The RTPI international development network hosted a fringe meeting on the impact of climate change at the Planning Convention in June. The Technical University of Berlin institute of urban and regional planning's Professor Adrian Atkinson presented his experience of preparing for global warming in Vietnam to mitigate some of the devastating impacts of rising sea levels.
In many instances, it is the poor and disadvantaged who are likely to suffer most from the devastating impact of climate change in developing countries. In Vietnam, a major effect of rising sea levels is that inland water is becoming saltier, which makes it unsuitable for growing rice. Farmers may switch first to fish and then shellfish production, but ultimately they will abandon that practice as well.
As most of the land is flat and badly drained, flood water persists for longer. As river levels become higher and there is a greater danger of flash floods, people will move out and cease economic activity.
Atkinson helped local planners to consider what action to take and put together what the World Bank calls "adaptation plans". This job is made harder by a frustrating mix of problems, such as a lack of knowledge among planners. There are vested short-term political and economic interests in not divulging the scale of the problem and a lack of resources to build defences.
Climate change is an international problem and all countries must take action. But countries as diverse as China and the USA see measures to control climate change as inimical to economic growth. World leaders are slow to accept that they need to modify domestic policies, not only to reduce greenhouse gases but to develop more sustainable patterns of consumption as a means of reducing climate change.
Although internationally there is a scientific consensus that climate change is a result of human activity, there remains a scepticism that it is a real problem and requires action. In March, Channel 4 aired the documentary The Great Global Warming Swindle, arguing that global warming is part of a natural cycle and the result of variations in the sun's output rather than carbon emissions. This was countered by the Royal Society, which argued that changes in the sun's magnetic field should have resulted in global temperatures going down, whereas in fact they are increasing by 0.2 degsC per decade.
The likelihood of global warming becoming a problem has been understood since the 1960s. However, as Climate Outreach Information Network director George Marshall commented: "We are locked into patterns of collective denial and have adopted a range of strategies to avoid accepting personal responsibility". More recently, UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change representative Martin Parry said governments have wasted a decade talking about cutting carbon emissions when they should have been exploring changes in patterns of consumption.
Although such criticisms could be directed at the UK, the government is confronting the issues. The 2003 Sustainable Communities Plan set out the role of planning in creating sustainable communities. Last year's Stern report concluded that dealing with the costs of preventing climate change makes economic sense because it would only amount to one per cent of global gross domestic product.
This year's climate change bill commits the government to a 26 to 32 per cent reduction in carbon emissions by 2020 and a 60 per cent drop by 2050, as well as a £1 billion experiment looking at the benefits of carbon sequestration and capture.
In the developing world, however, the legislative, administrative and economic tools are simply not available. We need to help people cope with climate change through an understanding of the long-term effects of global warming, the development of planning tools to create sustainable communities, traditional forms of development to meet modern needs and an increased awareness of low-energy options.
Most importantly, we need to lead by example. We must overcome our vested interests by implementing planning policies that are socially, economically and environmentally sustainable and will actually limit climate change.