Research Article: Understanding climate change from a global analysis of city analogues

Date Published: July 10, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Jean-Francois Bastin, Emily Clark, Thomas Elliott, Simon Hart, Johan van den Hoogen, Iris Hordijk, Haozhi Ma, Sabiha Majumder, Gabriele Manoli, Julia Maschler, Lidong Mo, Devin Routh, Kailiang Yu, Constantin M. Zohner, Thomas W. Crowther, Juan A. Añel.


Combating climate change requires unified action across all sectors of society. However, this collective action is precluded by the ‘consensus gap’ between scientific knowledge and public opinion. Here, we test the extent to which the iconic cities around the world are likely to shift in response to climate change. By analyzing city pairs for 520 major cities of the world, we test if their climate in 2050 will resemble more closely to their own current climate conditions or to the current conditions of other cities in different bioclimatic regions. Even under an optimistic climate scenario (RCP 4.5), we found that 77% of future cities are very likely to experience a climate that is closer to that of another existing city than to its own current climate. In addition, 22% of cities will experience climate conditions that are not currently experienced by any existing major cities. As a general trend, we found that all the cities tend to shift towards the sub-tropics, with cities from the Northern hemisphere shifting to warmer conditions, on average ~1000 km south (velocity ~20 km.year-1), and cities from the tropics shifting to drier conditions. We notably predict that Madrid’s climate in 2050 will resemble Marrakech’s climate today, Stockholm will resemble Budapest, London to Barcelona, Moscow to Sofia, Seattle to San Francisco, Tokyo to Changsha. Our approach illustrates how complex climate data can be packaged to provide tangible information. The global assessment of city analogues can facilitate the understanding of climate change at a global level but also help land managers and city planners to visualize the climate futures of their respective cities, which can facilitate effective decision-making in response to on-going climate change.

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The gap between the scientific and public understanding of climate change, referred to as the “Consensus Gap”, is largely attributed to failures in climate change communication[1]. Often limited to ad-hoc reporting of extreme weather events or intangible, long-term climate impacts (e.g. changes in average temperature by 2100). Despite an exhaustive list of risks associated to climate change [2] (e.g. heat stress, air and water quality, food supply, distribution of vectors of diseases, social factors), the intangible nature of reporting on climate change fails to adequately convey the urgency of this issue to a public audience on a consistent basis[3]. It is hard for most people to envision how an additional 2°C of warming might affect daily life. This ineffective communication of climate change facts, compounded by uncertainty about the extent of expected changes, has left the door open for widespread misinterpretation about the existence of this global phenomenon.

Our analysis reveals consistent global patterns in the climate shifts of future major cities around the world over the next 30 years. Despite our use of a highly optimistic climate change scenario (i.e. RCP 4.5), we show that the climate conditions of over 77% of world’s major cities will change to such a great extent that they will resemble more closely the conditions of another major city. The projected shifts showed consistent biogeographic trends, with all city climates (both southern and northern hemisphere) generally shifting towards the conditions in warmer, low-latitude regions. The extent and consistency of these patterns provides a stark reminder of the global scale of this climate change threat and associated risks for human health. In contrast to previous analyses, our analysis also reveals that 22% of the world’s cities are likely to exist in a climatic regime that does not current exist on the planet today. These trends highlight the extreme vulnerability of tropical and sub-tropical cities, 30% of which will experience shifts into entirely novel climate regimes with no existing analogues across the world’s major cities. This lends support to the idea of novel climates, which are expected to emerge in many tropical and sub-tropical regions [29]. It should be noted that, by defining the climate envelope using a convex-hull (i.e. by defining a volume from simplices (“triangles”) that form the smallest convex simplicial complex of a set of input points in 4-dimensional space), we applied a conservative method for evaluating future change. Indeed, because it includes the smallest level of extrapolation and generating the smallest possible shapes, this approach has a low-risk of incorrectly identifying novel climate conditions, relative to a concave-hull approach [31]. However, this approach necessarily comes with the high likelihood of missing some novel climates. The 22% of cities experiencing a novel climate must therefore be seen as a highly conservative estimate.




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