Cities and counties are struggling to adapt to climate change. Mitigation efforts are essential but not enough. Communities now facing rising sea levels, extreme weather events, hotter summers, more flooding, and rising insurance costs must confront some hard questions: how to begin, how best to use climate science, how to determine the right policies, how to institutionalize them, and how to budget for them.
Our report, “Implementing Climate Change Adaptation: Lessons Learned From Ten Examples” (300K PDF) presents ten examples of cities and counties around the country. Each highlights key lessons learned as they planned for climate adaptation and implemented their plans. The goal is to inform and inspire other communities as they advance climate adaptation, and serve as an aid to organizations that help communities adapt to climate change.
Headwaters Economics talked to ten communities (list below) about their experiences planning and implementing climate change adaptation. Our objective was to discover the story behind how the plans came about, to learn how communities put them into practice, and to extract lessons.
The profiles in the full report are based mostly on interviews with people in city and county government closely involved in developing and implementing climate adaptation plans.
- What is your policy on climate adaptation?
- What is the process whereby this policy became institutionalized?
- Who made it happen?
- How was the effort to develop adaptation strategies and policies funded?
- What are the effects of institutionalizing climate adaptation?
The full report supplements the insights from the interviews with examples of the climate adaptation plans and related documentation. Below are the key findings.
Summary: Lessons Learned
These “Lessons Learned” offer practical advice about how to advance climate change adaptation. We hope these will help local leaders, staff, and organizations helping local governments, to adapt successfully to climate change.
Focus on an immediate, recognizable threat
Start with an immediate, recognizable threat. For example, an increase in forest fires, hurricanes, heat waves, or flooding in can help spur action, particularly if the threat is something the community has already experienced in the past. It may help to start small on an issue that is immediately relevant to the community. For example, drought in Taos, heat waves in Chicago, and forest fires in Boulder helped stimulate action.
Recognize local values, and be flexible
Begin with local values. Be prepared to be flexible and respond to a community’s needs. For example, if the community cares a lot about its nearby forests, then a constructive entry point may be the effect of climate change on forests and forest fires.
Start with an existing process
Start with a process that is already part of what the community does. Integrating climate change adaptation into existing emergency management, public health, and water resources plans, etc. can help with institutionalization. For example, Olympia started with improved water management to prevent flooding as sea levels rise, while Boulder’s adaptation actions are integrated into existing plans, such as emergency management. Keene and Chula Vista are following the same process.
Utilize local activists
Local activists can help to get elected officials to pay attention to climate change and in the long term to make sure the issue stays relevant, regardless of who is in office. For example, Chicago created an outside advisory group, and Eugene receives both assistance and pressure from the Sustainable Business Initiative Task Force.
Look for leadership in unexpected places
Look for leadership in unexpected places. For example, places leadership may come from public safety workers like firefighters, or water managers. The planning department in Taos and water managers in Olympia played effective leadership roles.
Involve elected officials early
Elected officials may not lead on climate change initially, but they appreciate being involved and their support is crucial. For example, in Boulder support from the Board of County Commissioners was essential, while in Chicago the leadership of Mayor Daley was instrumental.
Work with the right department, and dedicated staff
Find the right local government department (e.g., Public Works, or Fire Safety) and key staff there to integrate climate change adaptation into their existing responsibilities. For example, in Olympia climate change means flooding, and this puts responsibility squarely with the Public Works Department. In many places there are staff dedicated to climate change.
Reach out to the community
Provide open communication to the community. For example, annual climate discussions in Olympia and Chula Vista’s open house format help instill trust and foster participation.
Facilitate peer-to-peer learning, and offer positive examples
City and county staff often learn better from their counterparts in another place that is a few steps ahead in the process of climate adaptation. Wherever possible, offer positive examples of communities dealing successfully with similar issues. For example, research conducted for Vancouver proved useful for climate planning in Olympia.
Recognize limited capacity
Don’t get too complicated too soon. Lack of time and resources is a major constraint. Rather than focusing on detailed, high-level science, go easy on the science and focus on communication and community resources. For example, Chula Vista and Boulder both found that non-technical summary reports sufficed. In contrast, Chicago, with its vast resources, was able to afford detailed, downscaled climate models.
Don’t get trapped by the climate debate
Recognize that for practical and political reasons, it may be better not to use the word “climate.” Circumnavigate the climate debate and address issues important to the community. For example, adaptation in Taos works under the rubric of water conservation and affordable housing.
Use outside expertise that:
Bringing in outside expertise can help.
Has legitimacy with leaders
Relying on groups that have legitimacy with local elected leaders and have a track record of providing services.
Understands community organizing
Early on, community organizing is the most important skill. Also, bring in people with a keen sense for local politics.
Provides technical details
Later on, bring in technical experts who can help with specific needs of the community — specialists who know how to write an ordinance, analyze the costs and benefits of proposed actions, develop a water management plan, etc.
Don’t wait for perfection
Don’t wait to act until strategies are perfected. Plans can and will be revised over time. For example, Boulder decided putting a plan in place was the top priority.
Use economic and fiscal arguments
Economic and fiscal arguments can be important motivators, especially when climate change does not persuade all parties. For example, Keene’s first move on climate adaptation built on the economics of energy efficiency. Make use of regional compacts Regional compacts are a good way for local governments to engage with state and federal authorities, and benefit from expanded technical assistance and resources. For example, Miami-Dade County’s participation in a regional compact has been helpful.
Recognize mitigation can be a first step
Climate mitigation and adaptation are close cousins. Sometimes mitigation actions, such as signing the U.S. Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement, is the first step leading to adaptation planning and actions. For example, this is how progress was made in Eugene, Taos, and Chula Vista.
The full report, “Implementing Climate Change Adaptation: Lessons Learned From Ten Examples” (300K PDF), features specific results from the communities of Boulder CO, Chicago IL, Chula Vista CA, Eugene OR, Keene NH, Miami-Dade County FL, New York NY, Olympia WA, Portland OR, Taos NM.
Researched and written by the staff of Headwaters Economics, with the assistance of Jessica Lage, an independent consultant with experience working on climate adaptation projects internationally. Headwaters Economics would like to thank The Kresge Foundation for their generous financial support of this project.