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Local Impacts of Global Climate Change

Global warming and climate change, the long-term and unprecedented shift of the earth’s surface temperature and weather patterns, respectively (Hansen et al., 2006; Ring et al., 2012; Wang et al., 2023; Goebbert et al., 2012; Hashim & Hashim, 2016), are “accelerating” (Roggema, 2009, p.2), “dramatic” (Donohoe, 2007, p.44) and “far-reaching” (Scott et al., 2019, p.49). By affecting socio-political, cultural, and economic determinants, it may also challenge society’s ability to adapt and expose vulnerability to growing change (Ford & Ford, 2011, p.3).


At a local level, “[c]limate change is dramatically shifting the way cities interpret and live with their local climate” (Bremer et al., 2020). By 2050, it is estimated that 6.5 billion people will be living in urban areas (ODI, 2018; Mirzahossen & Mohghaddam, 2021, p.24) when the world’s population is projected to reach between 9 and 9.8 billion (Cohen, 2010; Hoornweg & Pope, 2016).


Urbanisation growth will increase the challenges of dealing with natural hazards (Parker, 1995, p.114; Asiedu, 2020), such as flooding, earthquakes, and landslides (Mesta et al., 2022). These “shock events"—sudden and unexpected events that may lead to policy review and change (Bremer et al., 2020; Giordono et al., 2020)—in correlation with non-climatic variables of weak governance, poor urban planning and management, the lack of regulations, and inadequate sewage systems (UNESCO, 2020; Heltberg et al., 2009; Baker, 2011; Birkmann et al., 2021; Major et al., 2011) will further expose the local populace’s vulnerability to disasters and risks. Consequently, climate change “is influencing the way we understand and govern the places we live” (Bremer et al., 2020).


Figure 1: The effects of climate change. The retreat of the Lyell Glacier, Yosemite National Park, California, USA, from 1883 to 2015 (Wikimedia Commons, 2017).

As built environments, cities are witnessing increased flooding (Diez et al., 2011; Sörensen et al., 2016). The city of Bergen, on Norway’s west coast, is prone to flooding due to a combination of climate change, accelerated urbanisation, and the creation of impermeable surfaces that limit the absorption of water and, thereby, increase runoff (Boogaard et al., 2017). There is also the risk of landslides due to the country's mountainous landscape (Braathen et al., 2004). Since the beginning of this century, the city has planned and implemented “far-reaching” (Langeland et al., 2013) climate policies to address the local risks of flooding and landslides to its infrastructure, economy, and buildings caused by the global change in temperature and weather patterns.


Bergen, Norway’s second-biggest city and an international harbour for passengers and trade, is an example of the “local” actively addressing and adapting to a global threat of sea level rises and other natural hazards linked to climate change. Bergen is identified as Europe’s rainiest city (Meze-Hausken, 2005; Venvik & Boogaard, 2020), but flooding in the city centre and landslides in urban areas have shifted its historic cultural identity from a “weather city” to a “climate city” (Bremer et al., 2020).


The main concepts of risk, sustainability, and vulnerability, and their impact on Bergen, will be discussed in this article. Adaptation to climate change is an overriding theme.


In a 2006 report, Levina & Tirpak of the intergovernmental Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) note the numerous, but ambiguous, terms and concepts of adaptation to climate change (Levina & Tirpak, 2006). However, two definitions that could be used in the context of Bergen’s ambitious plans are presented by the United Kingdom Climate Impacts Programme (UKCIP) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The latter defines adaptation as “a process by which strategies to moderate, cope with, and take advantage of the consequences of climatic events are enhanced, developed, and implemented” (UNDP, 2005), while UKCIP defines adaptation as “[t]he process or outcome of a process that leads to a reduction in harm or risk of harm, or realisation of benefits associated with climate variability and climate change” (quoted in Willows & Connell, 2003).


Figure 2: A map of Norway showing the harbour city of Bergen on the country's west coast (Picryl, 2017).

Bergen, Norway

Bergen has been the capital of Vestland County since January 2020, when the former counties of Hordaland, of which Bergen was the administrative capital, and Sogn og Fjordane were merged. As of 2022, the current population of the city and municipality is 289,330 (Bergen Kommune, 2023).


