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Climate and Security in Urban Spaces

Coastal megacities vs. the sea - what are the risks?

Cities are already facing the brunt of a range of interacting risks from criminal violence, terrorism and war to demographic pressures, to climate and environmental change. Coastal megacities are especially at risk given the specific impacts of climate change they face, such as sea-level rise, increased storm frequency and severity, and destruction to infrastructure such as ports, rail and road networks. These risks are amplified as urban populations become ever larger.

All these risks can lead to the loss of livelihoods as well as significant loss of life itself. What’s more, the interaction of these risks could exceed the existing coping capacity of communities and governments and contribute to an increase in insecurity and possibly violent conflict.

In a new briefer on the issue co-authored with Neil Bhatia, we look at the implications of climate change and urbanization in two megacities, Lagos, Nigeria and Karachi, Pakistan.

Karachi and Lagos – three risk pathways:

Despite increased attention on megacities within climate change and development policy processes, relatively little attention has been paid to the potential for environmentally induced instability in coastal megacities.

Karachi and Lagos clearly illustrate how our new urban reality is made more precarious by a nexus of population growth without land use enforcement and basic public services, intensifying climate impacts and divisive politics, that has the potential to undermine the cities’ aspirations to be regional economic hubs and could, over time, lead to conflict.

The impacts of climate change could lead to violence through three indirect pathways:

  1. They will lead to resource shortages, make livelihoods less viable and will lead to increased migration to urban hubs. There needs to be far better governance and infrastructure coping capacity to peacefully manage migration in these already fragile urban centres.
  2. Both cities are highly vulnerable to climate change-related flooding, yet have made inadequate provision for their rapidly growing populations and do not have the governance capacity or political will to make appropriate plans to cope with the dual challenge of storm and migrant surges.
  3. Poor responses to environmental risk in both contexts, particularly to those in informal settlements, increase grievances between communities and the government. Early signs of social discontent linked to climate change are visible in both cities, although interwoven with economic, social, and political grievances.

What can cities do to be more resilient to climate and security risks?

Facing this serious challenge requires innovations in governance. At the moment, the international system is set up to act on a state-to-state basis. City leaders are forging networks within and across international boundaries to address shared problems, including climate change. However, national governments and multilateral agencies such as the World Bank and UN system are not organized to work with city-level governance mechanisms. They are still organized around working with nation states, which limits the scope for devolved decision making and consultative engagement at the city level. We therefore need a sustained push in the promotion of transnational climate change governance.

There are, however, reasons for (cautious) optimism. More than ever before, cities are at the forefront of the issue of climate change as leaders, innovators and practitioners. However, in already fragile contexts, this dynamism and scope for engagement to address climate risks is hindered by weak capacity, lack of political will and the perception that climate change is not a priority.

To ensure that policy responses genuinely address the complex risks posed to megacities by climate change, we urgently need a better understanding of the links between migration, urban resilience, climate change and fragility. This issue is a major blind spot within the research community and as a result is largely overlooked in policy and programming.