Urban Climate Change

In its simplest definition, climate change refers to long-term shifts in temperature and weather patterns. These shifts could be natural or anthropogenic (originating due to human activity). As simple as the definition sounds, the effects of it can be much more significant. Variations and shifts in weather patterns and temperature impact everything around us. From life within the oceans, to dense tropical forests and every urban jungle in between, no living organism is spared the impact. This leaves the organism with two choices, either adapt, or face a slow extinction.

Climate Change is one of the most pressing and widespread issues of today. It affects everyone, everywhere although not in the same ways and not equally. Sometimes, those who have done nothing to contribute to this global phenomenon are at the receiving end of its most harsh effects. 

As with everything else, the more the number of actors involved, the more the complexity of an issue increases. On that count, no place is better than a bustling, growing urban centre to find the most number of actors involved, both human and non-human. Enter Bengaluru – with an area of 741 sq.km and an estimated population of 1.4 crore people, it qualifies as a great, big city. Over a century, Bengaluru has seen a shift from a beautiful garden city, to the ‘pensioner’s paradise’, to the IT capital and now a crowded metropolis with remnants of its past. 

Owing to rapid urbanisation, rapidly shrinking green cover and increasing built-up area the impacts of climate change can be seen and felt by everyone in the city, even without in-depth data sets. A warming climate, erratic monsoon, flooding, water crisis, waste management dilemma and vanishing biodiversity characterised its shift from the iconic city it was to a prime example of (un)planned development gone wrong.  

When we think of climate change, we imagine a polar bear standing on a melting glacier. Heartbreaking and important, yes; but distant and prevents us from focussing on the localised effects of Climate Change. 

Climate Change is not an isolated phenomenon. It is a giant, gently casting its shadow over every aspect of life on earth. Hotter temperatures, increasing drought, severe storms, loss of biodiversity, poverty and displacement, insufficient food and more health risks; these are only some of the effects of climate change. In terms of a city, Climate Change makes its presence felt by accelerating the challenges our existing systems face. Squeezing water systems, heating up the environment, changing patterns of migration, both human and non-human, affecting the health of individuals and systems and in economic terms, hampering productivity and economic activities. 

Let’s zoom in to Bengaluru and see how climate change plays out in our city. With most of the 700+ sq km of the city heavily concretised, green cover is sparse, water bodies are encroached upon and air pollution is high. This creates a unique effect, the Urban Heat Island where the built up area absorbs and re-emits more heat than vegetation. Consequently, the city and its outskirts start heating up and retaining more heat than surrounding regions. This is just the start of a domino effect. An increase in temperature and heat affects all activity, both economic and that of leisure. Higher temperatures increase the demand for air-conditioning and the power consumption of the city sees a spike. With more power demand, generators are used more, private vehicles in the city use air conditioning, spiking air pollution too. Parallelly, water consumption goes up, putting pressure on an already stretched water system. The increased heat, air pollution and strained water system, affect the health of individuals and in turn put a strain on the health system in the city, while also cutting into income and savings of individuals. Those with access to healthcare and adequate financial means are able to wade through with minimal effects while those without, do not come out unscathed.

For the urban poor and most vulnerable groups in Bengaluru, climate change adds yet another layer to their existing problems and situation. An increase in temperature would play out in a totally different manner for people from low income groups (LIGs). With an added demand on the power infrastructure, blackouts and interrupted power supply becomes an everyday affair, limiting access to avenues of escape from the heat. On the other hand, the stretched water supply would mean that piped water and other sources will be erratic and result in lesser availability and consumption. People will turn to other sources of water, which may be contaminated and result in the spread of water-borne diseases such as the recent cholera outbreak during the heatwave. In terms of housing and infrastructure, most people from LIGs live in settlements which are packed and offer minimal avenues for ventilation and made from materials which retain a lot of heat. Coupled with places of work which are usually outdoors, a direct effect is seen on the health of people, who aren’t able to cope with any of these issues owing to their socio-economic status. 

What’s more, these effects are not a one-time thing, they keep compounding night and day, putting pressure and straining systems at such a great pace that we do not even have time to stop and think about how different things were a decade ago. Furthermore, Bengaluru, like other cities, is not an island. It depends on the rural and peri urban areas too. Due to climate stress, livelihoods which are dependent on weather phenomena, such as agriculture, become unviable for many. This leads to people migrating to cities in search for not just better opportunities, but any opportunity to survive. As more and more move to city centres, it becomes evident that cities do not have the resources, planning or infrastructure to support those residing within their boundaries. 

Efforts to combat climate change at the city-level have been gaining momentum over the years, with citizen groups, organisations and governments realise the need for a comprehensive plan for the same. Most recently, the Bangalore Climate Action Plan (BCAP) was launched by the BBMP, putting Bengaluru in the company of a select few cities across India and the world which have a dedicated plan to address climate change. The plan, jointly put together by the BBMP, WRI India and C40 Cities, identifies 7 ‘priority sectors’ which need attention and lays out steps to do the same. In addition, the BBMP has also set up a dedicated Climate Action Cell headed by a Special Commissioner, to chart out the steps for this plan. 

The launch of this plan is a welcome step and reflects that the governing body is now cognizant of climate change as an issue and is now looking to create adaptation strategies for the city. The journey to implement this plan will need to involve systems thinking and reflexivity, given the magnitude of the issue at hand.