Due to its strategic coastal location, Bergen has built a reputation as a centre for tourism, international trade, and shipping, with the city centre being the cultural, economic, and social focal point. The process of globalisation—the mass flow and exchange of services, goods, and people across national borders (Joshi, 2009) made possible by developments in science, technology, and communication (Archibugi & Iammarino, 2002, p. 99; Hrynyshyn, 2002, p. 84)—has transformed Bergen into a global hub. This, and by linking its cultural identity to the changing climate (Bremer & Johnson, 2023), has resulted in the city adopting global concerns and thereby becoming one of the leading “global climate governance actors” (Bremer et al., 2020).


Known as the Gateway to the Fjords, Bergen is surrounded by an imposing physical geography of the 16-kilometre Byfjorden fjord and the Seven Mountains (Norwegian: De syv fjell). The fjord systems have created natural entrances to the city’s inner harbour and have become world-famous, making the port one of Europe’s most visited cruise ship harbours.


Bergen is a rainy city, but climate change means it faces the risk and challenge of dealing with rain and seawater. The city experiences an average annual precipitation of 2,250 mm (88 inches) (Seither et al., 2016; Boogard et al., 2017) due to the surrounding mountains, which cause moist North Atlantic air to undergo orographic lift—air mass forced from a low elevation to a higher elevation as it moves over rising terrain. This level of precipitation, making Bergen Europe’s wettest city (Bremer et al., 2020), is projected to increase across Norway due to continued warming (Konstali & Sorteberg, 2022), thereby placing pressure on the city’s surface water runoff and stormwater management (Venik et al., 2020, p.324).


Figure 3: A rainy day in Bergen, Norway, in 1990 (Knutsen, 1990).

Risk

The socioeconomic risks from climate change are transboundary (Volz et al., 2021, p.3; Terton et al., 2023) and interconnected locally and globally by shared natural resources, food and energy supplies, biodiversities, and livelihoods (Benzie et al., 2013; Davis et al., 2016; Werrell & Femia, 2016; Berninger et al., 2022).


A global impact of climate change on the local is “the future risk of weather-related damage to buildings” (Scheel & Hinnerichsen, 2012, p.365) from extreme weather events. Highlighting this global vulnerability of old structures to future climatic changes (Haugen et al., 2018) are the historically significant wooden Bryggen buildings, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979 on Bergen’s Vågan harbour, which have become a focal point of the city’s future sea level and flood risks (Guttorp & Thorarinsdottir, 2018; source). The Bryggen basements are experiencing increased groundwater flooding from overwhelmed drainage systems (Venik et al., 2020, p.325), causing the decay of the building’s wooden foundations and their considerable subsidence (Kaslegard, 2011, p.20).


The term risk society emerged in the 1990s through the works of the German sociologist Ulrich Beck and his British counterpart Anthony Giddens, mainly in response to growing environmental and technological concerns.


In his influential analysis, "Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity", Beck presented his ideas of risk society as “a systematic way of dealing with hazards and insecurities induced and introduced by moderni[s]ation itself” (Beck, 1992, p.21). Modernisation, in this sense, being the interaction and relationship with the new technologies transforming societies (Cohen, 1997), has created new risks very different from the old. Similarly, Giddens believes the risk society to be forward-looking, which “lives in the future rather than the past” (Giddens & Pierson, 1998, p.94).


Figure 4: The historic Bryggen in Bergen, Norway (Šmerkl, 2009).

Bergen considers itself a leader in adapting to future risks (Bergen Kommune, 2016), reshaping its economic, cultural, and social identity (Langeland, 2013). Extreme precipitation is forecast to occur more frequently, posing further pressure on the city’s unsustainable “car-culture” transport infrastructure (Bremer et al., 2020) and “vulnerable” sewage system (Strehl et al., 2018), coping with a growing population of 1.1% per year (OECD, 2022). By the middle of this century, the authorities have projected a city population of roughly 355,000 (Bergen Kommune, 2016).


The consequences of global climate change will vary at the local level (Bierbaum, 1998; Gremillion, 2011) and will expose society’s socioeconomic vulnerabilities. The estimated sea rise will cause extensive damage to Bergen’s sewage and transport systems (Langeland, 2011; Guttorp & Thorarinsdottir, 2018), and tourism will be adversely affected by flooding and sea level rise, making the city’s quays unable to accommodate ships and cruise liners (ESPON, 2011, p.18).


