How can communities keep up with climate change?

Chapter 2 from our report summarizing the lessons we learned on the Great American Adaptation Road Trip. We partnered with the Georgetown University Climate Center to get this to you. Chapter 3 coming soon.

Take-home lesson #2: Minimizing vulnerability to climate risks means both iterative, long-term planning and emergency management, depending on the likelihood and intensity of the impact.

Some climate change impacts are gradual and will affect areas we can pinpoint with moderate certainty—sea-level rise, for instance, is generally projected over long time horizons and vulnerable places along the coast are usually identifiable. Other impacts are sudden, extreme, and often unexpected—hurricane intensity, for example, is expected to increase, and we know those storms will occur somewhere at some time, but exactly where and when is incredibly challenging to forecast beyond a few days. When doing an adaptation project in a particular place, the risk—both the likelihood and the intensity of the climate impact—affects the perceived urgency of efforts to prepare, the scope of the options available, and the potential to be successful.

Climate change impacts that are occurring gradually lend themselves to long-term planning and allow for thoughtful, iterative preparation processes. In this case, the best adaptation strategies can be revised over time as better information becomes available, as the effectiveness of tried efforts is monitored, and as new funding sources and other resources become available. For instance, North Carolina is expecting about three feet of sea-level rise along its coast, but the total amount could be greater depending on global ice melt and emissions. The state Coastal Resources Commission is experimenting with different strategies to protect coastal infrastructure, including dredging channels to divert sand and stacking rocks at key places along the coast. ‘Living shoreline’ projects that feature loosely stacked rocks that help grow oyster reefs and marsh grasses are providing evidence that ‘soft’ natural infrastructure can be more effective and more flexible than sea walls in certain areas, absorbing more wave energy and slowing erosion.

Oysters + rocks + marsh grass = living shoreline at Pine Knoll Shores in North Carolina

Oysters + rocks + marsh grass = living shoreline at Pine Knoll Shores in North Carolina

“Sea-level rise is not an emergency,” said Tancred Miller, a Coastal and Ocean Policy Manager with North Carolina’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources. “We have time to plan. We have time to talk about it. So let’s talk about it.” However, low-intensity climate impacts occurring over long time horizons can also cause local governments to lack a sense of urgency. For example, in Louisville, Kentucky, the Metro Tree Advisory Commission has recommended that the city adopt a ‘no net loss’ policy for urban trees to provide cooling shade, since the city is projected to experience three months worth of 90-degree temperatures every year by 2100 (versus one month now). The policy would mean replacing any city trees that die or are cut down. However, Louisville’s mayor said that the city needs to do further studies on tree numbers and species before they can adopt ‘no net loss’. The Tree Commission is frustrated by this decision; they say that since it takes decades to grow an urban canopy, the city should get started immediately in order to keep pace with rising temperatures.

On the other side of the coin are extreme events such as mega-forest fires and extreme storms that are occurring more frequently and intensely with climate change. These are low-probability events—for instance, extreme storm events are often characterized as having a 0.2 to 10 percent chance of occurring in a specific place in a given year. However the intensity, and therefore potential to cause damage, is very high and is increasing with climate change, making them high-consequence occurrences. Because the exact location and timing of these extreme events is uncertain, and because the magnitude of the consequences is large, ‘keeping pace’ with these impacts often means enhancing emergency preparedness.

Implementation tip #2: Identify the desired lifespan of vulnerable infrastructure and other resources, determine the tolerance for risk, and plan for climate impacts accordingly. For instance, people are probably risk averse towards expensive critical infrastructure but risk tolerant when it comes to a small retail building.

Steam leaks from these manholes on Detroit's streets

Steam leaks from these manholes on Detroit’s streets

Perhaps the hardest thing about ‘keeping pace’ with the impacts of climate change is the fact that there are always competing demands for resources and time, so reducing vulnerability to climate risks often gets thrown on the back burner. It could be argued that no American city knows this better than Detroit, Michigan, which declared bankruptcy during the summer of 2013. But despite the fact that 40 percent of the streetlights in the city are out and 78,000 buildings are abandoned, a grassroots movement of Detroiters has formed a Climate Action Collaborative to push the city to consider climate change impacts such as urban heat and increased stormwater runoff in future planning.

“If you want to look at murder rates or darkened streets or slow fire response, those are all extremely important issues,” said Guy Williams, the president of Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice (DWEJ), which is convening the Collaborative. “But I believe we need to work on more than one issue at once. If we wait until we resolve all these other issues before we start working on climate change, it’s going to be way too late. On the scale of problems, climate change may be slow-moving, but we know it’s big and powerful in the long-term.”

The road trippers explore Grinnell Glacier in Glacier National Park, Montana before it melts

The road trippers explore Grinnell Glacier in Glacier National Park, Montana before it melts

Indeed, for some of the United States’ iconic landscapes, the momentum of climate change impacts is so powerful that ‘keeping pace’ simply means adjusting to a new reality. Montana’s Glacier National Park is losing its namesakes as temperatures rise. Of the 150 glaciers that speckled the Park at its founding in 1910, only 25 remain, and all glaciers are expected to be gone by 2030. Park managers know they cannot save the glaciers, so they are focusing instead on intervening where they can to conserve the species that can adapt to a future of less snowpack, more wet snow avalanches, and shifting species zones.

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