Dubai, city of the future

Keen-eyed regular readers of Green Path may have noticed that my recent posts about my European holiday were time-reversed as compared to the holiday itself. This post completes the sequence in that it begins in Dubai, the first stopover on the trip. However, it isn’t really about Dubai but about climate change and what it may mean to us in daily life. The connection is personal but direct. 

When we flew into Dubai I was shocked by the barrenness of the landscape surrounding the city (it’s one thing to see photos, another to see the reality) and when we ventured on foot from the Metro to our hotel and then around the city centre I was appalled by the hostility to human existence of the weather (40C, endless grit underfoot and a dust haze which cut visibility to a kilometre or so). The streets were lifeless, as people and animals cowered indoors and even the toughest palms struggled to survive.

Shopping mall aquarium, Dubai
Shopping mall aquarium, Dubai

But then there was the public face of the city – consumer heaven, shiny tower buildings, a shopping centre with an indoor aquarium bigger than Reef HQ and a food hall boasting more US fast-food franchises than I dreamt existed, and (strangely highlighting the insanity of all the above) a kilometre-long, enclosed, airconditioned walkway from the Metro station to the shopping mall.

A view from the walkway: concrete, steel, glass and not much else
A view from the walkway: concrete, steel, glass and not much else

The contrast between the glitzy consumerism indoors and the drab, arid external reality was so violent as to be almost incomprehensible but a thought crystallised out of it: this is a typical city of the future unless we stop climate change. Dubai now, a collection of bubbles of high-tech living spaces sealed off from uninhabitable countryside, could be Perth in fifteen years, Adelaide in twenty-five, and so on.

That thought stayed with me for the rest of our trip and became a background to the way I experienced all the other places we saw. What would this place be like, five degrees hotter? Drier? Without fossil-fuelled transport? With the sea level a metre higher? Would it still be viable?


Athens is already dry and has already suffered catastrophic heatwaves and bushfires, both of which are likely to get worse with climate change, but it sits safely above sea level and is compact enough to function well without too many private motor vehicles. The region may lose the port of Piraeus to sea level rise but the stresses on Athens itself are likely to be chronic water shortage, heat waves and bushfires.

Karya nestles high in the hills and hadn’t changed much for centuries until the 1950s and 60s brought mains water and electricity. Its baby-boomers still remember what it was like to live in a pre-industrial culture where every village was almost self sufficient. Those abilities can be recovered, and the climate is cooler and wetter than that of Athens, making changes less threatening. The Roman causeway from Lefkada to the mainland will go under water, of course, but a little more isolation may not be a bad thing.


Venice? I’m sorry. Such a fragile place already, built on above a swamp in the middle of a huge lagoon on the edge of a low-lying plain. The top of a Venetian bell-tower may be higher than any land for twenty kilometres in any direction. Could levees save it? Unlikely, because they would have to enclose the whole lagoon. It might be time to look at radical solutions. If we ran a dam wall across the Strait of Gibraltar to the African coast, perhaps we could keep the rising Atlantic waters out and save all the coastal cities of the Mediterranean? It might be cheaper than watching them all go under water.

Cinque Terre was always a tough place to make a living from the land but should be as resilient as Karya, and for the same reasons.

View over the countryside from the old fortifications of Perugia

Perugia, Spello and Assisi didn’t appear in my blog posts but, as a small city and two villages in the heart of rich farming country with a mild climate, they are well placed to cope with change.

Looking over Rome from a vantage point near Villa Medici

Rome, our last stop in Italy, may not fare so well. It is already congested, and its large population (around 4 million) must make it more dependent on produce imported from considerable distances. More than that, however, it may well fall victim to the flood of displaced people looking for safety and work. Whether they are called climate change refugees or economic migrants, they look like being with us for a long time to come – see, for instance, recent reports in  The Guardian and The Washington Post.


The biggest problem for Singapore will probably be sea level rise. It is only a small island (about 40 x 25 km) and its central hills were originally fringed by mangrove swamps. Some of these have been cleared and reclaimed, but the result is, of course, low-lying urban land. Still, it doesn’t even make it on to this list of the fifteen cities which will be hit hardest by rising seas.

What this totally unplanned, idiosyncratic and personal survey brings into focus is that climate change will affect urban centres in all sorts of different ways but few will be unaffected. On the whole, it would be better if we can avoid the future which Dubai prefigures.

11 thoughts on “Dubai, city of the future”

  1. A scary prediction: “outdoor temperatures in the Persian Gulf could reach levels inhospitable to human survival as often as once every decade by 2100, with heat and humidity climbing so high that healthy humans couldn’t survive for more than a few hours outside. This would place a huge amount of stress on both poor residents, who cannot afford air conditioning or other adaptive measures, and laborers who work outdoors, like farmers and construction workers.”
    More at

  2. Looking at heat stress in Australia’s major cities – and it’s not pretty:
    “Sydney and Melbourne are on course for 50C summer days by the 2040s if high greenhouse emissions continue. That means that places such as Perth, Adelaide and various regional towns could conceivably hit that mark even sooner,” and, “Two key messages arise from this. The first is that Australia urgently needs to adapt to the extra warming. Heat-wise communities (or “heat-safe communities” in some states) – where people understand the risks, protect themselves and look after each other – are vital to limit harm from heat exposure. The health sector must have the resources to respond to those who succumb. Research, training and health promotion are central. The second message is that nations across the world need to improve their efforts to reduce greenhouse emissions, so as to meet the Paris climate goal of holding global warming to 1.5?. If we can do that, we can stave off some of the worst impacts. We have been warned.”
    Read the whole article here.

  3. Three months after Hurricane Harvey churned through Texas, dumping 51 inches of rain and damaging an estimated 150,000 homes, the state’s most populous county took a bureaucratic step that has huge implications for how it will deal with the risk of future flooding.

    On December 5, Harris County, which surrounds the City of Houston, approved an overhaul of its flood rules, expanding them from 100-year floodplains—which have a 1 percent change of flooding in a given year—to 500-year floodplains. The new rules (which don’t apply inside Houston city limits) will compel people building houses in some areas to elevate them up to eight feet higher than before.

    Read more at Citylab, especially since cities all down Queensland’s coast face the same problems.

  4. A global perspective –

    Cities around the world are sinking for a range of reasons; what they have in common is a stark lack of preparedness and a pattern of unsustainable urbanisation, says Ashley Dawson, author of Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change.
    “Cities… are at the forefront of the coming climate chaos, their natural vulnerabilities heightened by social injustice,” says Dawson, who is Professor of English at CUNY Graduate Center in New York City.
    “Cities are both encountering extreme forms of weather as a result of climate change, from drought to inundation.
    “But in addition … cities are extremely unequal. And you have to think about [the convergence of those] two different things to really understand what we are confronting.”
    Most global cities have large numbers of people living in so-called informal circumstances.
    “[They’re living] basically in slums, and those slums tend to be located in some of the most environmentally vulnerable parts of these cities,” Professor Dawson says.
    “That’s going to have a major impact, particularly in tropical cities of Asia …

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