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Are climate-change adaptations tied to protecting property or people? Study follows the money

The money spent by megacities to adapt to climate change appears to be linked more to protecting valuable capital and less to protecting vulnerable people, new research suggests.

That trend means cities in developing nations may be poorly equipped to protect residents against future health, environmental and economic effects of living on a warming planet, according to a study published Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change.

“Current adaptation activities are insufficient in major population centers in developing and emerging economies,” the study authors wrote.

Humans have been increasingly moving into cities — half the world’s population now lives in them. Although cities are great for concentrating people and resources, they’re also vulnerable to rising sea levels, extreme weather events and other changes associated with climate change. The complex array of effects also includes rising demand for energy and a growing scarcity of water.

To exacerbate matters, experts say these effects will be disproportionately visited upon people whose lives are most unstable.

“Cities in developing countries are thought to be even more vulnerable to climate change owing to widespread poverty, lack of infrastructure, unplanned informal settlements and a lack of spending on adaptation,” wrote the study authors, a University of College London-led team of British researchers.

To try to get a handle on what that urban response to climate change looks like, the team focused on 10 of the world’s megacities — those with populations exceeding 3 million, or with a gross domestic product (GDP) that puts it in the top 25 of cities — and analyzed how much money they spent on measures to adapt to climate change effects.

The diverse metropolitan roster, picked on the basis of  size, location and developmental status, included: London, Paris, New York, Mexico City, Beijing, Sao Paulo in Brazil, Mumbai in India, Jakarta in Indonesia, Lagos in Nigeria and Addis Ababa in Ethiopia.

“It is important to study a range of cities in different regions of the world, with different climates and at different states of socioeconomic development,” the study authors explained. “Although, in economic terms, disaster losses from weather, climate and geophysical events are greater in developed countries, fatalities and economic losses as a proportion of GDP are higher in developing countries.”

The numbers showed a high contrast between cities in more economically advanced countries and those in developing nations. New York spent $2.26 billion (0.22% of its city GDP), while Addis Ababa spent  $21 million (0.14% of its city GDP).

In fact, essentially all the wealthy cities spent about 0.22% of their city GDP on measures responding to climate change, while the developing cities mostly spent around 0.16%. (The exception was Beijing, which spent 0.33% of its city GDP, or $1.19 billion).

Sliced another way, Paris spent the most per person ($553.76), while Addis Ababa spent the least ($6.56), followed closely by Lagos ($7.69).

“The evidence seems to suggest that current adaptation responses may be largely influenced by market-based responses to protecting physical capital, rather than at-risk populations,” the study authors concluded. The findings highlight a need to shift the focus to protecting the people who will bear the brunt of climate change’s effects, they wrote.

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times


Mar. 3, 5:03 p.m.: This story has been updated throughout with new details.

It was originally published on Feb. 29 at 4:03 p.m.