President-elect Donald Trump doesn’t believe the climate is changing. Alone among world leaders, he has called climate change a “hoax,” perpetrated by the Chinese. Accordingly, he appointed a prominent climate-science denier to head the Environmental Protection Agency; fossil-fuel industry lobbyists are advising him on energy policy.
Here in the real world, of course, the climate is changing. We just experienced the warmest five-year period in recorded history, according to the World Meteorological Organization. Human-induced climate change is increasingly to blame for the extreme weather that wreaks havoc on American cities and towns—from Alaska’s thawing permafrost to the flooded streets of Miami and Norfolk. Even as we work to cool the planet by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, there’s an urgent need to adapt to the changes that are now unstoppable.
With Trump at the helm, the prospects for addressing climate change in the United States seem bleak. But in the absence of federal leadership, we may see an explosion of climate action at the local level. In fact, some communities are already stepping up and preparing for a warmer, wilder future.
According to a new study—the first in-depth assessment of climate adaptation in the US—communities are busily preparing for risks by moving people out of harm’s way, reducing the vulnerability of vital systems, and building capacity to deal with disaster. The study, a two-year project conducted by environmental research firm Abt Associates with support from the Kresge Foundation, shows that communities are taking action in red states and blue states, in big coastal cities and small rural towns—even where the phrase “climate change” is rarely uttered in public. All while avoiding the political polarization that has led to gridlock at the national level.
With a new administration predisposed to deny climate change, these local works-in-progress will become even more important to the safety and security of Americans.
Disaster focuses the mind
Fighting climate change requires a wholesale rethinking of how we power our economy, grow our food, and move from place to place. Perhaps that’s why it has taken the international community two decades to produce a non-binding climate agreement. So how have cities and towns managed to move forward on an issue that has been so challenging for nations and the world?
In many cases, they were pushed into action by disaster. While some communities (including Miami, Seattle, and Oakland) developed forward-thinking plans informed by climate science, most received a wake-up call in the form of a flood, fire, or drought.
In Flagstaff, Arizona—a town that draws 5 million visitors a year—the 2010 Schultz fire was that wake-up call. Kindled by an abandoned campfire, the conflagration torched 15,000 acres of ponderosa pine forest. Like many recent wildfires in the west, the Schultz fire was accelerated by unusually dry conditions, which are likely to intensify in a changing climate. And, soon after the fire, exceptionally heavy rains (another climate impact) poured down the denuded mountain slopes, flooding the town and killing a 12-year-old girl. Those events spurred voters to pass a $10 million bond measure that improves forest management and reduces the risk of catastrophic fires.
In the crimson-red city of Tulsa, Oklahoma, decades of flooding along the Arkansas River and its tributaries made many Tulsans question the wisdom of building in the floodplain. A citizen-led effort to limit construction was met with serious pushback from development interests, especially during the years that climate-science denier James Inhofe served as Tulsa’s mayor. But the naysayers were largely silenced after a calamitous flood killed 14 people and damaged 6,800 homes. Ultimately, the city bought up over 1,000 repeatedly flooded properties, converting them to public parkland.
And in the college town of Fort Collins, Colorado, threats to the beer supply galvanized action. A series of droughts raised fears about water shortages—an existential threat to local breweries that collectively suck up more than a billion gallons of water each year. In response, the town’s 16 breweries adopted—and championed—voluntary water-conservation strategies that reduced water use by 25 percent over the last decade, even as the population grew.
One size does not fit all
The Abt study profiled 17 communities and found their adaptation strategies are as varied as the places that employ them. “Climate adaptation is not a paint-by-numbers exercise,” says Garrett Fitzgerald, strategic partnerships adviser for the Urban Sustainability Directors’ Network, who served as an adviser to the study. But three general approaches are widely used.
First, a community can—in adaptation-speak—reduce exposure. That means removing people and property from paths of destruction. Tulsa’s flood-prevention strategy falls into this category. The seaside town of Avalon, New Jersey used this tactic, too: Repeated Nor’easters and hurricanes prompted the town to buy up storm-damaged homes, restore sand dunes, and block development in vulnerable shoreline areas. Exposure reduction is especially useful in coastal communities facing inundation—at least those that are not doubling down on denial.
Second, communities can reduce sensitivity. Essentially, this means recognizing that bad things will happen, and working to limit the damage. In Norfolk, Virginia, where rising seas now send water streaming into the streets on sunny days, the city changed a zoning ordinance to raise new construction at least three feet above the anticipated flood level. And Chula Vista, California, is dealing with soaring temperatures by planting shade trees and requiring new housing to be built with light-colored “cool roofs” that reduce the urban heat-island effect.
Finally, communities can enhance adaptive capacity. This is about supporting the hard-to-measure qualities that enable people to cope in challenging times—like strong social ties, good health, economic well-being, and a general sense of empowerment and engagement. Not surprisingly, poverty and marginalization eat away at adaptive capacity; that’s why low-income communities and communities of color often bear the brunt of climate disaster.
