Climate risk in the cities

The conflicts Norwegian cities experience around climate measures and climate risk are both positive and constructive.

Sist oppdatert: Mar 26, 2021
Published Mar 26, 2021
Norce bergen liten
The City of Bergen, taken from Ulriken. (Photo: Eivind Senneset cop. NORCE)

Cities get a lot of political attention in global climate agreements. The Paris Agreement (2015) in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change [1], the UN Sustainability Goals [2], the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction [3], and the New Urban Agenda (2016) developed by the UN Habitat III Conference [4], highlights all urban communities and urban decision-makers as central when it comes to responding to climate change. However, how to manage climate risk in cities in a fair, responsible and inclusive way is still unclear.

One of the reasons why cities are highlighted as change agents is that they apparently have an urban population that is motivated to live smarter and more sustainable everyday lives. Nevertheless, our cities are struggling with dense urban centers and more scattered peripheral zones, where conflicts over climate policy and measures are escalating. Urban development, especially with densification, toll roads, urban growth agreements and zero-emission zones characterize and polarize the public discourse.

Tendencies of growing unrest towards climate policy interventions on the one hand, and impatience in the face of ineffective climate measures on the other hand, give reason to claim that climate risk provokes a need for a new democratic practice in our cities to ensure popular anchoring of climate policy measures.

"Climate risk" also involves political risk

Climate-smart land use, conservation and restoration of natural environments and ecosystems in and around cities are crucial for meeting Norway's climate and environmental goals and tackling the climate crisis. At the same time, climate change is a major threat to both nature and society [5, 6], and challenges current governance and management structures. There are nevertheless few empirical studies [7, 8] that systematically assess how the relationship between citizens, stakeholders and public administration enables effective climate risk management and good anchoring of climate policy measures.

Climate risk is a complex concept, and challenges how urban communities operate and cooperate. Climate risk research has it over several years now strictly distinguished between climate adaptation on the one hand and climate change mitigation on the other. Recently however, researchers have begun to combine the two into one common concept: Climate risk [9].

Climate risk defines a wide range of risks associated with climate change, from physical risk - due to actual or expected physical changes in the climate system - to transitional risk or risk generated from either adaptation measures (i.e. flood management or restrictive land use management), or mitigation measures such as cheaper public transport tariffs and tax reductions for electric cars (encourage emission-free mobility), or tolls and a ban on older oil-based heating (reducing fossil energy use).

Common to these variants of climate risk is the notion of political risk - a recognition of the political challenges associated with the adjustment and adaptation society must undergo in order to meet climate risk. We saw examples of this during the Norwegian local elections in 2019, where most Norwegian cities experienced political unrest around the implementation of climate policy measures.

The Planning and Building Act as tool

This unrest is one of the reasons why cross-sectoral initiatives to address climate risk and governance are highly welcomed in research as well as public administration [10]. Unfortunately, it turns out that such initiatives are challenging to realise in practice [11].

Urban development and spatial planning have in modern times been characterized by fluctuations from large, coherent public plans from the post-war period, to strong private interests and fragmented, commercial planning initiatives from the late 70s [12] and onwards. Over time, this has created fertile ground for a great deal of uncertainty, mistrust and time-consuming processes in urban development, where planning authorities and private developers increasingly question each other's motivation, which again undermines joint efforts to combat climate risk.

The Planning and Building Act has recently been amended (in 2019) to provide municipalities with more management instruments to ensure climate risk management in planning. This has not passed unnoticed among stakeholders in urban development. From being perceived as a so-called "Yes-law" where the degree of discretion was comprehensive, the Planning and Building Act is now becoming the country's main tool in the fight against increasing climate risk.

Increasing polarization

Spatial planning appears to be the most potent and sought-after local response to climate risk [13, 14]. Urban development concepts such as "blue-green structures", "densification", "mixed functions", "sharing culture", "node development" and "zero-emission mobility" have become commonplace in all major Norwegian cities in the last couple of years. This requires an updated research agenda on the relationship between climate risk, spatial planning and urban development.

We still see an increased impatience and to some extent also increased dissatisfaction in the Norwegian public related to the practical effect of climate risk and climate policy [15]. Conflicts over the implementation of climate policy have encouraged protesters and political activism both among the population in general and among dedicated interest groups in particular, not only in Norway [16]. This can lead to increasing tension, polarization and poorly grounded political decisions and measures, which in turn create further unrest, uncertainty and resistance in the population [8]. We saw this in several cities in connection with the Norwegian municipal elections in the autumn of 2019.

Toll road resistance and climate protests threatened to recalibrate the entire political landscape in several of our largest cities, and in my home municipality Bergen the anti-toll road party was largest in almost all districts, and as large as the "governing parties" Conservatives and Labor, while the Green Party was largest party in the center of Bergen. At the same time, there is also an evident dissatisfaction among private stakeholders about the increased willingness to govern among the elected representatives and the administration.

