‘The poorer you are, the more difficult it is’

Sadra Matmir on the perceived effects of climate change

Sadra Matmir

Climate change continues to be a hot issue, but is often debated in terms of how it affects natural phenomena or biodiversity. To fill part of that gap, Master's student Sadra Matmir (ITC) explores how city folk in New York experience the impacts of heat waves, as one of the main hazards caused by climate change.

From satellite images to computing modeling, your faculty is known for its ability to use technology to measure changes on the earth’s surface and the atmosphere surrounding it. So why does your research explore the way ‘common’ people in cities experience climate change?
‘There is a lot of scientific debate going on when it comes to climate change and a lot of research is undertaken. But policymakers are not just motivated by the insights of academics; an even more important drive for them to make changes are the needs of their constituents. So, if you want policymakers to act on climate change, it’s helpful for them to know how citizens feel it affects them. At the same time, it can be good to know if these perceived effects really exist and what shape they take.’
‘Meanwhile, on a global scale it’s visible that poor people are more affected by climate change, because they have less means to fight its effects. To find out if this gap also exists in cities, I examine, together with other researchers in the project, whether people from different socio-economic backgrounds and classes feel differently affected by climate change. Moreover, we use citizens’ perceptions and frames of reference on the impacts of heat waves to try and develop suitable adaptation options.’

Why does your research focus on New York City rather than, for instance, Amsterdam?
‘As a large, densely populated and highly built up city, New York represents an excellent test case to find out more about the intersection of climate change and cities. Moreover, our research fills an important research gap: Heat waves are one of the major hazards which threaten the city, but municipal plans and academic research in New York City on climate change adaptation mainly focus on floods and costal storms. But even though heat waves don’t look like serious natural disasters, they actually kill far more people than earthquakes or tornadoes do.’
‘There were also practical considerations guiding the choice for New York City. My now supervisor Diana Reckien had already conducted a survey for Columbia University among New York residents, to collect information on how different social groups in New York City experience extreme weather events and what kind of adaptation options are most feasible to reduce the perceived burden of weather extremes on different social groups. My supervisor at ITC, Johannes Flacke, got interested in working with these valuable data and analyzing them to gain more of an insight into adaptation options for various income groups during heat waves.’

‘Heat waves kill far more people than
earthquakes or tornadoes do’

Why is it so important to study the effects of climate change on cities, including the possible rise in heat waves?
‘Over half of the world’s population now live in cities. When these urban areas are increasingly hit by hazards like heat waves, inland floods, sea level rise and storm surges due to climate change, a large number of people, property and infrastructure is at risk. Moreover, temperatures in cities are generally higher than in surrounding countryside, making the effects of a heat wave even more severe. To give an example of the health effects, more people die during a heat wave, particularly older people. But there are also usually more conflicts and clashes between people. Meanwhile, higher temperatures may affect drinking water and energy supply– in a time when people get extra thirsty and are keen to use fans or airco.’

How do the experiences of New Yorkers compare to existing knowledge on the social effects of climate change?
‘So far, our research has shown that all income groups experience more health-problems and financial strain due to heat waves. But there were also differences between the groups. Citizens on a lower income, including those below the poverty line, were more worried about the future impacts of heat waves on their lives. Moreover, compared to medium- or high-income groups, people on a lower income were more concerned about the fate of parks and other public green spaces and asked for more investment to ensure these areas withstand heat waves. All in all, our results confirm that the poorer you are, the more difficult it is to cope with the impacts of climate change. This makes it extra important to devise ways in which the city had best adapt to, and prepare for, heat waves, thereby reflecting each income group’s priorities.’

(Source: UT Nieuws Magazine December 2016)

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