficult to create the cooperation between disciplines, between academia and NGOs, between policy-makers and the people.

In the case of London, as with many similarly situated cities, overheating could be the most urgent problem, as heatwaves could become regular by the middle of the century, to which the building stock and the transportation network has to adapt as soon as possible. The urgency lies in the size of the city, says Mavrogianni, as Megalopolises, such as London, are particularly vulnerable to such effects due to the exceptionally high concentration of people and assets that are at risk resulting in the amplification of the consequences of extreme weather events in central areas. She quotes the recent report from the London Climate Change Partnership, where it was found that most of social housing in London is extremely vulnerable due to the joint risk of buildings and people both being among the most vulnerable to climate change – elderly and/or low income residents in 60-70s housing blocks prone to overheating – moreover, they are often situated in the middle of urban heat islands. Such localities are the hotspots of urban European climate change and thus the most urgent to deal with.

We need to remember the often sneaky and not so dramatic nature of the changes we need to adapt to.

A bucket list of innovations

When I asked Anna Mavrogianni to summarise the most important elements in mitigation and innovation strategies her answer followed the complexly nested scales she outlined before. On the level of the buildings themselves, the adoption of passive solar design and reliance on natural ventilation is highly important in reducing energy use. Cool green roofs and external shutters could help to improve the existing building stock. On a local level increasing the green coverage around buildings in order to mitigate the urban heat island effect and the installation of sustainable drainage systems could tackle some of the negative impact, while all the rest remains in the hands of city planners, governments and international policy-makers.

More sustainable infrastructure and resources and the decentralisation of energy systems, waste management and policies supporting sustainable businesses can only be lobbied for by the non-governmental sector, as their execution requires top-down action and grand policy schemes. Because of this and also because of the importance of grassroots movements such as cycling or buying locally sourced food the ultimate engine in starting the climate-awareness vehicle lies in the hands of the media.

And for a successful campaign for European urban sustainability we need to remember the often sneaky and not so dramatic nature of the changes we need to adapt to. Climate change in Europe is less a melodrama than a slowly unfolding thriller, so watch out for the increasing tensions within cities. Environmental aspects cannot be treated as completely separate facets of life that we simply choose to interact with when visiting a national park, and then leave behind for good. It is time to bring climate awareness from the Amazon and South-East Asia and see how different regions are trying to tackle smart innovations, architectural and planning challenges and heritage conservation.

Cover Photo: Akuppa John Wigham (flickr); CC BY 2.0

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    Diána Vonnák is an anthropology PhD candidate at the Max Planck Institute and lives in Leipzig. She is originally from Budapest. She is currently working on cultural heritage in Lviv, Ukraine. When not obsessing about the built environment and Eastern Europe she is a managing editor at E&M and tries to be on the road as much as she can. She also reviews translated Hungarian literature regularly.

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