Upon retiring in April after more than four decades as a NASA climate scientist, Dr. James Hansen told Columbia University students he feared “climate chaos” if we do not act immediately to curb greenhouse gas emissions. There are now more than 800 natural disasters worldwide annually, according to the reinsurance giant Munich Re, double the number 20 years ago. That may just be the beginning. The number could skyrocket to 15,000 disasters per year by 2030, said General Electric’s global strategy director Peter Evans, meaning mile-wide tornados like the one that devastated Moore, Oklahoma in May would be the norm.
Cities will bear the brunt of these catastrophes. Even as they become the world’s demographic centers, economic drivers, and political powers, cities face unprecedented risks from cyclones, earthquakes and tsunamis. Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina each caused more than $100 billion in damage, leading catastrophe bond pioneer John Seo to predict that a trillion-dollar storm could hit New York head-on or the Big One could devastate Tokyo sometime in the next decade. Then, there are man-made crises stemming from geopolitical tensions or economic inequality, not to mention pandemics.
Which cities will have the luck, the foresight and the resilience to cope with the convergence of these 21st century risks? Where would you choose to settle with the world of 2050 in mind, given that location, location, location will matter more than ever in a hotter, drier, more volatile world?
Some of the world’s most densely populated and economically significant cities already fall within the United Nations World Urbanization Prospects’ category of exposure to “3+” (meaning three or more) major risks — ranging from droughts to earthquakes to volcanic eruptions. The list includes New York, Tokyo, Los Angeles, Rio de Janeiro, Shanghai and San Francisco.
The most frequent natural disaster, flooding, regularly devastates the urban poor in such Asian megacities as Bangkok, Manila and Dhaka. The population exposed to flooding could triple by 2070, according to a recent Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development study of 136 rapidly expanding coastal cities. The portion of the U.S. prone to floods is expected to increase by as much as 45 percent by 2100, according to a first-of-its-kind report published in June by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.