Democratizing conflicts

Then one can object that the air went out of the toll road uprising, and that the newly struck toll road opponents were quickly overtaken by the city council's everyday policy and the logic of the political processes. But a not insignificant group of new elected officials spend a lot of free time in political positions in the wake of the uprising, and the city councils' work today reaches groups of the population who may not have previously been involved in such processes.

At the same time, the unrest is not gone, and we observe a significantly greater caution in politicians and bureaucrats' handling of controversial climate measures. Especially in that the distributional consequences of the measures are highlighted in all debates. EV charging infrastructure has become a district policy discussion, the evaluations related to the introduction of external toll booths in Bergen and Oslo have become socio-political quagmire, and most recently the increase in the CO2 tax has also become a distribution discussion where individual groups are to be safeguarded from being affected. We also see a greater focus on structural solutions, particularly on the regional scene.

The clearest example of this shift we see when the EU now puts the spotlight on green investment through the development of its EU taxonomy, a qualification system for turning European investment towards a renewable society [17]. As larger measures with significant effects at sector level become more visible, the responsibility for climate change is no longer placed at the individual level. In the long run, such changes in the focus of climate measures may strengthen the legitimacy of climate policy, and thus the popular anchoring of implementation.

A new public climate discourse

In an article that will soon be published in the renowned American journal "Annals of the American Association of Geographers", we emphasize that the conflicts Norwegian cities experience around climate measures and climate risk are both positive and constructive [8].

We show that climate measures tend to reinforce existing differences in society, and that the conflicts surrounding the measures create increased awareness of these differences. This opens up a public discourse on the social effects of climate measures, as well as the inclusion of new population groups in the political conversation.

In future projects, NORCE will contribute to understanding how climate risk creates new dynamics - both in the relationship between research and society, between technology, industry and administration, but also between decision-makers and citizens, and not least in the way we as humans and citizens relate to the future and our natural surroundings.

We want to investigate how climate risk is changing management practices in general and spatial planning more specifically - and the population's response to these changes. At the same time, we want to collaborate with both public administrations and private developers to develop new management tools that strengthen the popular anchoring of climate policy decisions and measures.


  1. United Nations, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. 1992, United Nations: Kyoto.
  2. United Nations. Sustainable Development Goals. 2021 [cited 2021 18.03.21]; Available from:
  3. United Nations. Sendai framework for disaster risk reduction 2015–2030. in Third United Nations World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR)—Resilient People. Resilient Planet. 2015.
  4. United Nations, Habitat III Conference Report. 2017, United Nations: New York.
  5. Pihl, E., et al., 10 New Insights in Climate Science 2020-a Horizon Scan. Global Sustainability, 2021. 4: p. 1-65.
  6. O’Neill, B.C., et al., IPCC reasons for concern regarding climate change risks. Nature Climate Change, 2017. 7(1): p. 28-37.
  7. Brink, E. and C. Wamsler, Collaborative governance for climate change adaptation: mapping citizen–municipality interactions. Environmental Policy and Governance, 2018. 28(2): p. 82-97.
  8. Wanvik, T. and H. Haarstad, Populism, Instability and Rupture in Sustainability Transformations. Annals of American Association of Geographers, In press.
  9. Norway, G.o., NOU 2018:17 Climate Risk and Norwegian Economy, in Norsk Offentlig Utredning. 2018: Oslo
  10. Klemetsen, M.E. and M.S. Dahl, Hvor godt er norske kommuner rustet til å håndtere følgene av klimaendringer? CICERO Report, 2019.
  11. Bryson, J.M., B.C. Crosby, and M.M. Stone, Designing and implementing cross‐sector collaborations: Needed and challenging. Public administration review, 2015. 75(5): p. 647-663.
  12. Roald, H.-J. and M. Nielsen, Byplanen: en historie om utviklingen av Bergen by. 2010: Scandinavian academic press.
  13. Hanssen, G.S., P.K. Mydske, and E. Dahle, Multi-level coordination of climate change adaptation: by national hierarchical steering or by regional network governance? Local Environment, 2013. 18(8): p. 869-887.
  14. Hanssen, G.S. and N. Aarsæther, Pbl (2008)–en lov for vår tid? Plan, 2018. 50(03): p. 2-7.
  15. Ytterstad, A., Klimakrisen utfordrer objektivitetsidealet i norsk journalistikk. Norsk medietidsskrift, 2011. 18(04): p. 323-343.
  16. Boulianne, S., M. Lalancette, and D. Ilkiw, “School strike 4 climate”: social media and the international youth protest on climate change. Media and Communication, 2020. 8(2): p. 208-218.
  17. Lucarelli, C., et al., Classification of Sustainable Activities: EU Taxonomy and Scientific Literature. Sustainability, 2020. 12(16): p. 6460.


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