ACCESS Seminar: Cooling the city: The urbanisation of weather modification

Cities are experiencing climate turbulence. Critically there is a need to adapt to the increased frequency intensity and duration of heatwaves to provide a safe, liveable and thermally comfortable environment to the 1.1 billion people who currently lack effective cooling. Yet responses, to date, have assumed that how we experience the outdoors is impossible to ‘actively’ control. But this assumption is no longer tenable as numerous companies are now providing infrastructures to cool the outdoor environment. For example in the US, ‘ClimateRight™ - Improve your Atmosphere’ sell air conditioning units intended for multiple outside applications and ‘Koolfog™ - Enhancing Outdoor Environments’ provide misting networks for cooling the outdoors in residential, commercial, food and industrial markets. This emerging $1.1B per annum global industry is forecast to grow significantly over the next two decades. Outside cooling is emerging as a form of climate risk management to render the urban thermal environment manageable under conditions of turbulence. Cooling services claim they can provide reliable, precise and productive ‘all year-round’ outdoor thermal comfort and ensure strategic protection from disruptive and even life-threatening heat waves. Yet these technologies are often energy and carbon intensive and may produce cooled enclaves primarily benefiting premium users. Consequently, the rationale behind these rapidly expanding systems needs to be scrutinised before a new highly energy-intensive engineered urban outside, that risks amplifying climatic change and segregating the city is established. The paper provides an initial assessment of the urban infrastructural capacities emerging around outdoor cooling drawing on responses in Australia, China, the Middle East, and Singapore and asks whether these are best understood as a mode of: i). ‘climate greenwash’ that attempts to symbolically demonstrate that the extremes of urban weather can be moderated but are largely recognised as being of marginal material benefit; ii) ‘climate gentrification’ based on a logic of generating comfort and convenience for premium users in climate controlled enclaves; or, iii) ‘climate security’ a techno-mediated ecological-fix that produces a temporary spatial-temporal solution to the thermal threats of reproducing life in an uncertain climate.

Simon’s work is noted for the way it develops innovative, interdisciplinary perspectives to help open up and explore important new agendas for urban studies and infrastructural research. He has played major roles within urban and planning research towards addressing important questions surrounding telecommunications, infrastructure and mobility, sustainability and, most recently, systemic transitions, climate change, ecological security and smart cities.