The State of Climate Adaptation: Guest Post + Podcast with Joyce Coffee
Guest Post by Joyce Coffee of Climate Resilience Consulting.
Even as we work tirelessly and in the face of great obstacles to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, humans have already set in motion impacts from climate change — many of which we’re witnessing in real time: more frequent and intense storms, flooding, sea level rise, drought and extreme weather events. Thus, communities around the world are embracing climate adaptation measures and plans to be resilient to what the future will bring — and what the present is already delivering.
What’s the state of those local climate adaptation efforts? I joined the SAS Talk with Kim podcast recently to talk about the “Rising to the Challenge, Together” report that I co-authored for The Kresge Foundation. The report was released late last year and is billed as “a critical assessment of the state of the climate adaptation field in the US.”
At the request of Kresge, a leading philanthropy focused on adaptation in the US, I joined with Dr. Susi Moser with Susanne Moser Research and Consulting and Aleka Seville at the time with Four Twenty Seven Inc. to conduct interviews and surveys with almost 100 leaders representing the public, private, and NGO/civic sectors and academia, covering a wide range of adaptation-related expertise and perspectives.
The key finding?
Climate adaptation has begun to emerge as a field of practice; however, it is not evolving quickly or deliberately enough for communities to adequately prepare for the dangerous shocks and stresses that increasingly will be introduced by climate change. (From Moser et al 2017 p. 66)
Our team identified a number of challenges:
- The adaptation field does not have a unifying vision of a better future. It remains mostly reactive, rather than proactive.
- A sense of urgency is lacking, and too many adaptation efforts are stalled at the planning stage.
- The prevailing emphasis on urban adaptation leaves small towns and rural areas behind, and neglects important interdependencies between cities and surrounding areas.
- While there is growing awareness of the disproportionate impact of climate change on the most vulnerable—and the need for equitable solutions—few adaptation actors understand how to incorporate equity into their work.
There are plenty of positive signs. The field has a growing purpose as climate impacts are driving adaptation. New actors and networks have energized the adaptation field, including city networks, community groups, utilities, and the private sector. And in particular, the practice of adaptation is gaining ground – here are 5 key marks of progress:
- The knowledge base on adaptation is improving.
- Tools supporting adaptation are increasingly available, but remain difficult to select and use.
- Science and practice are increasingly working together, yet more collaboration is needed.
- Adaptation mandates are emerging in some states and cities.
- Funding from philanthropy and government has been crucial for field growth.
(Table 1 Moser et al 2017 Rising to the Challenge, Together p 67-71)
The report lays out a clear vision for the adaptation field’s future: Closing the resilience gap through significantly accelerated mitigation and adaptation efforts while building social cohesion and equity.
What is the resilience gap? It’s the gulf between adequate levels of mitigation and adaptation that is especially profound where social cohesion and equity are lacking.
The vision of narrowing this gap inspires the maturing adaptation field to prevent, minimize, and alleviate climate change threats to human well-being and to the natural and built systems on which humans depend. It’s exciting to fulfill this mission, because by doing so we create new opportunities -addressing the causes and consequences of climate change in ways that solve related social, environmental, and economic problems. (Moser et al 2017, Rising to the Challenge, Together, pp 9).
Taking Adaptation Mainstream
The report points out that the most efficient and effective way to get a move on adaptation is to “mainstream it, integrating it into existing government and policy structures. Adaptation barriers and capacity needs that can be addressed through mainstreaming include:
- Financial constraints: Adaptation work can be advanced within existing budgets without having to secure additional, separate, or new funding sources.
- Political hurdles: Climate change considerations can be integrated into projects and programs already underway to protect them from short election cycles and political opposition.
- Inadequate planning processes: Existing plans, processes, and solution options can be informed and improved by consideration of future climate impacts.
- Limited authority: Where dedicated climate, sustainability, or resilience staff do not have the authority to influence other processes (such as hazard mitigation plans, public health vulnerability assessments, capital planning), mainstreaming balances responsibility among multiple agencies and departments with authority to act.
- Capacity deficiencies: Where there are no dedicated staff for climate change and resilience (especially in small and medium-sized cities and towns), mainstreaming is the only viable, near-term approach.
- Lack of motivation: In the face of multiple competing priorities, finding overlaps and co-benefits between adaptation and other goals can elevate the urgency to act.
- Lack of consistency: Mandates from higher government levels can help ensure that lower-level entities address climate change and do so consistently across jurisdictional boundaries.
- Language barriers: If climate change is politically or conceptually problematic, using the vernacular of existing processes can help open doors and engage broader audiences.
- Separate/siloed approaches: Mainstreaming can initiate better coordination of previously disconnected efforts, build broader support, uncover budget overlaps and complementarities, and achieve additional benefits.”
(Box 9, from Moser et al (2017) Rising to the Challenge, Together pp.43)
Even in the months since completing the report, we’ve seen profound growth in the adaptation field. For instance, the Task Force on Climate Related Financial Disclosures guidelines released in mid 2017 have created a new interest among investors to know their physical risks. Similarly, several of the major credit agencies are examining these risks when evaluating municipal bonds, growing the pool of interested city practitioners. And, while the Federal government has made it harder to find some of the data to help the average professional incorporate an understanding of risk and adaptation into their everyday work, others in the non profit and private sector have made their tools more available, more refined, and more related to very specific geographies.
These are just three of the significant advances the field is experiencing, and, along with the momentum from the 100 experts we interviewed for the report, they make me quite hopeful for our future.
Joyce Coffee is president of Climate Resilience Consulting, a Chicago-based mission driven firm that exists to create a world with more lives saved & livelihoods enhanced in the face of climate change disruption, especially for those facing disproportionate risks to hazards. @joycecoffee