Monday, May 23, 2011

Chicago's Plan to Adapt to Anticipated Climate Change

Is Chicago the last bastion of rational planning?   I don't think so.  Self interest will nudge even those who don't work in Hyde Park to anticipate how climate change will affect their lives.  Chicago has paid some consultants to provide a crystal ball study of how their city is likely to be affected.   As new infrastructure decisions are made, the consulting report will provide useful hints for how to make irreversible investments that the city won't regret in the year 2070.  The report claims that 1000s may die each year in future heat waves.  While possible, merely by alerting people of this possible horrible scenario can be sufficient to sharply reduce the probability that the event ever takes place.

If people foresee such nasty heat waves, they will buy the air conditioners and demand access to ventilated places so that they can ride out such a future storm. Yes, such adaptation will increase electricity demand and yes that could exacerbate climate change if the electricity is generated using fossil fuels -- but if by the year 2050 we have made free market progress in renewable power generation then we can enjoy the win-win of adapting without exacerbating the real threat of climate change.   Increased air conditioning is likely not to be sufficient for fending off Chicago's expected heat.  Urban planners will play a role in thinking through how to increase green space and reducing the Urban Heat Island effect by smashing up concrete.   We will fumble our way around in this learning process by experimenting to learn what works and the best ideas will spread to all cities.

I argue in my Climatopolis  book that free market capitalism will greatly ease the pain that cities such as Chicago suffer because of climate change.  If a city such as Chicago does not make adaptation plans while competitor cities such as Boston do, then Chicago will lose the skilled and jobs to other cities that become more livable and land owners in a suffering city such as Chicago will suffer a sharp drop in property values. Capitalism punishes those that don't step up in a changing environment.

The New York Times story linked to above tells a nice prospective story about Chicago but the proof is in the pudding as time passes and climate change unfolds -- will Chicago sink in the quality of life rankings or will it rise?   I predict that proactive urbanites and proactive city governments will experiment and learn how to handle this emerging threat. Adaptation won't be a "free lunch" but our collective capacity to adjust to new situations and to harness capitalism's innovation will allow cities such as Chicago to continue to thrive in our hotter future.