Key Findings from Climate Adaptation Report

By Joyce Coffee

Joyce Coffee is an urban strategist and president of Climate Resilience Consulting, a Certified B Corp that works with clients to create practical strategies that enhance markets and communities through adaptation to climate change.

Dec 3, 2018 | Environment, Society | 4 comments

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. This year’s tragic impact from Hurricane Florence, wildfires, and river floods adds to miseries like last year’s Harvey, Irma and Maria.  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? A report “Rising to the Challenge, Together” report  that I co-authored for The Kresge Foundation 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.

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:

  1. The knowledge base on adaptation is improving.
  2. Tools supporting adaptation are increasingly available, but remain difficult to select and use.
  3. Science and practice are increasingly working together, yet more collaboration is needed.
  4. Adaptation mandates are emerging in some states and cities.
  5. Funding from philanthropy and government has been crucial for field growth.

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.”

Even in the year 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.  The Global Climate Action Summit and affiliated events like Meeting of the Mind’s Climate Resilient Communities session in partnership with UC Davis defined a refreshed global ambition for resilience. 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 a few 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.


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  1. First, kudos to the Kresge Foundation and the authors for researching and putting together a comprehensive report on a vision and call to action on climate change adaptation.

    Unfortunately, you missed or glossed over (I’m not sure which) what is perhaps the biggest barrier to implementation: the liability and exposure engineers face when designing and implementing climate change adaptation measures. The work of engineers who design, construct and operate civil infrastructure is governed by something called a standard of care. This means that in claims of negligence, engineers will be judged on the basis of, “Did you do it like other engineers would have done it.” The very nature of infrastructure adaptation measures is that it’s not like what other engineers would have done. As a result, engineers practicing in the built environment are extremely reluctant to design and deliver anything that is outside conventional practices. Also, engineers working in public works departments in cities, towns, etc. (the project owners) are reluctant to authorize anything non-conventional.

    It takes a lot of work to make the kinds of changes needed for adaptation. Unless the city’s or town’s governance structure supports it, nothing will change. Yes, there are forward-looking cities that are moving toward adaptation, but they are still rare. Moreover, the engineering community is still unsure how strong that support will be. I’ve worked in this field for over 40 years and I can tell you that every engineering firm I know has war stories about how they were the subject of unwarranted claims and litigation instigated by aggressive city or county attorneys looking to score a few bucks playing on the ignorance of lay juries and the low capitalization of engineering firms. Because the climate change adaptation field is so new and poorly understood, we expect lots of claims and litigation. We’ve already seen some.

    This problem won’t be solved until climate change adaptation measures become recognized as expected engineering practice, and a high degree of partnership and trust is established among the project owners and the engineering community. The folks I work with at the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Committee on Sustainability have been working at this for over 10 years. We’ve been writing papers, publishing policies, holding international conferences, and developing standards and practices for climate change mitigation and adaptation. The chair of our committee is a member of the California Climate-Safe Working Group which just delivered its report to the California legislature on the implementation of AB 2800.

  2. The debate/conversation about mainstreaming vs. stand alone planning processes has been alive in the adaptation field for quite some time. Unfortunately, we tend to think it’s an “either or” proposition. Either you mainstream and take up climate change adaptation piecemeal across local government departments or you do a stand alone adaptation process that results in a plan that may not be implemented because it’s not tethered to an existing governmental process.

    In our ClimateWise initiative, we have found that the best way forward is typically a mix of both. Taking time to think about the impact of climate change holistically across a community has many benefits – not least of which is a better understanding of vulnerabilities and strategies that are more likely to be co-beneficial. Once those strategies are identified, though, they need an implementation home – a comprehensive plan, natural hazards mitigation plan, emergency plan, economic development plan, etc. where they can be embedded and implemented.

    Just doing a stand alone plan without finding an implementation home for the strategies clearly doesn’t work, but neither does taking a complex problem like climate change and trying to solve it piecemeal. We need to combine these two processes so that communities can come together to think about this issue holistically and still end up with a plan that gets implemented through mainstreaming the solutions that come from the larger process.

    I appreciate that Kresge Foundation completed this research. As a long-term leader in the field of adaptation, the Foundation is in a unique position to help strategically guide the field. I am hopeful that what has come out of this effort will be fully integrated into their program. Our ClimateWise team is working with small to mid-sized communities through our Climate Ready Communities program and that particular slice of the adaptation pie needs much more support.


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