Urban Climate Change Research

NREL's climate change research combines an urban-systems framework with quantitative and qualitative tools.

View of Earth from space, with hurricane swirling over water southeast of Florida.

We analyze how differentiated access to assets—such as good-quality housing, transportation, and governmental emergency support—affect the capacity of urban populations to effectively adapt to and mitigate the impacts of floods, wildfires, and other climate hazards. Such differentiated access to assets, from which actions and investments can be made, largely hinge on disparities in socioeconomic status and spring from social inequality.

The risks posed by hurricanes, droughts, floods, and other climate-related hazards intensify with increases in exposed populations, infrastructure, and other assets. Urban populations have grown faster than rural populations, resulting in a North America that is highly urbanized. Urban populations are also expanding into peri-urban spaces, producing rapid changes in population and land-use dynamics that can exacerbate risks from such hazards as floods and wildfires.

Climate change will likely lead to more frequent extreme heat events and daily precipitation extremes over most areas of North America, more frequent low snow years, and shifts toward earlier snowmelt runoff over much of the western United States and Canada. These changes—combined with higher sea levels and associated storm surges, more intense droughts, and increased precipitation variability—are projected to lead to increased strains related to water, agriculture, and economics in both urban and rural communities.

Case Study: Taking a Closer Look at Risk

An expert in the field, NREL's Paty Romero-Lankao examined the relative influence of wealth and vulnerability indicators on people's capacity to access energy, water, and other services and to mitigate the impacts of threats such as heatwaves and floods within and across household socioeconomic classes in cities in Latin America and Asia. The study found that high household risk levels in Mumbai hinge mainly on differences in wealth and the capacity to draw on assets and options to perceive and manage risk. Even given this higher risk, however, members of the poorer households were much more likely to know someone who would support them during emergencies (i.e., have social capital as a key adaptation asset) than those from the study's other three status classes.

Research Partners

NREL engages with a variety of organizations such as the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Future Earth, and the World Climate Research Programme to investigate and report on climate change impacts and mitigation strategies in urban areas. For example, NREL's Paty Romero-Lankao was a co-leading author in a working group contributing to the Nobel Prize-winning Fourth Assessment Report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and a contributing author for subsequent reports.

Publications

Risk Inequality and the Food-Energy-Water Nexus: A Study of 43 City Adaptation Plans, Frontiers in Sociology (2019)

Extreme Events and Climate Adaptation-Mitigation Linkages: Understanding Low-Carbon Transitions in the Era of Global Urbanization, WIREs Climate Change (2019)

Realizing the Urban Transformative Potential in a Changing Climate, Nature Climate Change (2018)

Interdependencies and Risk to People and Critical Food, Energy, and Water Systems, 2013 Flood, Boulder, Colorado, Earth's Future (2018)

From Risk to Water-Energy-Food Security in the City: The Influence of Interdependent Infrastructural Systems, Environmental Science & Policy (2018)

The Food-Energy-Water Nexus and Urban Complexity, Nature Climate Change (2017)

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