Skip to content Skip to footer

Capitalism Exacerbates the Vulnerability of “Extreme Cities” to Climate Change

Climate change is happening, and cities are at the forefront of the battle.

An American flag flies near homes that remain damaged and mostly untouched since Superstorm Sandy hit the coastline, May 5, 2013, in Ortley Beach, New Jersey. (Photo: Mark Wilson / Getty Images)

Today’s big cities are ground zero for the impacts of climate disruption, at risk of floods, cyclones and heat waves. In his new book, Ashley Dawson examines the dangers facing the world’s megacities and the urban movements fighting to make city living not just safer, but more fair and equal. Order your copy of Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change by making a donation to Truthout today!

No amount of technological innovation or small design fixes can ensure that extreme cities and their residents survive, so long as they follow capitalism’s founding principle of “grow or die” on a planet with finite resources. In this lightly edited excerpt from Extreme Cities, Ashley Dawson makes the case for radical solutions to transform economic and social inequality and to address the impacts of climate change in urban areas.

There is a precariousness to urban life in the face of climate change-induced disasters like Hurricane Sandy. After Sandy, endemic subway delays from heavy rain would no longer seem like mere temporary inconveniences, but rather prologues to a permanently drowned New York City. We wait anxiously for the next superstorm, fearing that the efforts of officials to prepare the city will turn out to be inadequate.

In Extreme Cities, I place Hurricane Sandy in a broader context, weaving together stories of cities around the world that are threatened by climate chaos. Extreme Cities draws on interviews with researchers at the cutting edge of climate science, landscape architects whose work uses natural processes to build our capacity to endure extreme weather, and activists fighting to diminish the inequalities that render cities vulnerable to climate chaos. Cities, I contend, are at the forefront of the coming climate chaos, their natural vulnerabilities heightened by social injustice. Cities are the defining social and ecological phenomena of the twenty-first century: they house the majority of humanity, they contribute the lion’s share of carbon to the atmosphere, and they are peculiarly vulnerable to climate chaos.

New York City is not alone in its vulnerability to flooding: almost all of the world’s great cities are sited on or near bodies of water. This should come as no surprise, since rivers, lakes, and the ocean have always been key to the economic and ecological health of cities. Thirteen of the world’s twenty largest cities are port cities. But this has generated a deadly contradiction that is one of the most-overlooked facts of the twenty-first century: the majority of the world’s megacities are in coastal zones threatened by sea level rise.

Today, more than 50 percent of the world’s population lives within 120 miles of the sea; by 2025, it is estimated that this figure will reach 75 percent. In addition, urbanites all over the world are particularly vulnerable to deadly heat waves, whose intensity and frequency are increasing as a result of global warming, because of the “heat island” effect that makes urban areas hotter than their rural surroundings. Several decades of evidence suggests that people are migrating out of drought-prone areas in the developing world and into coastal cities that are prone to floods and cyclones. Whether we like it or not, anthropogenic climate disruption is going to dramatically alter the world’s cities, and it is here that the effects of climate change will be of most consequence.

The New York that Hurricane Sandy struck was experiencing a second Gilded Age. It was a city presided over by Michael Bloomberg, the consummate corporate insider and power broker, who embodied nearly four decades of big business-friendly neoliberal urban policies. During that period, as Occupy Wall Street activists tirelessly pointed out, the city became a place of extreme economic and social inequality. It was also a site in which a variety of high-profile initiatives were undertaken to turn the city into a green metropolis. Yet inequality in the city continued to spiral. Today, New York is the consummate example of the prototypical social form of our age: the extreme city.

The extreme city is not a city of a certain size, like the megacity or metacity, which designate, respectively, metropolitan areas with populations in excess of 10 and 20 million. Instead, it describes the specific character of the urban fabric. For instance, Tokyo and Lagos are both metacities, but the two are often taken as opposing poles in the contemporary urban imaginary, one a paradigm of technological sophistication and orderliness, and the other a sprawl of decaying infrastructure and informal settlements. By contrast, “extreme city” refers to an urban space of stark economic inequality, the defining urban characteristic of our time, and one of the greatest threats to the sustainability of urban existence. How a city copes with stratifications of race, class, and gender (or how such inequalities are left to fester) has everything to do with how well it will weather the storms that are bearing down upon humanity. It is in the extreme city that the most important struggles for human survival will take place.

Nevertheless, this global convergence of urbanization and climate change, which I call the extreme city, has remained surprisingly invisible. Scientific literature on climate change has largely ignored the disproportionate contributions of cities to global warming, while climatology tends to assess the threat on a global scale and in the future tense, often in terms of how much the planet as a whole will warm by 2100, for instance. As a result, scientists actively suppress specific information about climate change in cities, statistically adjusting data collected from urban weather stations in global temperature datasets. In seeking to record the overall fluctuations of a planetary environment, science ignores the specific places where most of us live — cities which also happen to be the sites of the most extreme transformation. This makes climate change seem distant and abstract, something that will happen in a remote future on a scale far removed from that of individual experience.