For the Bergen authorities and Bergensers, the city’s inhabitants, changes in weather patterns this century have already resulted in the loss of human life, notably the Hatlestad Slide in September 2005, a landslide caused in part by heavy rainfall that killed three people (Langeland, 2011; Stohl et al., 2008).


While Norway’s national government has overriding authority, the country’s municipalities possess autonomy in many areas of economic, social, and welfare policy. Until the 2030 Agenda, passed by the Norwegian government in early 2021, a lack of a national plan to tackle climate change highlighted the importance of community-based adaptation—using local knowledge, communication, and empowerment—to respond and adapt to the risks and impacts of climate change (Ayers & Forsyth, 2009; Reid et al., 2009). Actions taken by Bergen, such as the adoption of emission reductions in 1996, the first city in the country to do so (Bremer et al., 2020), the appointment of a Head of Climate section (currently Stina Ellevseth Oseland) (Oseland & Haarstad, 2022), and the adoption of “Green Strategy“ in 2016 (Norwegian: Grønn Strategi) (Bergen Kommune, 2016), demonstrate the importance and influence local authorities can play in climate policy-making (Fuhr et al., 2018; Schrage et al., 2023).


Figure 5: The Hatlestad Slide landslide occurred in rural Bergen in September 2005 (Wikimedia Commons, 2006).

To become “Norway’s greenest city” (Wågsæther et al., 2020), the municipality is implementing extensive adaptation methods and sustainable development to protect its economic and social assets. Bergen has a long-term goal of becoming a greenhouse gas-neutral city, corresponding to the national objective for 2030, and was also a participant in the 2008-14 Cities of the Future programme (Norwegian: Framtidens Byer), which involved Norway’s 13 biggest cities.


Local plans include protecting Bryggen from increased flooding, highlighting the growing attention placed on cultural “non-economic loss” (Pearson et al., 2021) threatened by climate change, and a flood management plan that, in part, requires stormwater collection to be incorporated in developments (Groven, 2014), the first Norwegian city to do so.


Vulnerability

Bergen’s proximity to mountains means its economic centre is vulnerable to landslides, which are expected to become more frequent due to increased precipitation (Venvik et al., 2020). The award-winning human geography professor William N. Adger defines vulnerability as “the stress to which a system is exposed, its sensitivity, and its adaptive capacity” (Adger, 2006, p. 269). Characteristics of natural hazards include their magnitude, frequency, duration, and spatial extent (IPCC, 2007; Angeli et al., 2022). Recent local events and future predictions are evidence that, for Bergen, any vulnerabilities in a system, notably a history of poor risk assessment and urban planning, can have long-term consequences (Adger, 2006, quoted in Folke, 2006, p.253).


On September 14, 2005, heavy rainfall caused the Hatlestad Slide, a landslide in the rural Bergen hillside neighbourhood of Hatlestad Terrasse, causing damage and death (Langeland et al., 2011). The event forced the country to review and implement environmental, housing, and emergency policies (Bremer et al., 2020, quoted in Krauß & Bremer, 2020). In line with policy at the time, the area had not been surveyed for landslide risk (Gonzalez et al., 2013).


However, the Norwegian Ministry of Environment has acknowledged that a challenge is defining and creating an understanding among the various experts regarding risk and vulnerability: “[e]ach of these environments has its 'tribal language',"  and it was, at times, “a demanding task to find a common communications platform” (Ministry of Environment, 2010).


Figure 6: Bryggen flooded (Misje, n.d.).

Although the traditional housing in central Bergen is constructed with wood and therefore efficient against the current levels of rain (Mjörnell & Olsson, 2019), the combination of narrow alleyways (Norwegian: smaug) and tall buildings, creating a canyon effect, poses numerous hazards to public safety and health (Miles et al., 2023). The impact of climate change on wood deterioration is described as “non-linear behaviour” (Brischke et al., 2010), with the changes caused by the weather being unpredictable. Technical considerations, such as material quality and age, determine these wooden buildings’ vulnerability to damage and deterioration (Larsen & Marstein, 2000).


