Abstract

State and local governments in the United States manage a wide array of natural and human resources that are particularly sensitive to climate variability and change. Recent revelations of the extent of the current and potential climate impact in this realm such as with the quality of water, the structure of the coasts, and the potential and witnessed impact on the built infrastructure give these political authorities impetus to minimize their vulnerability and plan for the future. In fact, a growing number of subnational government bodies in the United States have initiated climate adaptation planning efforts; these initiatives emphasize an array of climate impacts, but at different scales, scopes, and levels of sophistication. Meanwhile, the current body of climate adaptation literature has not taken a comprehensive look at these plans nor have they questioned what prompts local adaptation planning, at what scope and scale action is being taken, or what prioritizes certain policy responses over others. This paper presents a case-based analysis of seven urban climate adaptation planning initiatives, drawing from a review of publicly available planning documents and interviews with stakeholders directly involved in the planning process to provide a preliminary understanding of these issues. The paper also offers insight into the state of implementation of adaptation strategies, highlighting the role of low upfront costs and cobenefits with issues already on the local agenda in prompting anticipatory adaptation.

1. Introduction

The evidence is now undeniable that we are already witnessing changes in climate both in the United States (Karl et al. 2009) and around the world (Parry et al. 2007). Even if humans ceased emitting greenhouse gases (GHGs) today, because of the residency of GHGs in the atmosphere we are committed to the persistence of a changing climate for the foreseeable future. All told, trends in global economic, demographic, and technological conditions suggest climate change and its corresponding impacts on human and natural systems will continue to grow rapidly through this century (Karl et al. 2009).

Although GHG emissions are global in scale, the impacts of climate change will often be borne locally (Environment Canada 1997). If current emissions trends continue, Hayhoe and Wuebbles (2008) project average annual temperatures in Chicago, Illinois, will rise by 7°–8°F and extreme heat days will jump from 2 to 30 per year by 2100. Without adaptation these effects could spur 1200 heat-related deaths per year by 2085 (Hayhoe et al. 2010). On a global scale, Nicholls et al. (2007) predict that the combined influence of climate change, land subsidence, urbanization, and population and economic growth will expose more than $35 trillion in assets [9% of projected global gross domestic product (GDP)] and 140 million people to a 1 in 100-yr coastal flood by the 2070s. Metropolitan Miami, Florida, and metropolitan New York, two of the seven locations under analysis in this paper, account for more than 10% of these vulnerable assets (Nicholls et al. 2007).

Realization of such potential impacts has helped spur state and local governments to take a leadership role in reducing their GHG emissions, despite economic disincentives from doing so (Betsill 2001; Kousky and Schneider 2003). As Betsill and Bulkeley (2007) note, a growing body of literature has evaluated these mitigation initiatives in the context of emerging actor networks, motivations for action, and overall effectiveness. Far less attention has been paid, however, on whether and how these government bodies are planning to adapt to the impacts of climate change (Moser 2009; Betsill and Bulkeley 2007). Meanwhile, as Moser (2009) writes, “adaptation has finally, and explosively, emerged on the political agenda … [but] the current policy rush is not underlain by widespread public engagement and mobilization nor does it rest on a solid research foundation.”

This paper presents a case-based analysis of seven domestic climate adaptation planning initiatives representing a broad distribution of geographies and governmental jurisdictions. It begins with a discussion of the dimensions of local authority and influence over resources sensitive to climate variability and change, highlighting methodologies available for state and local governments to adapt to climate change and suggested criteria to evaluate adaptation strategies. The paper then delves into the adaptation plans themselves, pulling out commonalities and providing preliminary insight into the implementation of recommended strategies. Finally, it details barriers to state and local action, such as the need for spatially relevant climate information, and proposes questions for further study.

2. Impetus for state and local governments to adapt

a. Natural and human resource vulnerability of state and local governments

State and local governments manage a wide array of natural and human resources that are particularly sensitive to climate variability and change such as water, sewer, and transportation infrastructure; disaster and emergency preparedness; coastal resources; land use and zoning; and water quality and supply. In Chicago, for instance, it has been estimated that the future impacts of climate change will cost the municipal government alone more than $2.5 billion from 2010 to 2099 (Oliver Wyman Group 2008). These losses are expected to arise mostly from relatively commonplace alterations to municipal infrastructure and operations, such as increased summer cooling costs and more frequent replacement of property, infrastructure, and equipment.

