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The vulnerability of global cities to climate hazards

This paper examines the vulnerabilities of three global coastal cities – Mumbai, Rio de Janeiro and Shanghai – to climate hazards. It highlights system characteristics that, in unique combinations, create place-based vulnerabilities to climate hazards. These vulnerabilities are described and implications for city planners and managers are presented.

The paper presents a vulnerability framework to understand the vulnerabilities of the three megacities to hazards resulting from climate change and variability. The framework addresses the vulnerability of interacting human-environment systems to multiple and synergistic stresses that emanate from within as well as from outside the system. The authors argue that from a policy perspective, there are few easy prescriptions for reducing vulnerability, at least in the case of the low-income country cities discussed.

Key conclusions include:

  • disasters are an unequally distributed public “bad” that is more likely to affect poorer, more vulnerable sub-populations with the least political influence. Mitigation measures, by contrast, are a public “good” that require substantial investment and adequately functioning institutions
  • adaptation measures are difficult to implement as they require long time horizons, whereas politicians operate on short-term horizons. Incentives need to be intelligently designed so that politicians, officials and the private sector find it in their interest to build less risk-prone equitable cities
  • if vulnerability mitigation/prevention measures are expensive, there may exist a “moral hazard” on the part of state decision makers, as they may assume that the international relief community will come to their assistance in the event of a significant natural disaster
  • to act means committing scarce public resources for a medium- or even low-probability future event, whereas to “wait and see” if disaster strikes shifts the financial burden onto international agencies.