Risk and Readiness

Impacts from climate change vary by place. Slow-moving stresses include surging seas and drought, while warming will intensify weather shocks, extreme storms, flooding, wildfire, infrastructure failure, and public health woes. Yet families and communities can take steps to prepare. Begin by assessing risk, then act to protect water, secure food and energy, strengthen infrastructure, diversify jobs, and reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

U.S. Cities Prepare for Climate Future

Is your community ready for climate change? If so, you’re fortunate. A growing number of communities are preparing for unavoidable disruptions, but the 2014 National Climate Assessment reports that “current implementation efforts are insufficient to avoid negative consequences” caused by slow-moving hazards like rising sea level and drought or sudden shocks caused by severe storms, floods, wildfire, and heat waves. 

What’s it mean to be climate ready? At a minimum, it includes a clear-eyed assessment of a community’s vulnerability to the stresses of long-term climate change and exposure to more sudden shocks such as extreme weather events. And it means developing and implementing a plan to reduce those risks, which might include infrastructure failures, water and resource shortages, threats to public health, destruction of homes, social dislocation and unrest.

whitefish-community-gardenReslient communities strengthen local food systems to reduce dependence on concentrated distribution channels and infrastructure that is prone to climate-related disruption.The U.S. Government’s 2014 National Climate Assessment defines community resilience as the capability to anticipate, prepare for, respond to, and recover from significant multi-hazard threats with minimum damage to social well-being, the economy, and the environment. The concept is sometimes defined as the capacity of a community to bounce back. But others note that mere recovery no longer will address the new challenges of climate change.  The goal should be to “bounce forward, to build from the proverbial ashes a stronger community or neighborhood better positioned for the future.

The United States is fast becoming a bubbling laboratory of creative strategies to boost community readiness.  Some are primarily citizen-driven, non-governmental initiatives such as the Transition Town movement.  Others are driven primarily by local governments. The most effective approaches, perhaps, are those where the civil society sector and private businesses partner with local governments to tackle the climate challenge.

And then there are the majority of U.S. communities where there simply is no discussion about the local implications of climate disruption, let alone the implementation of smart climate readiness plans. I guess we’ll see how that works out for them.

Here’s a few examples of community-based efforts to assess and address the risks of accelerating global warming and climate disruptions.

Asheville, North Carolina is one of 157 U.S. communities where citizens have rallied to create a “transition town” focused primarily on creating community momentum for local food and energy self-reliance. Transition Asheville anticipates a necessary shift away from extractive industries and fossil fuel dependence. A diverse group of citizens seeks to “re-localize and thrive” by building a green economy and “bringing together the head, heart and hands of community.”

The City of New York has perhaps done more than any other large U.S. city to recognize and tackle its climate challenges, including surging seas and tropical storms, heat waves, and crumbling transportation. Strong leadership by elected officials has produced plans to invest billions of dollars in community resiliency, including construction of armored levees, restoration of coastal ecosystems, and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050.

In many communities, the non-profit sector, including philanthropic foundations, have initiated partnerships with local governments.  The Rockefeller Foundation, for example, rewards communities that participate in its global network of forward-looking urban areas with funding through its 100 Resilient Cities Initiative.  

STAR Communities is a nonprofit organization that works with local leaders to evaluate, improve and certify sustainable communities. Nearly 100 cities, towns and counties use STAR to measure their progress across social, economic and environmental performance areas.

Public-private partnerships also can be found outside urban hubs. In Missoula, Montana, local governments have teamed up with conservation groups, state and federal agencies, the local university, hospitals and businesses to launch Climate Smart Missoula.   Their vision:  A vibrant and resilient Missoula community that has a zero carbon footprint and has the crucial community networks to address future climate-related issues in an equitable way.

Despite the many examples of engaged communities who actively assess and address risks posed by climate change, it’s safe to say that most local governments and even many states fail altogether to consider the issue. A 2013 analysis by Columbia University, for example, found that State Hazard Mitigation Plans in 18 states fail to address climate change or inaccurate discuss the likely impacts.  

Those numbers are likely to change, however.  In 2015, President Obama issued a directive that federal emergency preparedness funding may only be used in states whose hazard plans factor climate change into their future.  No climate planning?  No money for you!

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