Two particularly vulnerable sectors managed by local governments, which serve as focusing examples in this paper, are water resources and coasts. A recent study commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that nationally water- and sewer-related expenditures accounted for $82 billion of local government spending in fiscal year (FY) 2005 (Anderson 2007). Anderson (2007) estimates that adapting to climate change over the next 25 yr may increase the investment required in this sector by between 15% and 30%, or between $1 and $2 trillion. Examples of climate change adaptation policy instruments in the water resource management sector include expanding infrastructure to increase water supply; implementing market-based pricing mechanisms to limit water demand; and implementing awareness campaigns to promote water conservation.

Meanwhile, Wu et al. (2009) estimate that coastal inundation from sea level rise in the mid- and upper-Atlantic region will affect more than 500 000 people by 2100. State and local governments have a great deal of authority on the instruments of policy that can reduce or exacerbate this vulnerability (Sparks 2008). Jacob and Showalter (2007) point out that even “a simple portrayal of hazardous zones in a comprehensive plan has been shown to effectively limit densities to some degree in high hazard areas.” Particular policy instruments at the disposal of state and local governments include: using zoning and other land use incentives to limit development in vulnerable coastal zones; constructing levees, storm surge barriers, and other coastal infrastructure; preparing emergency management plans in the case of severe weather; and educating coastal residents about climate change risks.

b. Impetus for state and local governments to act now

Unlike greenhouse gas reduction initiatives, the benefits of local climate adaptation accrue directly to the particular community taking action. Likewise, decisions being made by communities today can significantly affect their future vulnerability to climate change. Such decisions might include developing land at heightened risk to storm surge (Pielke 1998) or building culverts designed to handle current rather than future precipitation demands. Municipal infrastructure decisions made in the present without regard to the future climate, which would typically stand 50–100 yr hence, may require costly premature replacement or retrofitting in the future, particularly if impacts were to accelerate (Hallegatte 2009). Moreover, building new coastal protection infrastructure to withstand rising seas can require a planning lead time of several decades, and Hallegatte (2009) warns that delaying such planning could put communities at sustained risk to severe storm surge and coastal flooding.

Many anticipatory adaptation measures can yield high net returns to local communities. Sparks (2008), for example, calculates that over a 25-yr horizon, implementing coastal zoning restrictions in a rural Canadian watershed would have a net present value of $150 million compared with doing nothing. Jacob and Showalter (2007), meanwhile, cite studies demonstrating that proactive central planning can significantly reduce both the number of coastal insurance claims and per capita insurance payments. Adaptation planning can also coincide well with climate action planning efforts already underway. Although climate change adaptation and mitigation tend to be considered separately (as noted in Pielke 1998), adaptation strategies can often have synergies with greenhouse gas mitigation efforts. For instance, urban tree planting can simultaneously mitigate the urban heat island effect, lessen exposure to extreme heat, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Similarly, energy efficiency improvements, reflective roofing, urban greenspace (e.g., green roofs), and compact urban development all offer adaptation and mitigation cobenefits.

c. The significance of scale

Although U.S. state and local governments have the impetus to take action to prepare for climate change, it is important to keep in mind that they are not autonomous actors. Rather, the efforts of state and local governments are significantly affected by both the present and past actions of national and global scales (Wilbanks 2007). In certain circumstances (e.g., rebuilding in the wake of a natural disaster), state and local governments could stand to benefit from this interdependence through, for instance, access to financial assistance. In the context of environmental governance, though, state and local governments are currently hindered by a variety of scale issues, such as “the weakening of central government institutions associated with neoliberal policies of deregulation, budget cuts, privatization, and decentralization” (Liverman 2004). This challenging regulatory atmosphere, coupled with the relative federal inaction around climate adaptation to date, may limit the financial and technical resources available to state and local actors. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that Adger et al. (2005) finds large-scale adaptation investment “is likely to be triggered through extreme events that raise the consciousness of climate change within policy-making and hence [give] legitimacy to governmental action.”

Looked at differently, in the face of current federal inaction, state and local governments may have an opportunity to be more entrepreneurial and innovative in their climate adaptation planning. As described in section 2a, climate adaptation can have substantial net benefits that accrue directly to communities taking action. Local governments can forge a stronger connection with local issues than national ones can (Betsill 2001). They can also tap into strong local leadership (Wilbanks 2007), which could help overcome these scale hurdles and find community appropriate solutions to climate change. Furthermore, better preparedness for climate change may help state and local governments boost their competitive position, luring both business and skilled newcomers (OECD 1995). Finally, this kind of state and local policy innovation can even have motivations that look beyond the local, such as the desire to influence the actions of others through sharing best practices and lessons learned (Bulkeley 2006).

d. Types of adaptation

Adaptation to climate change consists of a suite of actions taken at different times by a number of interdependent actors. Although many actions will likely be reactive and autonomous, this paper focuses on adaptation strategies that are planned and anticipatory. Such strategies are implemented in preparation for the impacts of climate change with the intent of reducing exposure, mitigating damage, or increasing resiliency to those impacts (Smit et al. 2000).

