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U.S. cities trail Latin America in climate change efforts

By Wendy Koch (USA Today) - June 6, 2012

Major U.S. cities are among the world’s wealthiest and technologically advanced, but they lag behind their counterparts in Latin America in preparing for climate change, a survey finds.

Nearly all, or 95%, of major cities in Latin America are making plans to deal with the adverse impact of climate change, compared to 59% of such cities in the United States. according to a survey of 468 cities worldwide released this week by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The most prepared cities are often those facing the greatest changes in temperature or rainfall, the survey finds. For example, officials in Equador’s mountainous capitol of Quito have been studying the effects of global warming on nearby melting glaciers, developing ways to handle potential water shortages and organizing regional conferences on climate change.

“Climate change discussion is off the table, quite frankly, more in the U.S. than anywhere else,” survey author JoAnn Carmin said in announcing the findings. She said the U.S. is caught up in debating the cause of climate change, adding: “This is not the case in many other countries where they take climate change as a given and are able to move forward with adaptation alongside their efforts to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.”

Still, some U.S. cities are starting to develop plans to deal with climate change. A separate report this week highlights the green efforts of six North American cities (Houston, Chicago, New York, Toronto, Washington D.C. and Philadelphia) that are looking to the future.

“With more than half of the world’s population now living in urban areas, cities are the changing force of the 21st century,” said Amy Fraenkel, director of the United Nations Environment Programme’s Regional Office for North America. Her office co-authored the report, “The Road to Rio+20,” with the U.S. Green Building Council in advance of the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development, which begins June 20 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

The MIT survey, billed as the first to systematically investigate cities’ efforts to adapt to climate change, finds 79% of them have seen changes in temperature, rainfall, sea level or other phenomena attributable to climate change. It says 68% are pursuing adaptation plans but only 19% have completed a formal assessment of global warming’s impact.

“I’m not surprised that a smaller percentage of cities in the U.S. are thinking about adaptation,” Karen Seto, an associate professor of the urban environment at Yale University, said in a press release about the survey. “In the U.S. and in countries where income levels are relatively high, there is this false belief that we can buy ourselves out of it, that we can buy some technology to fix things, or that some other institution, whether it’s local, regional or national government, will come help save us.”

The survey, “Progress and Challenges in Urban Climate Adaptation,” was conducted in partnership with ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability, an organization of local governments from 70 countries. It was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.