Mark Montgomery is a senior associate with the Population Council’s Poverty, Gender, and Youth program. His research centers on empirical models of urban population growth, poverty, health, with particular attention to the implications of climate-related risks.
We’re living in unprecedented times in terms of global climate change and population growth. There isn’t much dispute that temperatures are increasing on our planet and that this increase is having an effect on the environment. Another large trend that isn’t being discussed with the same level of intensity as climate change is urbanization. Far from entering a period of decline, the world’s population is likely to grow by 1.8 billion between roughly now and 2025. The vast majority of these people will live in the cities and towns of poor countries.
These two large trends are coming together in interesting ways. For example, in China, densely populated areas near Beijing and Shanghai on low-elevation coastal zones—areas close to the coast that are within ten meters of sea level—are vulnerable to storm surges, flooding, landslides, and other coastal hazards associated with climate change. These events will put the health and livelihoods of the populations who live there at risk.
Climate scientists, earth scientists, and geophysicists are documenting what’s going on in terms of forecasting climate risks. We in the social sciences, however, are not doing nearly enough to understand the vulnerabilities on the ground. We need to make use of maps, which we also call geographic information systems, to organize urban neighborhood data and identify problem areas or weak points so that we can address climate change and manage urbanization.
With some effort, currently available data on population from national censuses can be overlaid on maps to determine the number of poor people, for example, who live in low-elevation coastal zones that will be affected by climate change. This is precisely what I’m working on now at the Council. This information will be extremely useful for national and municipal planners. Imagine if you were an Indonesian planner who could look at a map like this and be able to see the finer details of the number of people who are in the path of risk.
We need to make better use of census data. National sample surveys have been the mainstay of our discipline for the last 30–35 years, and most of our research attention has been given to analyzing these surveys. They are irreplaceable, valuable tools, but they are not able to reliably document urban neighborhoods and varying vulnerability across these neighborhoods. Only censuses provide full coverage of the smallest administrative and political units. If we want to map who is at risk and where the risk is for climate change, we cannot continue to neglect censuses. This information, combined with other mapping resources like the Landsat Archives at the US Geological Survey, will begin to provide the means to address the environmental and population challenges facing us in the years to come.