We found a perfect place for story time in Tucson, Arizona

How Can Stories Advance Community Resilience?

Chapter 7 from our report summarizing the lessons we learned on the Great American Adaptation Road Trip. We partnered with the Georgetown Climate Center to get this to you. This is the last chapter! We hope you learned something. (We sure did.)

Stories are magnetic. They draw people in and bring them together. They can impart knowledge and inspire action. And yet they have been underutilized in climate change communication, despite much research indicating that they could be helpful. When we came up with the idea for the Great American Adaptation Road Trip, we wanted to explore the hypothesis that stories about climate resilience could reach audiences that scientific climate reports and city adaptation plans were not reaching. After three months on the road, we think we gathered enough qualitative evidence to indicate that this is true, based not only on the wide reach of our stories but also on the many community members we met who are, in fact, using storytelling techniques to get their messages out.

Stories are everywhere. Even at the wastewater treatment plant in Grand Rapids, MI! You just have to look for them.

Stories are everywhere. Even at the wastewater treatment plant in Grand Rapids, MI! You just have to look for them.

Our ‘adaptation stories’ are composed of a few simple elements. Each story focuses on a specific climate impact and specific responses—such as a technology or a public process or a management plan—that in some way builds resilience to the climate impact. The adaptation story is grounded in place, because if there’s one theory we confirmed pretty quickly, it’s that people care about the places they live and regardless of whether they are concerned about the global problem of climate change, they are often very invested in improving and protecting their own backyard. An adaptation story is illustrated with striking visuals or multimedia. It includes an accessible, thoughtful depiction of available climate science, directly from a scientist, if possible. Most importantly, it is peopled with characters who, through quotes, tell much of the story in their own words, humanizing these serious challenges and the corresponding solutions.

Queen Quet tells us the story of how her grandfather used to put oyster shells back on the reefs to keep them healthy.

Queen Quet tells us the story of how her grandfather used to put oyster shells back on the reefs to keep them healthy.

Storytelling is an act of documentation, but it is also one of envisioning. Stories are a way to make sense of and learn from the past, but they are also a powerful way to chart the future—to imagine what a neighborhood or a city or a farm could look like and then build that vision. That is why we think stories are an ideal format to communicate how people and places are using their wits and resources to build resilience to the impacts of climate change—because climate change is inherently about looking at the past we have built while imagining the future we need.

Mike tells Allie the stories behind the trees in Seneca Gardens in Louisville, KY

Mike tells Allie the stories behind the trees in Seneca Gardens in Louisville, KY

Many of the most driven, effective people we met on the trip were natural storytellers. Mike Hayman, a self-taught arborist in Louisville, Kentucky, can tell you the individual stories of dozens of the trees he helped plant in his neighborhood. The leadership committee members of Evacuteer, a New Orleans-based nonprofit that is using art to aid city-assisted evacuation, tell their personal horror stories from Hurricane Katrina to establish the ‘never again’ sentiment that propels their emergency management work. Dan Hansen of DuPont Pioneer, an international seed company, uses demonstration plots to tell the history of corn leading up to new, highly drought-resistant varieties.

People on the front lines of climate change use stories as guiding rudders, as a way to connect
with others and share ideas. Julia Kumari Drapkin, a journalist who founded a media project called iSeeChange that connects citizen observers with climate scientists, found that stories are also a way to get important scientific information into the right hands. As she began collecting stories from citizens, she recognized that they are noticing changes occurring, but may not have access to information about why, and what it means for the future.

“As we started doing these question-and-answer stories, we found more often than not, citizens are seeing the same things that scientists are seeing. The difference is they’re not writing papers about it—citizens are making decisions,” Drapkin said.

Julia Kumari Drapkin (left) tells road trippers Kirsten Howard and Allie Goldstein a thing or two about New Orleans snowballs (and storytelling).

Julia Kumari Drapkin (left) tells road trippers Kirsten Howard and Allie Goldstein a thing or two about New Orleans snowballs (and storytelling).

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How can communities reduce carbon emissions while preparing for climate change impacts?

Chapter 6 from our report summarizing the lessons we learned on the Great American Adaptation Road Trip. We partnered with the Georgetown Climate Center to get this to you. Chapter 7 coming soon.

Take-home lesson #6: Sometimes greenhouse gas mitigation and climate adaptation goals will conflict; but often times communities can reduce emissions while preparing for impacts.

