By Will Rogers 

Urbanization and climate change may be the two most important trends to shape global development in the decades ahead. On the one hand, urban cities have the potential to serve as engines of change, driving economic growth in some of the world’s least developed countries and pulling more people out of poverty than at any other time in history. On the other hand, climate change could undercut all of this by exacerbating resource scarcity and putting vulnerable communities at risk from sea level rise and more frequent and intense storms.

Today, roughly 80 percent of economic growth comes for urban centers. Much of this comes from what experts refer to as the “urban advantage:” cities typically concentrate the full spectrum of economic opportunities that are not readily available in rural areas. This includes everything from social services such as education and healthcare, more reliable access to water, sanitation services and electricity, to industries and transportation hubs that are lynchpins for commercial development.

Simply put, countries have more opportunities for economic growth as they urbanize. According to a 2010 study from United Nations Human Settlements Program, “The prosperity of nations is intimately linked to the prosperity of their cities. No country has ever achieved sustained economic growth or rapid social development without urbanizing (countries with the highest per capita income tend to be more urbanized, while low-income countries are the least urbanized).” Of course, how much a country benefits from urbanization depends on policies developed at the local level. Indeed, urban politics can make or break the benefits of urbanization if local policymakers fail to adopt policies that break down socioeconomic, cultural, ethnic and religious barriers.

Nevertheless, urbanization affords tremendous economic opportunities and most of the future benefits will accrue to the world’s developing and least developed countries. As Drew Erdmann wrote earlier this week, “For the first time in over 200 years, the majority of the world’s economic growth during this decade will occur in emerging markets, not the developed economies of the ‘West.’” This may help foster a modicum of stability in some of the world’s most unstable states, countries like Haiti, whose urban population is projected to expand from 52 percent in 2010 to 70 percent by 2030, according to United Nations statistics.

Yet climate change may ultimately undermine the economic benefits of urbanization in some parts of the world. Urban centers place substantially more pressure on natural resources than rural communities given their population density and the attendant demands on water, agricultural, energy and other resources. And although urban planners can apply innovative solutions to help manage these resource constraints – such as waste water recycling systems – climate change could exacerbate resource trends in ways that may hamper the effectiveness of these creative technologies, slowing or stalling economic growth in some of these emerging economic centers.

But the real climate challenge may stem from development in fragile areas along world’s coastlines. Indeed, many of the global megacities (those with populations over 10 million) are located on the coast: Tokyo, Jakarta, Shanghai, New York City, Mumbai, Bangkok and Lagos, to name a few. Their locations are borne out of necessity: 90 percent of global commerce is done by sea. So while urbanizing along the coastline allows countries to more easily tap into global trade, coastal cities may be vulnerable to sea level rise and more frequent and intense typhoons, hurricanes and other extreme weather events that could result from climate change.

Sea level rise could be particularly damaging to urban economic development. Surging seas can crumble coastal infrastructure, such as electricity systems and road ways, and infiltrate ground water aquifers that supply city water and support local agriculture. Moreover, sea level rise may drive up insurance rates, driving people into bankruptcy while also creating socioeconomic gaps in some cities. These challenges are not abstract or distant either: one need only look to the south of Washington, to Norfolk, Virginia, where sea level rise has already dislocated some communities, while forcing city officials to invest millions of dollars to hold back the sea near the naval station.

Typhoons, hurricanes, nor’easters and other extreme weather events may become more frequent and intense as a result of climate change and pose dangers to urban centers. The density of some coastal cities portends extreme challenges for first responders and others charged with responding to weather-related natural disasters. Indeed, the scale of these disasters could be quite staggering, and may even overstretch the capacity of emergency personnel if they are not adequately prepared to respond. Although one cannot definitively point to the 2005 Hurricane Katrina as an example of climate change, the effects of the storm provide a vivid illustration of the magnitude that such a disaster could have in a densely crowded urban community. As a result of this reality, some large cities have started examining how climate change may affect them in the coming decades. In 2010, for example, New York City published its own study from the New York City Panel on Climate Change that looked explicitly at these challenges.

Even absent climate change, it is difficult to disregard the inherent vulnerabilities associated with densely crowded urban cities, particularly those along the coast. In his book, Monsoon, Robert D. Kaplan writes that, “[N]ever before have the planet’s most environmentally frail areas been so crowded,” particularly in countries like Bangladesh, India and elsewhere, where hundreds of millions of people are packed together at or just above sea level. “This means that over the coming decades more people than ever before, in any comparable space of time save for a few periods like the fourteenth century during the Black Death, are likely to be killed or made homeless by Mother Nature,” Kaplan observes.

Looking for Opportunities

There are some opportunities that U.S. policymakers and others can pursue to help dampen the impact of potential climate disruptions on urban cities.

  • Enhancing Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Training: The United States should develop more robust relationships with countries around humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to help more vulnerable countries and their cities develop the institutions, tools and procedures for responding to natural disasters. This does not have to be just traditional military-to-military cooperation either. Fire departments and other first responder organizations from U.S. cities can exchange expertise with other officials in cities around the world. And some of this is ongoing already, whether it’s around flood or wildfire response, and may just need to be scaled up.
  • Improving Climate Change Science at the Local Level: Many countries do not have the tools or techniques to assess how climate change may affect their cities. As a result, there is a significant opportunity for the United States to bolster its science and technology cooperation with countries that will enhance their understanding of local level climate impacts. The United States could leverage its National Labs and others in academia to help support and develop sound climate science that will provide better fidelity about how climate change is projected to manifest itself in urban centers. Better projections will enable cities to become more resilient, which may also help dampen political and social disruptions.

The bottom line: U.S. officials need to analyze urbanization and climate change together. These two trends have the potential to shape global development in fundamental ways in the decades ahead. Understanding how these trends may affect each other will put policymakers in a better position for adapting to potential challenges and harnessing opportunities that will become present in the future.

Will Rogers is the Bacevich Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a non-partisan national security and defense policy think tank in Washington. The views expressed herein represent his personal views and do not necessarily reflect the perspectives of any organization with which he is affiliated.