As states, counties and cities across the country absorb more and more blows from extreme weather, they aren’t waiting for the United States to rejoin the Paris Agreement or for the Green New Deal to become a reality — politically charged issues that won’t be resolved until after the 2020 presidential election and perhaps beyond.
Kicking the can down the road is not an option for governors, mayors and other local officials. The menaces of extreme weather — record floods, wildfires and heat waves — are already at their doorstep.
“The political calculations are very different on the local scale,” said Joe DeAngelis, hazards mitigation expert with the American Planning Association. “You see climate change mitigation and adaptation happening at the local level in pretty much every state ... whether it’s called that or not.”
Mitigation, adaptation and resilience are the new planning watchwords.
Mitigation, adaptation and resilience are the new planning watchwords. Distinct but complementary, they frame the conversation about meeting the challenges of a rising planetary thermostat.
- Mitigation refers to reducing greenhouse gas emissions — primarily carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels to generate energy and fuel automobiles. Example: The city of Norman, Okla., passed a resolution to obtain all of its energy — not just for city government but for the entire community — from renewable sources such as wind and solar by 2050.
- Adaptation is the process of taking direct action to prepare for weather-related hazards. Example: Boston adopted complete streets design guidelines that call for using street trees, green walls (walls that have plants growing on them), light-colored pavement treatments and planted areas in medians and curb extensions to reduce the escalating intensity of heat islands — urban areas with dramatically higher temperatures than surrounding areas.
- Resilience — a function of mitigation and adaptation — is the measure of community’s overall capacity to provide services, maintain infrastructure and sustain its economy in the face of a hazardous event or trend. Example: Cities across the country are integrating resilience strategies into land-use policies such as Norfolk’s new zoning code that directs future development to higher ground, safe from flooding.
If mitigation, adaptation and resilience sound a bit wonky, you can also think of them as smart growth.
By rethinking land-use policies, transportation strategies and building codes to reduce reliance on cars, conserve energy and promote compact development that preserves natural buffers against climate hazards, communities are using smart growth principles to prepare for whatever 21st century weather throws at them, be it a devastating hurricane or a long drought.
“Developing and implementing land-use and building codes and practices that take climate change into account can promote climate adaptation even in communities where reaching consensus on climate action can be challenging,” according to Smart Growth Fixes for Climate Adaptation and Resilience published by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
Communities are using smart growth principles to prepare for hurricanes, drought and other impacts.
The National Governors Association, the National Association of Counties and the National League of Cities have all rolled out initiatives to help their members respond to climate change. The National League of Cities, for example, awards $10,000 grants and a year of technical assistance to help cities plan for the effects of climate change.
But it’s not just the public sector that recognizes the risks. The private sector is also getting onboard.
A recent report by Citigroup titled Managing the Financial Risks of Climate Change acknowledges that extreme weather events are growing more frequent and intense as the planet warms. The risks to the private sector fall into two categories: the financial impact of failing to effectively mitigate climate change and conversely the financial impact of action taken to lower emissions such as a carbon tax.
“It behooves the private sector to heed (climate change) warnings and to adjust their own business models and practices accordingly,” stated the report. “Financial risk from climate change is here to stay. Prepare now or pay later.”
The case for investing in mitigation, adaptation and resilience is supported by climate change evidence from a broad spectrum of the scientific community — including the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
NASA calls the evidence for rapid climate change “compelling” while noting that 97 percent of climate scientists agree that global warming trends over the past century are very likely attributable to human activity.
“Financial risk from climate change is here to stay. Prepare now or pay later.”
“The planet’s average surface temperature has risen about 1.62 degrees Fahrenheit since the late 19th century, a change driven largely by increased carbon dioxide and other human-produced emissions into the atmosphere,” the agency reports on its Global Climate Change website. “Most of the warming has occurred in the past 35 years.”
Rising surface temperatures aren’t the only hard evidence of change. Oceans are warming up, ice is melting and sea levels are rising — all at accelerating rates, according to a recently published United Nations report. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects sea levels could rise three feet by 2100.
The fourth National Climate Assessment highlights the risks of punting on climate change. Published in 2018 by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, it describes a host of looming threats ranging from damage to the nation’s aging infrastructure to disruption of agricultural productivity to the inhabitability of some coastal communities.