Lembert and Schlesinger (2000) describe two approaches that communities can use in identifying planned, anticipatory adaptation strategies: predict then act (“top–down”) and assess risk of policy (“bottom–up”). In the top–down context, a comprehensive assessment of specific risks and vulnerabilities to climate change forms the basis for climate adaptation planning. In the bottom–up context, climate change scenarios are linked into traditional policy analysis and evaluation. The latter context requires significantly less precise climate information and tends to direct adaptation planning toward flexible, robust, and “no regrets” strategies, which will be detailed in the next section. As Pittock et al. (2001) lament, however, “without [quantitative] estimates, engineers and planners will have to delay decisions or take a gamble.” Because of its more quantitative underpinning, then, top–down can facilitate the traditional cost–benefit analysis process for prioritizing strategies and may be required to move forward with large-scale, expensive adaptations.

e. Proposed criteria for evaluating adaptation strategies

A number of criteria have been proposed for evaluating and prioritizing anticipatory adaptation strategies. These criteria apply to a variety of sectors as well as levels of decision-making authority. Some of the most prominent criteria for urban adaptation planning have been summarized here (Table 1). Many of these criteria are not new to climate adaptation policy, but rather have broad applications across public policy domains. As noted previously, evaluation criteria can be limited by the level of detail and analytical approach used to project climate change and its corresponding local impacts. It is important to keep in mind that this table represents a list of available decision criteria (some of which may be in tension with one another) and not a normative approach to assessing climate adaptation policy.

Table 1.

Criteria for evaluating adaptation strategies.

Criteria for evaluating adaptation strategies.
Criteria for evaluating adaptation strategies.

One criterion in particular, no regrets, has been given a great deal of attention in the literature (see Hallegatte 2009; Smith and Lenhart 1996; and Pielke 1998). A no-regrets adaptation strategy provides substantive benefits independent of climate change and additional benefits if climate change occurs as predicted. The appeal of no-regrets adaptation planning is that it focuses action in the face of uncertain timing and probability of climate change impacts. For example, zoning policies that restrict new development in areas already prone to coastal flooding mitigate the impact of natural disasters today and would prove even more valuable in the event of sea level rise and an increased frequency or intensity of severe weather events. Other notable examples of no-regrets strategies include ensuring stable water supplies in case of drought, updating emergency management procedures, and planting trees in urban neighborhoods to cool residences in the summer. It is important to underscore that no-regrets policies are not necessarily without costs, but rather that the costs of these policies are not justified on climate adaptation grounds. In a survey of the state of climate adaptation in the United States, Moser (2009) contends that “adaptation plans most commonly use climate change as justification to do (or pursue) no-regrets (or at most low-regrets) policies that officials believe should be implemented independent of whether or not the climate is changing.”

3. Methodology and data collection

Research for this study centered on seven case studies to inform a foundational understanding of state and local climate adaptation planning and identify sector applications for improved climate-related decision support. Locations for analysis were initially screened based on the depth of their climate adaptation planning initiatives to date (particularly around coasts and water resources) and the presence of recently published, publicly available reports on their work. Although many of these locations have been noted for their climate adaptation planning initiatives, the selected locations do not necessarily represent the most advanced in terms of climate change adaptation planning. Rather, the seven locations ultimately chosen (Fig. 1) were designed to represent a diversity of geographies, climate conditions, sizes, and government jurisdictions (Table 2).

Fig. 1.

Map of locations under analysis.

Fig. 1.

Map of locations under analysis.

Table 2.

State and location adaptation planning initiatives under analysis.

State and location adaptation planning initiatives under analysis.
State and location adaptation planning initiatives under analysis.

The selected locations published adaptation planning documents between February 2007 and December 2008 and represent five separate types of subnational governments (i.e., municipal department, municipality, county, regional council, state). The research addressed the following five questions:

  • How and why were adaptation planning initiatives undertaken?

  • Who is engaged in climate adaptation planning and at what scale(s)?

  • What was the quality and specificity of climate forecasting and impact information used for planning purposes?

  • Which adaptation strategies are being recommended and through which evaluation criteria?

