Climate change is a global issue, and therefore discussion focuses on the impact of world powers like the US and China.  But the true steps to prepare for climate change fall to the cities.  In the face of flooding, unpredictable weather patterns, and rising temperatures, spending on climate change adaptations in major cities serves as an indicator of global preparation.  By tracking this spending, a new study has found that developing and emerging communities might be at a disadvantage when safeguarding their cities from climate change.

The study, published in Nature Climate Change by Lucien Georgeson, from the University College London, selected several so-called “megacities” from across the globe, located in countries with different climates, resource access, and stages of development.  The study found that all cities had increased their spending on climate change adaptations over the past few years, including investment in water systems and energy.  Unsurprisingly, New York, one of the wealthiest cities, spent more on climate change adaptations ($2.3 billion) than cities located in emerging economies, like Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa topping out at a mere $20 million.

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Megacity spending on climate change adaptations. Nature, Georgeson

Analyzed the data per capita, a similar trends exist – New York spent $260 per person, while Addis Ababa spent only about $7 per person.  (Paris’s per capita spending is higher because it excludes the surrounding metropolitan area from its population count, artificially inflating the results).

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Per capita megacity spending on climate change adaptations. Nature, Georgeson

At first glace, this disparity can be dismissed because of difference in spending power of these cities and the relative costs of these preparations in their respective economies.  But the trend persists when analyzed as a percentage of each city’s gross domestic product (GDP).  Cities in developed nations are spending almost 50% more (0.22% compared to 0.15%) of their GDP on climate change adaptations.  A surprising find considering that many of the cities from emerging and developing nations are located in climates much more vulnerable to rising sea levels and hotter temperatures.

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Megacity spending on climate change adaptations as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP).  Nature, Georgeson

The study also found a striking trend in where the funds went.  As a percentage of money spent, cities in emerging and developing nations spent four times as much on safeguarding agriculture and forestry (4% vs. 1%), sectors that are likely less of a concern in developed countries.  And in all cities, a large percentage was spent on infrastructure, with very little spent on human-centered adaptations like communications, health care, and disaster preparedness – suggesting a focus on protecting real estate value rather than the community.  In fact, the authors of the study suggest the overall spending trends – by far the largest investments made by wealthy cities – might suggest a worldwide emphasis on protecting property over people.

Breakdown of spending on climate change adaptation in ten megacities in 2014/15, expressed as a proportion of total spend in the sector. Photo credit: Georgeson

Breakdown of spending on climate change adaptations, percentage of total spent.  Nature, Georgeson

While surprised at many of the results, the authors told TakePart that the point of this study was to gain perspective on a new type of spending:

“Our aim is not to point the finger at cities in developing countries but to explore whether those cities have enough resources to adapt. It’s more like a warning signal about the lower levels of spending in developing megacities because of their vulnerability and population trends.”

Hopefully this study and others like it will raise awareness and drive efficient spending on measures that will protect the world’s population against the threat of climate change — before poorer cities are devastated by its effects.