Researcher assesses climate change vulnerability in major cities

Media Credit: Hatchet file photo

A Milken Institute School of Public Health professor has published a paper exposing how many cities are not preapred for the effects of climate change.

A professor’s research exposes how U.S. cities are susceptible to climate change risks.

Sabrina McCormick, an associate professor of environmental and occupational health at the Milken Institute School of Public Health, published a paper in the journal “Climatic Change” last month that shows most city planners have not prepared for how climate change will affect their cities. McCormick said her research will help cities find more specific ways to deal with climate change — a challenge that has largely been left to leaders of coastal areas.

The study was one of the first efforts to assess how U.S. cities are preparing for climate change, and it found that expert assessments of climate change risk need to address what specific sectors in cities should be responsible for, like health risks to older populations and identifying urban planning strategies. McCormick said she found that social dynamics within cities determine whether or not a city is dealing with potential health risks.

“Political will and local advocacy actually make a difference in terms of what governments are willing and able to do,” McCormick said. “We found that extreme weather events, just the existence of them, doesn’t mean that a city is going to be motivated to address climate change.”

McCormick got the idea to research climate change in U.S. cities when she was working on a special assessment for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, she said.

“I was meeting people around the world who have knowledge and research about how climate change is affecting their cities and countries, and they had a sense of what was being done about that,” she said. “I realized that we didn’t have that piece of research in the United States.”

McCormick began her research in 2011 and received a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, she said.

McCormick conducted 65 interviews with people working in six cities located across the country and found a wide range of preparedness for climate change. She said the local experts she interviewed in Boston, Los Angeles, Portland, Raleigh, Tampa and Tucson thought about climate vulnerabilities based on the cities’ infrastructures, sizes and populations.

McCormick said she has researched environmental health issues for about 10 years but switched her focus to climate change when she realized researchers hadn’t been assessing how cities are preparing for the resulting health risks.

“Climate change is really the biggest environmental health risk that we face in the 21st century,” McCormick said. “I saw that there were really no social scientists working on this set of problems, so I decided to focus my attention on this topic.”

McCormick said this most recent publication is the second of three papers that show all of her findings. The first paper addressed how vulnerability is being assessed, the second considered the factors affecting whether or not cities take action on climate change and the last paper will examine how climate risks to health are addressed in cities, she said.

“I really hope that this will motivate both experts and local decision makers to more effectively address climate change both in terms of mitigation, which is the reduction of greenhouse gases, as well as adaptation, which is really dealing with the impact of climate change,” McCormick said.

Mark Shimamoto, who worked on the research when he was a graduate student in the master’s in public health program in the environmental and occupational health department, said he first got involved with the project as a student in McCormick’s climate change course.

Shimamoto said his role was to conduct a qualitative analysis of the data to better understand how the cities were considering the public health risks from climate change. He used a software program to analyze and identify major themes regarding adaptation, planning and implementation in the cities.

“This study helps to expand our current understanding of climate change by providing critical information on how cities are combating these threats,” he said. “These results can then be shared more broadly with other cities, both domestically and internationally, to build their resilience to climate change.”

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