Our climate is destabilizing, and we are drastically unprepared. As of October, the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide levels were at 388 parts per million, higher than anytime in the last 650,000 to 800,00 years, depending on how you count. Consequently— the earth is starting to seriously heat up, weather is growing more unpredictable, and extreme storms are more frequent. Nine out of the ten hottest years on record have occurred since 1990, and the impacts of these shifts are starting to hit cities hard. The recent earthquake in Japan is only the most recent example. According to UN Habitat, the number of natural disasters that have impacted urban areas has climbed over four-fold since 1975.
Yet Japan is especially uncanny because nature’s havoc is amplified by a crisis in the production of nuclear power, one that has already lead to the radioactive contamination of tap water for the tens of millions of people living in and around Tokyo. Following the March 11th earthquake, vital nuclear reactors near Tokyo were breeched and radioactive plumes started to make their way across the country, as well as across the Pacific Ocean. So the devastation that was initially triggered by Japan’s earthquake and tsunami, has been multiplied many times over by the ways that one of the world’s greatest cities was generating its energy.
The final death toll for the crisis in Japan is expected to reach over 20,000, though unknown impacts of the spreading radiation may creep on for many generations. Making matters ever more eerie, the events of Japan fall just one month before the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl, the 1986 Nuclear Plant meltdown that lead to unprecedented radioactive poisoning across the Ukraine. Whatever lessons the world had taken from Chernobyl seem to have long since faded by the time that the 9.0 magnitude earthquake reached Japan’s shores.
Today, it is vital that these lessons in the dangers of nuclear power are not again forgotten. For the more our climate destabilizes, the harder it becomes to control the outcomes of our world’s riskiest endeavors. With the rate of global carbon emissions still on the rise, it is only a matter of time before the destabilization of our climate intensifies, creating new waves of uncertainty and unpredictability. So how can the world prepare for disaster in the face of this historically unprecedented uncertainty?
For starters, we can start to seriously wean ourselves off both the fossil fuels that are largely responsible for our changing climate, and the nuclear power that amplifies the hazards of these changes. Currently the United States still has 23 nuclear reactors that share the same risky mark 1 safety designation that is plaguing Japan today. Even if these facilities were totally updated, we would be unable to out design all possible failures, errors, and natural disasters. Making the shift to low-risk renewable power production means that our collective learning curve must also start to rise more rapidly, taking note of recent history’s most painful lessons, and steadying ourselves for a brave new world of weather.
Like carbon emissions, cities too are growing fast, with roughly 1.3 million new urban dwellers appearing every week. Along with them there is a spike in vulnerability, in energy demand, and in the creation of greenhouse gases. It is estimated that more than two-thirds of the world’s energy is consumed in cities, and an even greater percentage of the global carbon emissions come from this consumption. The only way for humans to stay above water is for cities to also become sites of incredible innovation, and for this innovation to be supported at all scales of society.
As the world’s cities take the brunt of climate change’s devastation, they must endure heightened flood risks, urban heat islands, and reduced air quality. Each of these challenges has its own unique solutions, all of which must reduce the risk or urban populations and/or increase their ability to adapt. As we pursue these solutions our chances of survival will only increase, improving with each floodwall we strengthen, each tree we protect, and each time we tighten our regulations on air pollution.
Lest we forget, a vital part of becoming prepared for climate change also means increasing our collaborative capacity. This requires learning to work together, becoming more dynamic, more loving, and more daring as we go. As a human race, we have grown far too sluggish, a trend that can only be reversed if the urgency of our present condition is to be adequately met. Our hearts at Dr. Pop go out to the survivors in Japan, and to those who have lost countless lives. Let’s hope that we can all learn from their tragic experience, so that this level of devastation does not become the new way of life for all.
For further reading:
Cities and Natural Disasters:
Preparing for Climate Change:
Cities and Climate Change:
Japan and Nuclear Power: