For two days, mayors from around the world are meeting at the Vatican to discuss the seemingly unrelated issues of climate change and human trafficking.
At first glance, the representatives invited to the conference might also seem unrelated. Mayors from well-known bastions of sustainability, like San Francisco and Seattle, are working alongside representatives from places that one might not readily associate with climate change, like Tehran and Florence. But, in advance of climate negotiations to be held in Paris later this year, the Vatican hopes that bringing these seemingly mismatched leaders together will bring the world one step closer to a global agreement on climate change, an issue that Pope Francis has called “one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.”
The Vatican has reason to be optimistic: in one way or another, all of the mayors invited are dealing with the impacts of climate change in their home cities. Here’s a look at how global warming and environmental issues are impacting six cities represented at the conference — and what those cities are doing to try to cope with the consequences of a changing climate.
Even crippling Western sanctions can’t keep climate change out of Iran — in a 2014 speech, Iran’s vice president and top environmental official called climate change “a serious threat for life on Earth,” noting that “global warming will have a very dangerous process and will be followed by devastating impacts and consequences.” She also called out 12 Iranian cities — including the capital, Tehran — for having “alarming” water conditions. Climate change, over-exploitation of groundwater, and a century of development have placed strain on Iran’s water resources, which are limited to begin with — the country’s precipitation levels are a third of the global average.
According to recent claims from Iran’s Water Resources Management Company, 10 Iranian provinces are currently facing severe water shortages. The crisis mirrors 2014, when lakes and rivers across Iran reached historic lows. In April of 2014, four of Tehran’s major reservoirs reached critically low levels, with officials claiming that the reservoirs had only a few days worth of water left.
“In the short term there is really no solution,” professor B. Alijani, a lecturer on climate change and geography, said in an interview quoted by the Los Angeles Times in 2014. “But Iranians need to learn to economize water and avoid wasting it both at home and in the fields.”
In addition to water shortages, Tehran faces annual choking pollution caused by toxic fumes from out-dated factories and locally-mixed gasoline that often fails gas refinement standards. According to the World Health Organization, Tehran’s air has four times as many polluting particles as the air in Los Angeles.
Vancouver, British Columbia is a low-lying coastal city, making it especially vulnerable to sea level rise caused by climate change. A 2013 study in Nature Climate Change, in fact, ranked it as one of the top 20 cities in the world threatened by climate change — but not when the city’s forward-thinking defense measures are taken into account.
To prevent Vancouver’s economy from going underwater with sea level rise, the city implemented a construction ban on low-lying areas, requiring all new construction to happen at an elevation of at least 3.6 feet. It has also worked to restore local creeks, so that they can better store stormwater, and initiated a major tree-planting project throughout the city.
São Paulo, Brazil
São Paulo is Brazil’s wealthiest and most populated city — but it’s also running out of water, as Brazil faces the worst drought it has seen in 100 years, with rainfall low and temperatures abnormally high. According to the New York Times, São Paulo’s largest reservoir system is nearly depleted, leading to water cutoffs for the many of the city’s residents.
“Climate change has arrived to stay,” Geraldo Alckmin, governor of the São Paulo province, said in January. The weather in the region, he added, is becoming too extreme for exisiting water infrastructure. “When it rains, it rains too much, and when there’s drought, it’s way too dry.”
To combat water shortages, the city has cut water pressure and instituted a water rationing program. Officials have also created a plan to begin drawing water from a nearby river basin and build new reservoirs, though according to the New York Times, those projects won’t be completed for years.
In 2009, São Paulo adopted a Municipal Policy for Climate Change, which aimed to reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent compared to 2005 levels by 2012 — making São Paulo one of the first major Brazilian cities to pass city-wide climate legislation. Though emissions country-wide fell between 1992 and 2012, in the last two years — as drought has gripped the country — greenhouse gas emissions have doubled.
New Orleans, United States
New Orleans has seen its share of environmental disasters in recent memory, from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 to the BP Oil Spill in 2010. At the Vatican conference, Mayor of New Orleans Mitchell Landrieu said that Hurricane Katrina showed how the city’s poorest neighborhoods were especially vulnerable to rising sea levels and storm surges, explaining that New Orleans “became a warning to all others that neglect and environmental degradation has consequences.”
New Orleans could see more environmental devastation in the future as climate change spurs sea level rise. Half of the city sits below sea level, kept dry only by levees and sea walls. Hurricanes are expected to become stronger in the future, and sea level rise makes the storm surge associated with hurricanes more deadly.
To combat the dangers of rising sea level and associated storm surge, New Orleans fortified its perimeter protections — levees, storm surge barriers, and dikes — in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The city also has a plan to restore ecologically important wetlands in the region by diverting rivers. These wetlands serve as a buffer between the Gulf and the city, and can help protect it against storm surge.
Stockholm isn’t facing the same pressing threats that Tehran, São Paulo, or Kochi are dealing with. Relatively well-situated near the Arctic Circle, it isn’t in danger of running out of water or natural resources. Unlike Vancouver or New Orleans, Stockholm’s sea level actually decreased between 1880 and 2010. It adopted its first climate plan in 1998, and has pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by over 20 percent between 1990 and 2020. It has saved over 80,000 tons of emissions by switching from fossil fuel-powered cars to green cars, saved another 500,000 tons from switching from oil heating to biofuels.
At the conference, Stockholm’s mayor Karin Wanngard touted her city’s transition to renewable energy, highlighting the fact that 75 percent of the city’s public transportation runs on renewable energy. The city’s goal, she said, is to go completely fossil fuel-free by 2040.
But even as it makes strides toward a future without fossil fuels, Stockholm isn’t completely immune to the dangers of climate change. In June of 2014, Swedish academics published a study in Nature Climate Change which claimed that extreme temperatures between 1980 and 2009, which they attributed to climate change, doubled mortality rates in Stockholm compared to what they would have been without climate change.
Kochi, located on India’s southwestern coast, could face less stress due to climate change than other Indian cities, because it is not subject to the violent storms that plague the country’s eastern side. But that doesn’t mean it won’t need to adapt to the changing climate — both a change in precipitation patterns and a rise in sea level could have profound consequences for the Indian city.
According to a 2003 assessment conducted by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Kochi University of Science and Technology, Kochi’s water systems are likely to be the most impacted by changing sea levels. Existing infrastructure might not be able to handle drainage and waste disposal if sea level rise is coupled with more intense rainfall patterns. Kochi sits just a few feet above sea level, leaving it highly vulnerable to even slight increases in sea level.
Kochi is taking steps to mitigate its contribution to climate change by investing in renewable energy, especially solar. It was the first city in the Kerala state, where it is located, to participate in India’s Solar City Program, which supports development of solar infrastructure around India. It has also invested in strategies to use more fuel-efficient vehicles throughout the city, and has partnered with NGOs to better embrace sustainable building programs.