Despite the Hatlestad Slide, homes are still situated on the hillsides surrounding Bergen (Langeland, 2011), and the city centre populace and infrastructure are vulnerable to landslides from the surrounding Seven Mountain and subsidence from increased precipitation (Venvik et al., 2020). Due to the physical geography of west Norway, there is a shortage of suitable land in Bergen for construction (Meinert et al., 2019; Koning et al., 2020), so the future population growth of the dense city will only exacerbate the search for safe building land.


Figure 7: A narrow street of wooden housing in Bergen, Norway (Picryl, 2016).

Scientific knowledge is linked to effective adaptation to climate change and understanding its consequences (Knutti, 2019; Owen, 2020). Norway strongly believes in and promotes scientific and technological solutions to climate change (Nordø et al., 2023; Bird, 2017).


Launched in 2013, there has been a joint Norwegian agency, Landslide Forecasting and Warning Service, publishing daily updates and warnings online (Krøgli et al., 2018), and early warning landslide surveillance systems are being developed (Solheim et al., 2022). However, since the Hatelstad Slide in 2005, mapping in the country is still considered inadequate (Sandboe et al., 2019) or hastily organised (Bremer & Johnson, 2023, p.88).


The future risk of landslides in Bergen’s mountainous area requires risk and vulnerability analysis—an assessment to identify a system's weaknesses, risks, and vulnerabilities—not just a reliance on historical data. The Norwegian Directorate for Civil Protection (Norwegian: Direktoratet for samfunnssikkerhet og beredskap, DSB) considers the rarity of extreme events to make this data “deficient” (Norwegian Directorate for Civil Protection (DSB), 2014), especially since the country’s historical records of landslide events are incomplete (Ganerød et al., 2023).


Sustainability

Sustainable development is a “ubiquitous” principle (Henderson, 2011) with multiple definitions (Chasek, 2012, p. 254). The United Nations’ World Commission on Environment and Development, commonly known as the Brundtland Commission, chaired by Norway’s former Labour prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland (1981, 1986–1989, and 1990–1996), defined sustainable development in 1987 as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (United Nations General Assembly, 1987).


Figure 8: Gro Harlem Brundtland, Chair of the Brundtland Commission and former Prime Minister of Norway, photographed in 1989 (World Economic Forum, 1989).

While not a universally accepted definition because it lacks a definite timeframe and scientific and factual evidence to set clear global goals (McChesney, 1991; Parris & Kates, 2003), it could be used at a local level to describe the aspirations and environmental concerns of Bergen; the city’s sustainability plans seek to address the challenge of climate change without “strangling the modern living city” (Bergen Kommune, 2011) and thereby preserve the economic and social centre of Norway’s west coast. Furthermore, institutes in Bergen have actively involved children—the “future generations“ of the 1987 definition—in sustainable development learning programmes and activities (Bremer et al., 2022).


Water was a major issue of the 2008–14 Cities of the Future programme, and water supply and sewage have been identified by the city’s Vulnerability Committee as “critical infrastructure” (Bergen Kommune, 2008, p.36). However, the unpredictability of future weather events means Bergen cannot be fully prepared for the consequences of climate change; former Commissioner Lisbeth Iversen (2003–2013) of Bergen’s government acknowledged that the systems within the city’s surface water management have reached their limit of capacity “and many will have problems in the future due to climate change” (Iversen, 2011).


Another example is the city’s attempts to relieve the transport system of its traffic problems, especially in light of future population growth, by promoting alternative forms of transport, such as its light railway system (opened in 2010 and expanded in 2013), buses, and cycling routes (Norwegian Ministry of Local Government & Administration, 2015; Bremer et al., 2020; Remme et al., 2022). Urban development, though, in the outer areas is generating an increased need for transport links across the region (Bergen Kommune, 2008, p.6).


Furthermore, the transportation of goods to and from the harbour through the city (Seither et al., 2016) means transport policy changes could be difficult to implement in the centre, the economic hub of Bergen, where the council has prioritised pedestrianisation and public transport as part of a 50% densification plan (Bergen Kommune, 2016; Koning et al., 2020). Bergen faces major environmental challenges linked to transportation: road traffic is now the dominant source of local air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for 56% of the city’s carbon emissions (Bergen Kommune, 2020, quoted in Wågsæther et al., 2022). Future health risks to a large section of the population are a possibility.


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