Picture this: I return to Milan from my vacation, and the thermometer hits over 40 degrees Celsius (104°F). In less than 24 hours, Italy's civil protection authority issues severe weather warnings as the city is struck by the second heavy rainfall in just 4 weeks. It's a shock that shakes you to your core. This experience jolted me into thinking hard about climate change - it's not some distant thing, it's here, and it's real.
Look beyond the Milan skyline and you'll see something colossal happening in Europe. The evolution of the "freezing point" - the altitude at which the temperature drops to 0°C- has reached staggering heights, surpassing the 5,000-meter mark. This signifies that everything below this altitude is literally melting away.
Right now, a scientific team from Greenpeace Italy and the Italian Glaciological Committee are exploring the Forni glaciers. These glaciers are massive, part of the Italian Alps in Stelvio National Park. What they've found is seriously unsettling: in just four days, from August 21st to 24th, ice thickness decreased by 37 centimeters (14,5 inches). A figure well above the historical average, considering that the glacier's front has already retreated by 400 meters during the last decade. The photos and videos are like a stark warning, shouting about an environmental disaster (2).
But it's not just about striking visuals. This drastic change in climate equilibrium has repercussions far beyond the Alps.
To fully grasp these implications, it's essential to observe the glaciers themselves. Our beloved Alpine glaciers, once immutable symbols of ice and snow, are succumbing to the weight of global warming. In just twenty years, many Italian glaciers have lost over 20% of their volume. According to current climate predictions, these immense ice masses, which once regulated the flow of freshwater into the valleys below, are facing a gradual yet relentless disappearance (80% of their surface by 2060).
But there's more to worry about down the road. These effects won't just stay on the mountaintops. Around the glaciers, nature's balance is getting disrupted, and this will have consequences all the way down to flat areas and cities. The ice melting quickly is going to directly affect how much fresh water we'll have in the future. The water we need for power, farming, and city use is going to shrink fast.
Farming, which is already struggling with not enough rain, will face even less water. Even our renewable energy source, hydroelectric power, is at risk because there won't be enough water. Big cities like Milan will have a hard time managing their water, and this is something they've never dealt with before.
Governments and cities must act swiftly. We can no longer ignore the clear signals of a changing climate. While we labor to implement mitigation strategies such as emission reduction, we must equally prioritize adaptive measures. The resilience of our communities’ rests on our ability to skillfully prepare to confront the uncertainties of climate change.
As we navigate the urgent need to adapt to our changing climate, drawing inspiration from existing stories can pave the way for transformative change. We should consider the practices of pioneering cities – as laboratories of ingenious solutions that have the potential to be harnessed and shared on a broader canvas, fortifying our urban environments with lasting impact. Here are some instances:
· Urban Resilience Planning: Imagine emulating the "cloudburst" strategies in Copenhagen. By redesigning streets and squares to temporarily store excess rainwater during heavy downpours, we can prevent flooding and reduce stress on drainage systems.
· Urban Green Spaces: Taking cues from Milan's citizens who are advocating for the preservation of green belts as a defense against urban sprawl, the city's extensive green belts and urban forests  can serve as a model for others. By enhancing these existing natural coolants, we can reduce the urban heat island effect while supporting the city's resilience goals.
· Water Resource Planning: The "Water City" concept in Rotterdam is a beacon of innovation. By adopting intricate water storage and management systems, including "water plazas" for excess rainfall, we can manage water resources more effectively.
· Public-Private Collaboration: London's "Green Roof Tax Incentive Scheme" highlights the power of collaboration. By encouraging private building owners to install green roofs, we enhance insulation, mitigate floods, and boost biodiversity.
· Education and Awareness: Following the lead of Gent's "Living Streets" campaign, where citizens actively transform asphalted areas into green spaces, we can foster a culture of responsibility. By educating residents about climate change impacts and encouraging sustainable habits, we establish the groundwork for a resilient community.
· Metropolitan Carbon and Nature Market: Taking inspiration from Tokyo's innovative Metropolitan emissions trading scheme, which operates in a similar vein, we can establish metropolitan carbon and nature markets that transcend city boundaries. This spurs collective emissions reduction and nature solutions while generating funds for vital adaptation efforts.
· Small Reservoirs: The Wöhrsee Reservoir in Germany showcases how the creation of small-scale reservoirs can bolster water resources. By strategically capturing and storing excess water, we enhance water availability for various purposes, such as irrigation, industrial use, and flood prevention.
While these examples showcase successful implementations or shifts in perspective, each community needs to craft its own tailor-made strategy, adapting it to its specific context. It's time to embrace adaptation, not just as an isolated response, but as an overarching vision for a sustainable and resilient future. By making these strategies systematic and integral to our urban planning, we can fortify our cities against the challenges of a changing climate.
Your insights are valuable. I welcome your thoughts and ideas to further enrich collective efforts. Together, we can shape our urban landscapes for a brighter, more sustainable future.
The views reflected in this article are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the global EY organization or its member firms.
Milano 29 Agosto 2023