CityAdapt Blog – The Progress of Mediterranean Cities’ Climate Adaptation Planning: A Preliminary Report

Mediterranean-climate cities must cooperate to adapt to climate change impacts. To help jumpstart this learning, several co-authors and I are working on a project to examine the climate adaptation planning processes in these areas. The cities face comparable challenges because both climates and climate impacts are similar across Mediterranean climate zones. Additionally, the Mediterranean regions’ quality of life and culture are central to their economic well-being. It is not a coincidence that tourism is a key economic sector in all of these regions.   In addition to tourists, the quality of life in these areas attracts residents and businesses alike. The natural advantages of the Mediterranean regions, such as a mild climate, ocean proximity, and biodiversity, are the foundations of this quality of life.

For Mediterranean regions, climate adaptation cannot simply be keeping the ocean at bay, but must also preserve culturally and economically vital ecosystem services. Climate change primarily affects humans by damaging the ecosystem services we rely on. The direct effect of climate change is to increase temperatures and high temperature extremes. The knock-on effects of the increased temperature are felt throughout the water cycle: more droughts in some areas, more flooding in others. Another knock-on effect of temperature increases, sea-level rise, threatens the fundamental ecosystem service of providing a substrate for human activity. These endangered substrates support everything from critical economic infrastructure, such as the Los Angeles’ airport, to sites of tremendous aesthetic value, such as Athens’ ancient port of Piraeus.

What do we mean by climate adaptation? Let us use climate as an example. The mild climate of Mediterranean cities is a climate change-threatened ecosystem service. Extreme heat waves are expected to increase even more than average temperatures. Summer temperatures in already hot Mediterranean cities could make outdoor activities dangerous. These heat waves will also increase air pollution. Easy adaptation is telling people to stay inside and buy air-conditioning. This is a limited solution that eases the effect of heat on (some) people-those that can afford to buy and turn on the air conditioning- but does not sustain the ecosystem services that support livable Mediterranean cities. Retreating inside means closing the door on the re-engineering of the natural and built environment to maintain livability and community in the face of climate change. In this project, we consider a maximal view of climate adaptation, consistent with the city planning efforts we observe. This type of adaptation attempts to sustain or restore ecosystem services so that cities can be as livable as they would be without climate change.

Climate adaptation is not an end, but a process. We do not know what a new global equilibrium climate will look like or how turbulent the path will be to that new equilibrium.   The adaptation of Mediterranean regions to this path of climate change will have many failures as well as successes. By building a library of adaptation planning and projects, cities can learn from both the failures and successes. For example, many cities are planning for heat island effects and there are many similarities in heat island effects across Mediterranean cities. Heat island projects are likely to have complex outcomes. They may ameliorate heat impacts for some groups, but not for others. They may be successful in some parts of the city, but not in all. They may have unanticipated benefits or costs.   As these complex outcomes become apparent in cities that have already started planning for climate adaptation, researchers and policymakers must communicate the outcomes and lessons to other cities-especially cities in Mediterranean regions where a similar climate means that the experience is more likely to be transferable.

In this initial project, we examine the adaptation planning process and ask where cities are in the planning process, which impacts cities are prioritizing, and how cities are choosing policy instruments for adaptation.

Our first step was categorizing the impacts for which cities are planning. Six areas stand out: sea level rise; temperature increases; flooding; drought; wildfire; and energy.   These seem to be the most common focus areas for Mediterranean cities. In each of these areas, we summarized where cities seem to be in their adaptation policy process: we categorized these stages as training, planning to plan, recommendations, and implementation.   In most of the impact areas, few cities have gotten to an implementation stage. Australian cities seem to be the leaders in actual implementation. However, many cities are in the preliminary planning stages. There is a great deal of adaptation training and planning going on at the local level.

Many different types of strategies can be useful in adapting to climate change.   We divide these strategies roughly into two groups: (1) persuasion policies that are intended to give individuals and firms incentives to adapt; and (2) policies where governments are the primary actors. Both are necessary for climate adaptation. Our paper analyzes which ones show up in government documents. Infrastructure, both traditional and green infrastructure, tends to be government led and implemented. Direct regulations that mandate actions by private parties are another key government-led policy. Land-use restrictions such as retreat from dangerous areas, are one type of direct regulation. A cataloging of the infrastructure and other government-led adaptation efforts is important for both adaptation and impact evaluation.

Persuasion measures, such as informing the public of cooling centers during heat waves, are policies that attempt to change individual behavior.   Individuals, firms, and smaller communities are likely to react faster to climate change than cities. Adaptation policy that does not take into account these actions will be incomplete at best. This paper catalogues these attempts at guiding individual-led adaptation. There is a continuum of persuasion measures from information to moral suasion to pricing.

Many cities are implementing or planning infrastructure projects for climate adaptation. These range from sea walls, rebuilding of ports and dams, and moving low-lying roads, public transportation and waste treatment facilities. Many cities are also planning green infrastructure projects such as stabilizing sand dunes or refurbishing kelp beds. The breadth of the infrastructure planned for sea level rise especially, but also the other big impacts, is astonishing.   Cities, especially the low-lying ones, are recognizing that almost every major piece of infrastructure will have to be restructured to deal with sea level rise and flooding. Public transportation lines, hazardous waste sites, and wastewater treatment facilities top the list, but there are many other vital pieces of infrastructure that will need to be rebuilt.   The financial demands of this complete infrastructure overhaul will be enormous and it is important that cities learn to avoid costly mistakes through studying the lessons from similar cities’ projects.

Cities will face tough choices over what land to preserve and where to retreat.   These won’t be once and for all questions. Instead, as sea level rises in fits and starts, and bigger floods and storms it low lying areas, cities will face difficult land-use triage questions over and over. We are particularly interested in cities’ planning for retreat from threatened areas because it will influence many of the big infrastructure questions and the ability to implement green infrastructure.   Our data shows many cities discussing and planning for retreat, but no city that has implemented retreat.

Instead, persuasion strategies are the go to policy instrument for land use and are ubiquitous for all the impact areas. Cities are planning and implementing education and awareness for flooding, sea level rise, heat waves, etc. Sometimes, but more rarely, cities are planning or implementing price-based persuasion such as insurance requirements in threatened areas or tiered water pricing.

Another key crosscutting area is emergency services.   Most cities recognize that climate change requires that they strengthen the agencies and information networks that respond to fires, floods, heat, and other emergencies. This is an area that will demand more research as there are many ways to approach emergency services and our current research will only scrape the surface.

Our ongoing research shows that Mediterranean cities are approaching many of the same climate impacts with broadly similar strategies. This situation is ideal for sharing approaches and successes. We hope our research can be a platform to build cooperation across cities that are planning for similar impacts.

About the Author:  Dr. Bowman Cutter is an Assistant Professor of Economics at Pomona College in Claremont, California. His research spans a range of environmental topics, including: market-based environmental regulation, the political economy of environmental policy, groundwater valuation, water quality issues, and land use.