With the 2014 National Climate Assessment detailing climate change impacts that are currently being felt in all 50 U.S. states, communities around the country are grappling with how to simultaneously adapt to these impacts and reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions. Doing so on a large scale will be key to making sure that efforts to adapt to climate change don’t exacerbate the problem, and instead build towards communities that are less reliant on greenhouse gases—in itself a form of adaptation to a climate-changed world. Small-scale examples are beginning to show that this is possible. Continue reading

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How can communities overcome the upfront costs of adaptation?

Chapter 5 from our report summarizing the lessons we learned on the Great American Adaptation Road Trip. We partnered with the Georgetown Climate Center to get this to you. Chapter 6 coming soon.

Take home lesson #5: A key challenge for funding adaptation efforts is finding ways to overcome upfront investment costs in order to save money in the long run. Creative financing mechanisms and savvy individuals can pave the way.

The World Bank has estimated that it will cost between $70 billion and $100 billion annually to adapt to a 3.6-degree-Fahrenheit warmer world by 2050. However, these figures depend strongly on whether our adaptation efforts are proactive or reactive: The United Nations Development Programme estimates that every dollar spent on preparedness for disasters now can save up to seven in relief efforts later. But what does this mean for a local city planner or natural resource manager trying to attach a price tag to a resilience-building project at the local level? Continue reading

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How can new partnerships help build resilience?

Chapter 4 from our report summarizing the lessons we learned on the Great American Adaptation Road Trip. We partnered with the Georgetown Climate Center to get this to you. Chapter 5 coming soon.

Take-home lesson #4: Resilience efforts that span multiple government departments or include non-governmental actors are often able to leverage resources and expertise and create wider buy-in for action.

For local governments, the ability to prepare for the impacts of climate change is often limited by available resources and expertise. In some cases, local governments have the motivation to lead adaptation action but lack capacity and knowledge in areas like coordinating volunteers and implementing new technological tools. In other instances, non-profit groups or individual citizens may ‘push’ local government to act. By creating new partnerships across government departments as well as beyond government doors, city planners may be able to fill critical gaps in their own resources, accomplish ambitious goals, and more effectively address the cross-cutting nature of climate change impacts.

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How do communities use climate science to make decisions?

Chapter 3 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 4 coming soon.

Take-home lesson #3: Climate science is more likely to be used when it is at the appropriate geographic and temporal scale for local decision-makers.

A common barrier to building local climate preparedness is that scientific information about climate change, produced by researchers around the world and summarized by groups such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, tends to span large geographic scales, typically global or continental, as well as long timeframes. Temperature and sea-level rise projections are often presented for the year 2100 and sometimes 2050 at the global and national levels, and communities have difficulty interpreting how broad-scale information relates to their local risks. Communities need ways to facilitate action at their local scale and on shorter planning horizons, or even briefer electoral timeframes.

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

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.

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During our stay, the intersection of 5th and Pennsylvania was closed due to flooding from rainstorms.

What drives communities to take action to adapt to climate change?

Chapter 1 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. Stay tuned for Chapter 2.

Take-home lesson #1: Many drivers motivate communities to pursue initiatives that enhance resilience to climate change impacts; projects that have multiple benefits are more likely to be implemented.

As climate change impacts such as more intense coastal storms, hotter heat waves, bigger floods, and more extreme droughts emerge across the U.S., communities are responding and preparing in myriad ways. At the heart of most action is people’s desire to protect and improve the place where they live, but this core motivation manifests itself differently in different settings. Some communities are driven to action by the ‘wake-up call’ of a hurricane or another disastrous event that exposes vulnerabilities. Some communities find that resiliency to climate impacts is yet another benefit of neighborhood initiatives such as tree planting or smart zoning that enhance quality of life. And some communities may not be thinking about climate change at all but nevertheless implement projects that help them weather the storm or the drought. Understanding what motivates people to build resilience is key when it comes to designing incentives, determining what information people will use to make decisions, and communicating the need for a project.

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Lessons Learned About Life in the ‘New Normal’

When we tell people that we spent 103 days together traveling around the United States reporting the ways Americans are adapting to the impacts of climate change, the first question we usually get is: “And you’re still friends?” The second question is: “What did you learn?”

Our new report, published by the Georgetown Climate Center, answers this second question. Through it, we distill six lessons learned about resilience from the dozens of communities we visited over the course of the Great American Adaptation Road Trip.

report coverThe lessons are:

1) Communities have many reasons for building resilience, and the co-benefits of climate adaptation projects are often key to getting them implemented. Think: The dune habitat restoration project in Galveston, Texas that provides natural storm protection but also engaged 300 inner city Houston youth.