But climate change is happening right now, and above all in the cities where the majority of humanity now lives. Many have already exceeded the magnitude of warming projected for the planet as a whole over the current century.

Take São Paolo, the Brazilian metacity of over 20 million. São Paolo lies in a region that typically receives four times as much rainfall as Los Angeles, in a country that, with more than 12 percent of the world’s renewable fresh water, is often referred to as “the Saudi Arabia of water.” Yet São Paolo has suffered from a deep drought in recent years that is tied to anthropogenic climate change. The city’s main water reserves are perilously low, and in recent years the authorities have introduced water rationing.

The origin of São Paolo’s water crisis is no mystery. Since 1984, researchers have linked potential declines in precipitation in southern Brazil to the deforestation of the Amazon. The rain forest transformed what would otherwise have been a desert into a lush environment, by releasing massive quantities of water vapor into the air. Yet 224,000 square miles of the rain forest — an area nearly one-and-a-half times the size of California — have been clear-cut since 1980. This unchecked deforestation, which disrupts the rain forest’s ability to recycle precipitation from the Atlantic, is one of the primary causes of São Paolo’s drought.

Without adequate supplies of water, a city shuts down in a matter of days, and São Paolo has seen an exodus of “water refugees” as well as the proliferation of wildcat drilling for water that is polluting groundwater, a development that worsens the drought’s long-term impact. There is still much that the city can do to conserve water, but São Paolo’s plight makes the crisis tendencies of the extreme city dramatically evident.

Despite this, the predominant outlook on urbanization remains surprisingly sunny, even utopian. Numerous paeans have been devoted to the economic and civic benefits of urban development, penned by writers who are frequently economists by training and consultants by profession. Most of them recognize the inequalities that have generated what Mike Davis calls our “planet of slums,” but they also characterize cities as the breeding grounds for new entrepreneurship that will provide solutions to the “challenge” of poverty. Their “smart,” technologically enhanced forms of urbanism will usher capitalism into a new era of “green” urban growth and produce a “city fix” for climate change: a new era of efficiency and resilience based on compact green cities.

But these blithe predictions elide the glaring contradiction of capitalism’s destruction of nature, its material base. The perils of climate change in the city are either totally ignored in this literature, or cast as a mouthwatering opportunity for entrepreneurs to usher in the next wave of green technology.

Neither “smart” urbanism nor good design alone will provide safe harbor from the storms increasingly breaking on our shores. “Tactical urbanist” interventions, however noble, will remain isolated oases in the vast desert of neoliberal urbanization. We certainly need technology and planning to help adapt to the coming climate chaos, but under present social conditions, these tools are more likely to be employed by elites to create architectures of apartheid and exclusionary zones of refuge. The War on Terror has shown us that the computer networks that are supposed to make cities efficient and green can be used not only against dissident groups and targeted populations, such as Muslims, but against the entire US population. The oppressive character of surveillance in the “smart” city is sure to be stepped up as climate chaos intensifies.

Urban growth is driven at bottom by capitalism. As urban critics Henri Lefebvre and David Harvey have emphasized, the city plays a central role in solving the economic crashes that periodically wrack the capitalist system. The shiny new buildings and spiffy developments that are constantly popping up in cities are a fantastic sink for the surplus capital that builds up in this economic system. In other words, profits are not left idle in bank accounts; they are always reinvested in other profit generating schemes, like urban development. But the city is also the primary site for the feckless depletion of natural resources that characterizes this economic system, which is founded on unbridled compound growth. There is consequently no “city fix” without addressing overproduction.

Truthout Progressive Pick

Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change

“A ground-breaking investigation of the vulnerability of our cities in an age of climate chaos.” — Bill McKibben

Click here now to get the book!

The city is where capitalism’s central contradictions play out and consequently where revolutionary movements have often been pushed into existence. This means that the movement for climate justice, which builds on anti-imperialist, antiracist, and feminist movements of the past, will necessarily grow through solidarities forged in urban terrain. To suggest this is to challenge the notion that the city is the antithesis of “nature.” We need to abandon such stale preconceptions. Not only are cities dependent upon nature, but they also structure our increasingly chaotic natural world. Climate change will unleash the greatest havoc in cities, but cities will also produce the most ferocious struggles against the inequalities of our urban age.

There is no green capitalist exit from the extreme city, when capitalism is founded on the principle of “grow or die.” The world does not have a limitless supply of resources for humans to exploit. Urbanization and climate change are the two great products of this dysfunctional system, the central contradictions that define our age. And while the urban dwellers of the global South are the most vulnerable in the face of the gathering storms, climate extremes will affect all of humanity, albeit unevenly.

Copyright (2017) by Ashley Dawson. Not to be reprinted without permission of the publisher, Verso Books.

We have hours left to raise $12,000 — we’re counting on your support!

For those who care about justice, liberation and even the very survival of our species, we must remember our power to take action.

We won’t pretend it’s the only thing you can or should do, but one small step is to pitch in to support Truthout — as one of the last remaining truly independent, nonprofit, reader-funded news platforms, your gift will help keep the facts flowing freely.