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A recent UN report indicates that by 2008, one half of the world’s population will live in cities. According to the AP in London (6/28/07), that means that some 3.3 billion people will live in urban areas and by 2030, this number is expected to climb to 5 billion people. In the United States, nearly 50% of the U.S. population lives in coastal counties and worldwide, one tenth of the population lives in low lying coastal areas. What are these people going to do if sea levels rise?

According to a March IPS report, "Of the more than 180 countries with populations in the low-elevation coastal zone, 130 of them -- about 70 percent -- have their largest urban area extending into that zone," said Bridget Andersen, a research associate at CIESIN, in a statement. Furthermore, the world's largest cities -- those with more than five million residents -- have on average one-fifth of their population and one-sixth of their land area within this coastal zone." According to the IPS report, the countries that will be most vulnerable and who have most number of people living in these low lying areas are China, India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Indonesia, Japan, Egypt, the United States, Thailand and the Philippines. Given the latest concerns over climate “tipping point,” one cannot help but wonder if planners and policy makers will be able to cope with coastal disasters should their models on sea level rises are inaccurate.

Studies from NASA and other scientific communities are greatly concerned that not only do we not understand all of the climate and natural system interactions, but that things are happening a lot faster than anticipated. While warnings say that we must turn things around in the next ten years in order to avoid the worst case climate change scenarios, most government plans call for actions with goals that are 30 years out. Something is terribly wrong with this picture!

Another issue that should be addressed is that with so many people living in urban areas, are these cities capable of dealing with other potential disasters such as typhoons, hurricanes, earthquakes drought or other climate and non-climate related concerns? One only has to look at the effects of hurricane Katrina, the recent flooding in Texas, Jakarta, China and other areas as well the slate of fires knocking on the doors of urban areas. If one didn’t know better, it would seem that half of the world’s population is marching into an uncertain fate.

On a related note, the UN report also indicated that with the rise of urban populations is coming a rise in urban based religious extremism. The U.N. undersecretary general said that, “Extremism is often a reaction to rapid or sudden change.” Given that urban areas are ill prepared to cope with these rising population pressures, it would seem that cities may not only face the scourge of climate change, but social disorder as well. The clock is ticking and bold decisions are in order.

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