Building adaptive capacity starts with the most vulnerable, but not by parachuting into disadvantaged communities with a ready-made plan. “You need to actually work with the real-life people who will be affected,” says Fitzgerald, who partnered with community groups in Oakland to develop that city’s forward-thinking Energy and Climate Action Plan.
In Baltimore, the City’s Office of Sustainability has cultivated the art of engaging at-risk communities in adaptation planning. One secret, says Climate and Resilience Planner Kristin Baja, is to make it easy for residents to attend meetings by providing free transportation, food, and childcare. And at those meetings, city staff do more listening than talking: “PowerPoints are banned,” says Baja.
Some of the most innovative adaptation projects result from vulnerable communities taking the lead on adaptation planning. For example, in Cleveland, Ohio—where one in three residents live in poverty—local community-development groups helped start the Bridgeport Café, a gathering place in the struggling Kinsman neighborhood. “A corner café might not seem like a top priority for climate adaptation,” says Missy Stults, another project researcher for the report, “but this is the kind of place that brings people together and strengthens communities.”
Strong communities literally save lives in times of disaster, according to sociologist Eric Klinenberg. Klinenberg studied a devastating 1995 heat wave in Chicago, which killed nearly 800 people. He found disproportionately high mortality rates in low-income, African-American neighborhoods where many lacked air conditioning, but there were telling exceptions to this rule. Auburn Gresham, a poor, black neighborhood on the city’s south side, reported fewer deaths than in many affluent communities. What made the difference, Klinenberg found, was the neighborhood’s strong social fabric. It was the “sidewalks, stores, restaurants, and community organizations that bring people into contact with friends and neighbors” that mattered, nurturing a community where residents checked on the elderly, sick, and vulnerable.
Good signs and next steps
The Abt investigation found that communities are, in fact, reducing their vulnerability to climate impacts. In Tulsa, no one was hurt—and no homes were destroyed—during recent severe flooding. And Avalon, New Jersey was largely spared the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, while neighboring communities got hammered.
Importantly, many of the actions they are taking to adapt—restoring ecosystems, strengthening neighborhoods, conserving resources—are improving people’s quality of life right now. In Oakland, for example, community groups are rolling out an adaptation plan that calls for affordable, renewable energy; healthy, locally grown food; and emergency preparedness. “Every one of those actions is justified even without considering climate change,” says Joel Smith, a researcher for the study.
Despite such successes, it’s not enough. While some communities, like Oakland, are preparing for future climate impacts, others are simply seeking to prevent the recurrence of a previous disaster. But a changing climate means the future will not look like the past—so preparing for a disaster like the last one may mean under-preparing for the future.
There are limits, also, to what communities can do on their own. Many of the local actions profiled in the study had significant help from the feds. Flagstaff worked with the US Forest Service on its plan to save local forests; Tulsa got funding from FEMA to buy up properties in the floodplain; Cleveland’s Bridgeport Café won financial support from the US Department of Health and Human Services. And FEMA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration provide communities with essential information about climate hazards. But adaptation assistance rarely—if ever—comes in the form of a “climate change” program or project; instead, it comes as community-development block grants, disaster-recovery funds, and forestry initiatives. So even if the Trump administration dismantles his predecessors’ work climate, continued federal funding of various kinds could support local adaptation efforts.
Even in the worst-case scenario, a lack of federal leadership on climate could create a vacuum, which localities—understanding the urgency of action on both mitigation and adaptation—may rush to fill. In fact, it is exactly what we saw during the George W. Bush administration. In 2005, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels launched the US Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, which secured pledges from 1,060 mayors to reduce their city’s emissions by 7 percent below 1990 levels, in line with the never-ratified Kyoto Protocol goal for the United States.
It was also during the Bush administration that nine Northeastern states signed an agreement to form the first (and only) regional greenhouse gas cap-and-trade system in the United States—the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Emissions in the RGGI states have declined by 45 percent since 2005, while state economies have grown by 8 percent, proving that economic growth need not be sacrificed in pursuit of clean power.
“There is a silver lining to the possibility that climate change may be a low priority under a Trump presidency,” says Jason Vogel, a lead author of the Abt study. “Our research shows that mayors, county commissioners, grassroots activists, and municipal staff are already taking action to reduce climate vulnerability while pursuing other important goals.”
Do it. Do it now.
This is the central message of the adaptation study: If your community has not begun to plan for a changing climate, now is the time to start. And although the Abt study is focused on adaptation, it carries a powerful (if unstated) message about mitigation and the need to slow climate change. If emissions are not curbed and the worst-case scenarios come to pass, some of the adaptation strategies recounted here could be rendered useless. Those raised buildings in Norfolk? They could be under water by the end of the century if current trends continue. Same for Avalon, with its carefully restored beaches and sand dunes. If climate change brings a mega-drought to the American West, even state-of-the-art management may not save Flagstaff’s ponderosa pine forests—and beer could be the least of the worries for people in Fort Collins.
Still, there is hope. In communities of every description, people are working across political, social, and economic divides to build resilience to a changing climate. There is much we can accomplish, even in Trump’s America, if we join forces to protect the places we call home.