“If a community is underwater in 35 or 40 years, where can all those people move?” said DeAngelis. “That’s one of a whole host of secondary impacts that are starting to emerge around climate change.”
Spurred by the increasing risk of flooding due to climate change, the technology nonprofit First Street Foundation is working to quantify the flood risk for every home in America now and into the future because Federal Emergency Management Agency data — the existing gold standard for understanding flood risk — does not take into account changing environmental factors.
As sea levels continue to rise, sea surface temperatures continue to increase and the atmosphere continues to warm, flooding will increase in both frequency and severity, putting more and more Americans at risk, according to the First Street Foundation, which draws on the expertise of scientists from the likes of Columbia University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California.
At current rates of greenhouse gas emissions, the economy could lose hundreds of billions of dollars to climate change by the end of the century, according to the National Climate Assessment. Even if greenhouse gas emissions were suddenly reduced today, some of their effects are already baked in because their concentrations in the atmosphere will remain elevated for many years.
“We have no time to waste. We need to get those emission numbers down,” said Shana Udvardy, a climate resistance analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). “If we do something now, we can ultimately spare a lot of people things like extreme heat and sea-level rise.”
At current rates of greenhouse gas emissions, the economy could lose hundreds of billions of dollars to climate change by the end of the century
That’s why members of the National Climate Alliance, which consists of the governors of 25 states, and the Climate Mayors, a network of more than 400 municipal chief executives, are committed to supporting the mitigation goals of the Paris Agreement in their individual cities and states.
Although mitigating emissions is considered essential in the long run, adaptation — which is not as politically charged as mitigation — offers the most immediate path to resiliency.
The UCS developed a set of principles to help decision makers close the “resiliency gap” — defined as the degree to which communities remain underprepared for these emerging threats — by focusing on the adaptability side of the equation.
Key principles include:
- Use projected climate patterns rather than historic patterns when creating new plans and policies such as zoning regulations, transportation systems and building codes.
- Involve groups affected by climate action decisions in the decision-making process — especially those who live in disadvantaged areas that are most vulnerable to climate catastrophes.
- Consider the costs of failing to prepare. One dollar spent proactively can save as much as four dollars on recovery from a climate disaster.
Adaptation offers the most immediate path to resiliency
Monster hurricanes — fed by increased evaporation due to increased temperatures — are one of the most costly consequences of our evolving atmosphere.
“We can’t say hurricanes are more frequent because of climate change (but) we can say they are more powerful because the warmer air holds more water,” Udvardy said.
While no one ever wishes for a hurricane or other disaster, the need to rebuild gives communities the opportunity to “rebuild better,” she said.
The compounding impacts of climate change are really starting to settle in for planners and for their communities.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) launched a planning competition called Rebuild by Design to develop strategies for making communities more resilient as they recover from the 2012 superstorm that caused an estimated $71 billion in damage across 24 states.
HUD awarded a total of nearly $1 billion to seven winning projects, many of which incorporate green infrastructure that relies on natural processes to manage climate hazards rather than human manufactured solutions such as sea walls and levees.
- The Living with the Bay project on Long Island, N.Y., is restoring and protecting marshlands at the mouth of the Mill River in Nassau County to slow the velocity of tidal storm surges that threaten several communities along its banks.
- The Living Breakwaters project in Staten Island, N.Y., is creating a necklace of artificial reefs that will blunt storm surge and coastal erosion by absorbing wave energy while providing new habitat for marine life.
- The Resist, Delay, Store, Discharge project in Hoboken, N.J., includes creating a green space park in the middle of the city to help absorb storm water, slow its progress and store it until a system of pumps can drain it away.
When it comes to the hazards of climate change, it’s never just one hazard and it’s never just one place, DeAngelis said. While coastal communities brace for rising sea levels and more powerful hurricanes, inland communities face drought, which triggers wildfires that not only threaten to burn towns to the ground, but also flood them and cause mudslides by destroying soil stabilizing vegetation.
“The compounding impacts of climate change are really starting to settle in for planners and for their communities,” DeAngelis said.