Tuesday, 6 August 2013

On the urban-climate interface

There was a recent magazine advert that was developed by the energy company Total that I found strangely compelling. Under the banner headline ‘Common Interests’ (the Co was in a different colour font), was the image of an imposing iceberg floating serenely on the ocean. What was arresting about the advert was what lay beneath the ice. Where there should have been the ice there was instead an inverted city, replete with brightly lit skyscrapers and sprawling suburbs. In many ways this image serves as an appropriate visual metaphor for our special issue on Urbanization and Climate Change. Just as this image makes a clever connection between the changing climate and what is going on in our increasingly urbanized planet, this special issue brings critical perspective to the complex relations between urbanization and climate change.
It addition to its overall visual impact, what I found most intriguing about this image was the area of interfaced connection that it constructed between the city and the ice. In many urban contexts, the climatic impacts of cities are felt in places that are distant from the metropolises themselves. But this image brought the environmentally distant into the immediate proximity of the city, and it made me think deeply about the varied connections that exist between urbanization and the changing climate. At one level, these connections are fairly obvious: urban areas are, after all, responsible for two thirds of all of the greenhouse gas emission that enter the atmosphere every year. In addition to being the villains of the climate change process, however, many cities are also the victims of the effects of a changing climate. Flooding, extreme weather, tidal inundation, and water shortages are now threats that face many cities around the world. In this context, cities are now key contexts within which climate change adaptation practises are being developed and implemented. Cities also have their own particular climatic challenges. The urban heat island effect, makes cities much more vulnerable to the impacts of increasing temperature than other geographical locations. At the other end of the spectrum, the palls of aerosol pollution that surround many cities appear to insulating urban centres from the full heat of the increasing in global average temperatures we are witnessing.       
This special issue explores all of these themes in a range of different geographical contexts. In exploring these themes, the papers in this special issue develop a critical account of the urban climate agenda. This critical perspective seeks to better understand the political and economic nature of the urbanization process, and the ways in which this process conditions urban climate change impacts and policies. This critical perspective is also about utilizing the urban as a context within which to understand the uneven spatial develop and distribution of climate change policies and regimes of responsibility throughout the world.  
If it wasn’t for the fact that the advert I was so drawn to was created by Total, I might suggest that it was an icon for this special issue. Having said that, it is clear that the advertising of big oil companies has become a lot more sensitive to climate change in recent years. Against the backdrop of a imposing glacier, one Humble advertisement once proudly boasted that each day it “supplied enough energy to melt 7 tons of glacier!”
Mark Whitehead, University of Aberystwyth