Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy On The Explosive Growth of Cities and the World’s Changing Climate

Mr. President, during the past 50 years there has been significant progress in improving living standards in developing countries.  Some of the successes have been particularly noteworthy:  eradicating smallpox and almost eradicating polio, stabilizing population growth rates in many areas, longer life spans, lower infant mortality, fewer people living in poverty, the expansion of democracy. 

Investments in international development made by government agencies, nonprofits, businesses, and philanthropic foundations in the United States and around the world have made a difference.  Our country is more secure and our economy more resilient than it would otherwise be, thanks to these investments.   

Yet there is plenty of room for improvement to get better value for our overseas investments, particularly to increase the sustainability of the assistance we provide.  Too often we set unrealistic goals, don’t hold governments accountable for corruption, ignore local input, and channel our aid through contractors that charge high fees and put profit over results.        

There are other critical areas that have not received nearly the attention they deserve, either by our government or other donors, including the explosive growth of cities and the world’s changing climate. 

The President mentioned the looming threat of climate change in his inauguration speech, and like many others I am glad he did.  To date, our efforts to address this global challenge have been painfully slow and woefully inadequate.  As anyone who works the land will tell you, the world’s climate is changing fast – spring is coming earlier, polar ice and glaciers are melting, and storms are more violent.  Scientists say these changes are potentially catastrophic, and that we will experience even more frequent severe weather events, shrinking water supplies, more intense heat waves and droughts, the spread of disease, and more and more threats to food production. 

It is the poorest people who are most vulnerable to these phenomena, and who are most likely to be uprooted from their homes as a result.  If the international community does not mobilize quickly to address this challenge we risk the reversal of many or most of the international development gains of the last 50 years, leaving an unprecedented crisis for our children and future generations.  

Then there is the related challenge of urbanization.  I am proud to say that a Vermont organization called the Institute for Sustainable Communities, founded by former Vermont Governor Madeleine Kunin, is leading an effort to accelerate climate solutions among more than 320 U.S. cities – and the list is growing.  The Institute is focusing on cities because it is in densely populated areas that the opportunity to quickly strengthen climate resilience and reduce greenhouse gas emissions is greatest.  This work should be expanded on a global scale.  

Currently, only a very small percentage of international development dollars is spent to address problems in urban areas, yet 70 percent of the world’s population will live in cities by 2030.  The number of people migrating to New Delhi, Mumbai, Dhaka, Lagos, Kinshasa, and Karachi each year is greater than the entire population of Europe.  Between now and 2030 – only 17 years – the world will need to build a city of one million people every five days to keep up with the urbanization of the developing world.  That is a staggering and frightening statistic.

Those cities are not remotely prepared to handle this flood of desperate people.  These are not places like Boston or London, Washington or Paris that expanded gradually – over centuries – becoming stronger as they grew.  Cities in developing countries expand through shantytowns, like the vast slums of Nairobi and Lagos.  And bit by bit, the edges of the city creep out and suddenly the city’s size has doubled, or quadrupled.  Closer to home, Tijuana, on the U.S. – Mexican border, is one of Mexico’s fastest growing cities.  Tijuana adds about 80,000 people each year, and is projected to be the second largest city in Mexico by 2030.  Many of its inhabitants arrive with no place to live and no job.  The city’s infrastructure is utterly unprepared to handle them.  It is a recipe for crime and misery.

Slums are not infrastructure, and in general most infrastructure decisions are not well planned. Most of the developing world does not have running water or reliable electricity, and nearly 40 percent of the world’s population does not have access to basic sanitation, including one billion children.  That number is likely to rise as rapidly expanding cities become even less able to meet the demand for basic sanitation and health care.

This immense growth in cities is a cauldron for chaos and instability.  People living in cities without safe water or electricity, plagued by hunger, disease and unhealthy living conditions, threatened by rising sea levels and violent storms – these desperate conditions are likely to lead to violence, displacement, and even the toppling of governments.

Rapid urbanization is already putting tremendous pressure on the environment and threatens productive farmland.  What will happen when there is not enough food or water for cities filled with millions of people?  What will happen if the population of Jakarta doubles without an improvement in living conditions?

Yet as cities grow we also have an opportunity to prevent chaos.  Growing cities are going to be constructing new buildings – let’s make sure they are energy efficient.  They are going to be creating new transport systems – let’s focus on low-carbon strategies that move people, not just cars.  They are going to need to feed hundreds of millions of hungry people – let’s make sure urban centers are connected to the rural economy in a sustainable way.  And as they build new infrastructure, let’s make sure that it is designed to support livable communities and built in ways that are more resilient to extreme weather and sea level rise.

Investing in cities gives us economies of scale.  We can accomplish a great deal through investing in efficient infrastructure, and we can apply lessons learned all across the developing world.  An estimated 60 percent of the infrastructure needed to keep pace with the growth in urban centers has not been built yet, but it will be by 2030.

Let’s focus on helping cities build smarter.  It is a lot easier and cheaper to build it right the first time, than to go back and fix it later.  And here in the United States there are companies that produce some of the world’s best technology and some of the world’s best thinking about creating smart cities.  Together with our international partners we can meet this challenge if we share our expertise.

International donors, led by the U.S. Agency for International Development, should devote a larger portion of resources and effort to addressing the urgent problems of climate change and rapid urbanization.  It is a critical investment for the 21st Century.


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