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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


June 2007

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Climate Change and Vulnerabilities and Responses in a Developing Country City: Lessons from Cochin, India

Many aspects of sustainability are focused on where people live, and increasingly worldwide, people live in cities.1 Looking a half-century or more into the future, one of the key issues for the world’s cities is coping with rapid growth,2 especially when cities are in locations vulnerable to environmental stress, and a very salient example of an emerging environmental stress is climate change.3 How might a city—especially in the developing world—be vulnerable to impacts of climate change, and what kinds of responses make sense for them now in a larger context of sustainable development? Consider the case of Cochin, India.

The Challenge

Since the late 1990s, the knowledge base about implications of climate change for cities in industrialized countries has been growing, although the number of comprehensive case studies is still limited.4 Equivalent information about possible impacts on cities in developing countries is much more limited, at least partly because of a perceived shortage of data to support sound assessments, including a lack of relatively small-scale regional climate change forecasts for developing countries and a lack of relatively detailed data about urban systems and projected changes in those systems.

Rather than accepting that judgment as an insurmountable obstacle—especially given that vulnerabilities to climate change impacts are probably more serious in developing countries than in industrialized countries—an assessment was undertaken with the support of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) as an experiment, with three generic aims:
• to learn about potentials and limitations of climate change impact assessments in developing country cities, based on currently available data;
• to evaluate whether reductions in climate change impact vulnerability can be related to other, more current urban development needs in developing countries; and
• to take a first step toward establishing assessment approaches and tools that can be used by developing countries worldwide to assess their own vulnerabilities and response options.

The assessment, conducted from December 2001 to June 2003 through a partnership between the Cochin University of Science and Technology (CUSAT) and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee,5 was built on two underlying philosophies about how climate change might be of interest to a developing country city already struggling to cope with a host of sustainable development challenges. First, impacts of global climate change on developing country cities are likely to focus not on climate changes in isolation but on interactions between climate change and other stresses on the city’s growth and development, such as waterlogging or waste disposal. Second, because climate change is a long-term issue surrounded by uncertainties, it is not generally appropriate to take actions now to reduce possible climate change impacts unless those actions also contribute to addressing current urban sustainability problems.


1. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Working Group II, Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming), Table 7.1.
2. U.S. National Research Council, Our Common Journey: A Transition Toward Sustainability (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1999).
3. S. Huq, S. Kovats, H. Reid, and D. Satterthwaite, eds. “Reducing Risks to Cities from Disasters and Climate Change,” Environment and Urbanization 19, no. 1, special issue (2007): 3–15.
4. IPCC, note 1 above, chapter 7.
5. Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and Cochin University of Science and Technology (CUSAT), “Possible Vulnerabilities of Cochin, India to Climate Change Impacts and Response Strategies to Increase Resilience,” (Oak Ridge, TN, and Cochin, India: ORNL and CUSAT, 2003). This report is the basis for all statements of fact for this article that are not otherwise referenced, and it acknowledges a host of local partners who made the assessment possible.

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