Fact file

The cities most at risk from climate change

Urban populations in coastal areas face most severe impacts from rising temperatures

At least nine people have been killed after Hurricane Ida brought heavy rains and floods to New York City.

A state of emergency has been declared by Mayor Bill de Blasio on Wednesday, who urged New Yorkers to “stay inside” as the city endured a “historic weather event”. The level of rainfall yesterday “shattered” the city’s previous record set only one week ago, The New York Times said. 

According to National Geographic, “climate change is fuelling hurricanes like Ida” that “feed off heat, a growing source of fuel in a warming world”.

However, most American cities do not rank in the urban locations most at risk from climate change, meaning the scenes of devastation in New York could be a precursor to far worse extreme weather events in the future.

Cities in low- to middle-income countries will feel the challenges of climate change more acutely, “due to poverty, inadequate development and high dependence on natural wealth”, clean-air specialist Professor Prashant Kumar said in a paper published in Frontiers journal

Rapid urbanisation “without efforts to increase resilience” against climate change is exposing cities to “enormous risks”, particularly those by the coast or near waterways, Kumar noted.

As the UN projections indicate that more than 70% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050, city dwellers in the most vulnerable locations are likely to be affected by infrastructural damage, for example to buildings and roads, caused by extreme weather, . However, perhaps more worrying are the health risks, such as access to water, increased risk of disease and reduced lifespan as a result of air pollution.


Flooded streets in Jakarta

Rezas/AFP via Getty Image

Jakarta, Indonesia

A 2021 report by risk analysts Verisk Maplecroft ranked 576 global cities and found that Jakarta is the city most at risk of environmental harm. Indonesia’s low-lying coastal capital is “plagued with dire air pollution” which is compounded by “perennial threats from seismic activity and flooding”, the report said.

Another unique problem is that Jakarta is also “the world’s fastest-sinking city”, Vox added. With limited access to water, many of the more than 10 million residents have to extract groundwater which is contributing to the subsidence.

President Joko Widodo is planning to move Indonesia’s capital to a “yet-to-be-built city in Kalimantan” on the island of Borneo in an effort to combat future issues, The Guardian said.


Man covers face from smog

Jewel Samad/AFP via Getty Images

Delhi, India

The same risk report ranked Delhi the second most vulnerable city to climate change.

In fact, 13 of the 20 highest risk cities were found to be in India, with Chennai, Agra and Kanpur ranking in the top ten. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has also ranked Kolkata and Mumbai as the top two cities most at risk of coastal flooding by 2070. 

Verisk Maplecroft found that pollution was the primary threat to the health of India’s urban populations, and particularly Delhi's, noting that “noxious air caused almost one in five deaths in India in 2019”, while water pollution was found to cause around 400,000 deaths every year.


Aerial view of Lima

Frank Fife/AFP via Getty Images

Lima, Peru

Lima has been found to be the most at-risk city in the Americas.

Air pollution caused by vehicle emissions is a significant contributor to this calculation. Researchers at the University of Chicago have found that if the World Health Organization’s guidelines on atmospheric pollutant levels were met, the population’s life expectancy could increase by an average of 4.7 years.

The city’s population is particularly vulnerable as a result of poor-quality housing and infrastructural problems, the United States Agency for International Development (US AID) has reported.


Aerial view of Lagos

Florian Plaucheur/AFP via Getty Images

Lagos, Nigeria

Africa’s most populous city could “soon be unliveable”, CNN reported.

While Nigerians are “used to the yearly floods that engulf the coastal city” during the country’s rainy season, this year Lagos Island experienced extreme levels of flooding. “The floods paralyze economic activity, at an estimated cost of around $4bn (£2.9bn) per year”, the broadcaster said.

Verisk Maplecroft’s Climate Change Vulnerability Index reveals that cities in Africa will “come off worse” to environmental threats, not only because the continent is most exposed to severe climate threats, but because “it is also least able to mitigate their impacts”. In comparison, South Africa’s “relative wealth and lower exposure cushions its major urban centres”. 


Residents in Karachi receive water in heatwave

Asif Hassan/AFP via Getty Images

Karachi, Pakistan

With a population of more than 16 million people, Karachi has experienced the deadly effects of extreme heat in recent years and now ranks as the world’s 12th riskiest city.

In 2015, more than 1,200 of the city’s residents died as the result of a heatwave with temperatures reaching 49℃. To the country’s east, Lahore is ranked as the 15th most at-risk city.

UN forecasts indicate Karachi's population could increase to more than 20 million by 2030.

Pakistan is susceptible to increased temperatures, monsoon variability and extreme weather events as a result of climate change, and it is feared that this “coupled with a growing population and economic strain” will have severe implications for the health of Karachi residents, a 2021 medical research paper published in Science Direct found.


Flooded streets in Port-au-Prince

Erika Santelices/AFP via Getty Images

Port-au-Prince, Haiti

With rising temperatures set to increase the frequency and severity of weather events such as hurricanes and flooding, Haiti’s capital is at extreme risk of climate change.

It is projected that Haiti will experience both an increase in storm strength and temperatures, as well as a decrease in dry-season precipitation, according to US AID. A 2011 forecast found that people living in Haitian cities including Port-au-Prince are likely to be at a two to four times higher risk of tropical cyclones than non-urban populations.

The city has also been heavily damaged by high-magnitude earthquakes in the past decade.


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