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As Disasters Spiral, Cities Confront Need for Climate Adaptation

A new report argues that cities must assume a wartime footing to protect critical infrastructure and prepare for a more dangerous future. 

A hillside burns in Napa County, California, in August 2020. 

Photographer: Philip Pacheco/Bloomberg

When record-shattering triple-digit temperatures hit the Pacific Northwest in late June, some scientists saw more than just an extraordinarily unusual heat wave amid the severe drought and wildfires already afflicting the Western U.S. this summer. Researchers with the group World Weather Attribution studied the event, which impacted nine million people, killed hundreds, and obliterated local heat records by as many as nine degrees, and determined it could be something of a landmark in the escalation of the climate crisis — a weather event so off the charts that it would have been statistically impossible in a world before human-caused climate change. As Dutch climate researcher Geert Jan van Oldenborgh put it during an episode of The Daily, “we could be past the threshold that made these kinds of heat waves certainly much more likely.” Weather extremes once expected to come in decades are occurring today. And too many cities are dangerously unprepared. 

A new joint report by McKinsey Sustainability and C40 Cities, a coalition of municipalities collaborating on environmental policies and initiatives, argues that cities need to assume what could be considered a wartime footing against the rapid escalation of the climate crisis, preparing to face and adapt to extreme weather that has already arrived.