3 Myths About Climate Adaptation Work
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In 2011 and 2012, derechos caused over half a billion dollars in damage to central Ohio. Rural North Carolina is still reeling after Hurricane Matthew did $2.8 billion in damage there in 2016, not including an additional $2 billion in economic losses. And yet, climate adaptation strategies remain increasingly focused on urban areas, which ignores the needs of rural communities feeling the effects of climate change. Across the United States, cities are taking the lead on adaptation while dwindling federal leadership and funding leaves smaller communities searching for other resources for adaptation.
We must recognize, celebrate, and leverage the leadership from these city centers. However, in order to move the needle on climate change, our efforts to identify leaders, test strategies, and broaden the adaptation community must look beyond big cities.
At the American Society of Adaptation Professionals, we connect and support those on the front lines of this effort in both urban and non-urban communities by supporting creative adaptation solutions to climate change impacts.
In order to widen the focus of climate adaptation, we need to dispel three myths about climate work outside of our biggest downtowns:
Myth #1: Climate adaptation efforts should focus on cities because that’s where the people are.
80% of Americans live in urban areas, according to the 2010 Census. Shouldn’t limited adaptation planning resources be spent on the majority of the population?
This misleading statistic reflects our narrow perception of urban areas. As Nate Berg explained in CityLab, the Census Bureau’s urban threshold is low. Eight in ten Americans live in what the Census terms an “urban cluster”, a town with more than 2,500 people, but hardly what we’d call a city. In fact, only 10 percent live in areas with a population greater than 50,000.
These urban areas include much of sprawling suburbia, including the outskirts of cities like Detroit, and Dallas. But, too often adaptation activities stop at the city line. Just as populations spill over borders, so does climate change vulnerability — and so, too, should support for adaptation planning and innovation.
Myth #2: Climate adaptation strategies outside cities can be universal.
To city dwellers, non-urban places can be hard to distinguish from one another. Suburbs with generic thoroughfares lined with identical chain restaurants or rural areas with pastoral farmlands and forests seem to blend together.
As a rural-American, turned-urban-dweller, turned ex-urbanite, I tend to see the unique story in each of these places. It is fair to say it irks me when a well-meaning urbanite talks about “rural America” as if it were a homogenous Anytown. Growing up in rural central New York, we never thought of ourselves as kindred spirits to Kansans, and I’m sure they did not imagine their kith as fellow rural dwellers in New York.
Myth #3: Outside cities, no one believes in climate change.
A close cousin of the first myth and sprung from the stereotypes of the second, peddlers of the third myth ask why they should bother to help solve a problem rural Americans don’t believe exists.
Perhaps you’ve heard that 69 percent of Americans believe in global warming – that’s no statistical trick. According to the Yale Program on Climate Communication, a majority in each of the 435 Congressional districts believe global warming is happening. In every single county nationwide, more than 50 percent believe climate change will harm future generations. Deniers may make more noise, but increasingly their conspiracy claims are falling on deaf ears in urban and non-urban areas throughout the country.
In fact, Americans living in rural communities are acutely aware of changes in our natural systems–primarily because they are so close to them. Non-urban areas are forced to develop adaptation strategies as the impacts of climate change directly disrupt their economic and cultural connections to agriculture, recreation, ranching, and fishing.
It’s not just that non-urban areas agree that climate change is happening, in many ways they are leaders in adaptation. The Mississippi-Alabama (MSAL) Sea Grant Consortium engages with local communities to prepare for increased flooding for sea level rise and extreme storms, develop regional guidance on living shoreline restoration, and collaborates on the Gulf of Mexico Area Climate Community of Practice. In the rural Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the Superior Watershed Partnership and a coalition of partners measurably reduced run-off into Lake Superior, reducing e-coli levels, improving water quality, and benefiting health outcomes for coastal residents.
Urban areas are certainly important, but not exclusively so. Large swaths of population and economy reside in America’s suburbs, exurbs, and rural communities – each of which faces unique challenges that require tailored approaches. Americans outside urban areas not only recognize the impacts of climate change, they are driving unique adaptation approaches.
The effects of climate change are felt by every part of our nation. Climate change strategies are most effective when they are coordinated regionally, across rural, exurban, suburban, and urban areas. Urban and non-urban Americans have a lot to learn from each other. The foremost lesson just might be that we’re all in this, together.
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This article was originally published on September 8, 2020.
Update for April 20, 2021:
After the murder of George Floyd we wrote this article as a kind of blueprint, a beginning to a new way of working with equitable resilience in our cities and beyond. Now, as the trial of Derek Chauvin comes to a guilty verdict in Minneapolis and the whole country reflects on the legacy of that verdict, we have to remember another senseless murder – another young Black man, Daunte Wright, at the hands of law enforcement, just miles from the courthouse. Again, Minneapolis is all of us. We have protested, we have voted. We stood up, we spoke out, we have raged about the anti-Black racism. We have seen people come together, we can feel a shift in this country. But there is so much more to do. No equity, no resilience.
-Ron & Stewart
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