2) The likelihood and magnitude of the climate impact itself affects the nature of the resilience-building actions that can be taken. For instance, gradual sea-level rise allows for iterative, long-term planning in North Carolina while emergency planning is the way to go when facing sudden, extreme events such as flash floods, hurricanes, or forest fires.

3) Scaled-down climate science is essential for local planning and decision-making in many sectors. In Portsmouth, New Hampshire, researchers ran local data through global models to find that sea-level rise in the area will be slightly slower than Boston but faster than in the Pacific Northwest.

4) New relationships and partnerships across local governments and with private and non-profit allies can leverage the key skills needed to adapt to a changing climate. Cases in point: Airbnb partnering with San Francisco’s Department of Emergency Management to offer safe havens during disaster, or various city departments in Baltimore coming together to combat the urban heat island effect.

5) Communities need new funding and financing models to enable the investment needed to adapt to climate change. For example, a stormwater utility fee in Ann Arbor, Michigan has raised $5 million to reinvest in public flood protection projects and an urban tree program.

6) Sometimes adaptation and mitigation goals will conflict; but often times communities can reduce emissions while preparing for impacts. Our podcast from Long Island, New York explains how a post-Superstorm Sandy solar boom is both cutting carbon emissions and preparing residents for the next storm.

Our report fleshes out each of these lessons, highlighting specific adaptation stories that illustrate the point as well as key “faces of resilience”—people who serve as the linchpin of resilience efforts in their community. As Georgetown Climate Center Executive Director Vicki Arroyo and University of Michigan Professor Rosina Bierbaum write in the foreward: “This report brings to life what it really means to prepare for, survive, and thrive in a ‘new normal.'”

You can check out the report here, but we’ll also be posting its six main chapters one by one over the next couple of weeks in hopes of fostering discussion.

The 'Pleasure Pier' amusement park was built after Hurricane Ike. It might be in trouble during the next hurricane.

What does adapting to climate change look like?

You’ve heard a lot about the scary impacts of climate change – and with the recent release of the 2014 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, it’s clear that in addition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, communities all over the world need to begin adapting (preparing, building resilience, insert whichever phrase you like best there) to the irreversible climate changes we’re already starting to see.

So what does ‘adapting’ to climate change actually look like?

If you’ve wondered that too, you can take a (short version) of the Great American Adaptation Road Trip with us and find out. Watch the video recording of a lecture we recently gave at the New England Aquarium. We take you to Boston Harbor, Long Island, the Louisiana Bayou, the forests of New Mexico, the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, the corn fields of Nebraska and Iowa, and, finally, to our hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Comment, pose questions, get in touch. We want to keep talking about this.

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

Come on the Great American Adaptation Road Trip with Us: New England Aquarium Lecture October 9

Since completing the Great American Adaptation Road Trip, we’ve been sharing the things we learned about how climate change is affecting U.S. communities and how they are adapting to the changes they’re experiencing. We’ve shared adaptation stories with all sorts of groups, from 300 6th graders to environmental professionals at the EPA, NOAA, and other agencies.
If you’re in the Boston area, we want to invite you to a free talk we’re giving at the New England Aquarium on Thursday, October 9 at 7pm. You can register here.
We’ll tell you a bunch of road trip stories. Then we’ll reflect on what we all need to do to prevent the worst impacts of climate change and to help people protect the communities they love as temperatures and seas continue to rise. The talk is followed by a reception at 8:15pm where we’ll continue the conversation over refreshments. We promise it will be fun, educational, and engaging!
-Kirsten & Allie
Kirsten and Allie get irrigated by drop nozzle system in Georgia

On Flood and Thirst: How Communities Are Adapting to the Age of Unpredictable Water

In Keene, New Hampshire, Duncan Watson looks out the window with trepidation as rain pounds the glass of his office at the Public Works Department; in 2005, a flood in his hometown killed seven people. And across the country in Santa Fe, New Mexico, forest fuels specialist Bill Armstrong fears he’s losing a race against the clock to thin and prescriptively burn the tree-crowded national forest before a prolonged drought sets the stage for another mega-fire.

What do these two men have in common? They’re on opposite sides of the same coin, dealing with the consequences of what Watson calls a “caffeinated climate” in which change is not so much about the slowly rising thermostat, but about more pronounced extremes, from very wet to very dry.

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