  • What is the timeline for future action and when will recommended adaptation strategies be implemented?

Unless otherwise noted, published documents produced by the locations under review form the basis for this analysis. These documents include climate adaptation plans, interim status reports, enabling legislation, and meeting minutes. This review was periodically updated as new information was made available (see Table 4). Additionally, semistructured interviews were conducted with the individuals most directly involved in the climate adaptation planning initiatives addressed in this paper, including scientific advisors, project managers, and policy-implementing officials across each jurisdiction studied. Many of these were leading authors of the climate adaptation plans under review, although time and accessibility limited a fully comprehensive interview schedule. Supplementary interviews were also conducted with key personnel brought up in the primary interviews who have been indirectly engaged in these efforts through leadership positions in coordinating nonprofits or the federal government. For these reasons, interviews were used chiefly to clarify and update information presented in the planning documents. More specific information about interview questions and research methods is addressed as appropriate in the following section.

Table 4.

State of implementation of adaptation strategies [adapted from Moser (2009), Center for Clean Air Policy (2009), published climate adaptation planning documents, and author observations].

State of implementation of adaptation strategies [adapted from Moser (2009), Center for Clean Air Policy (2009), published climate adaptation planning documents, and author observations].
State of implementation of adaptation strategies [adapted from Moser (2009), Center for Clean Air Policy (2009), published climate adaptation planning documents, and author observations].

4. Analysis

a. Development of initiatives

In assessing the development of initiatives, special attention was paid to the logistical process of initiating climate adaptation planning, whether and why these efforts were viewed as important locally, and which climate change effects were given precedence in planning and why they were given precedence. As these initiatives reveal, there is no standard approach to climate adaptation planning. Some initiatives were multiyear, multimillion-dollar undertakings (e.g., Chicago); others were significantly less intensive or comprehensive (e.g., Houston-Galveston, Texas). Some drew together special scientific teams to predict climate change effects and corresponding impacts attuned to their particular jurisdiction [e.g., New York City (NYC)]; others drew largely from downscaled national and regional climate projection and impact assessments (e.g., Keene, New Hampshire).

Likewise each initiative was undertaken for different reasons to address different climate change concerns (see Table 2). Not surprisingly, geography was a leading component of cited climate change concerns. For instance, sea level rise in combination with the projected increased frequency and intensity of severe weather events were chief concerns of each ocean coastal location. Meanwhile, jurisdictions tended to focus on climate change effects that had special local historic or economic relevance. For Chicago, local history pushed extreme heat to the forefront of the adaptation agenda. In 1995, Chicago experienced a severe heat wave that contributed to approximately 700 deaths (Palecki et al. 2001). Then and current Mayor Daley was harshly criticized for the city’s lack of preparedness for preventing and responding to the event, which Lambright et al. (1996) cite as a driving factor behind the city’s climate change mitigation efforts. In Keene, seasonal outdoor tourism (e.g., from winter sports) is a major local economic driver as well as a sector especially vulnerable to climate change. It is unsurprising then that local ecosystem change was a primary concern in the town’s climate adaptation planning.

Although a normative case for proactive climate adaptation planning has already been made in this paper, specific local events and conditions often either precipitated or directly coincided with the undertaking of these initiatives. As many have noted in other policy arenas (e.g., Naess et al. 2005), natural disasters can often open policy windows with regard to environmental protection and hazard mitigation. This was directly assessed in the study and was observed in three locations, particularly Houston-Galveston (through Tropical Storm Allison and, more recently, Hurricane Ike) and Keene (through a recent devastating flood). Additionally, the presence of coordinating or facilitating organizations [e.g., Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI) in Keene, Center for Climate Strategies in Maryland], local availability of climate experts, and intersections of climate change adaptation with issues already on the local agenda (e.g., Maryland and sea level rise) were all noted as helping both initiate and ensure the success of these planning efforts.

As the Center for Clean Air Policy (2009) contends in the context of its Urban Leaders Adaptation Initiative, the presence of a champion among local leadership can be an important motivating factor. Although the role of local leaders in driving these initiatives was not a direct concern of this study, such champions were frequently cited by interview subjects. These were typically high-ranking elected officials, and they were noted to be important driving forces of initiatives in four of the locations studied. Highly notable, nationally recognized examples from the interviews include Harvey Ruvin in Miami-Dade and Ron Simms in King County, Washington.

b. Engagement of decision makers in planning

Next, the study assessed which types of individuals were directly and indirectly involved in the planning initiatives, the extent to which public participation was sought or included, and the ways in which different scales of decision making were coordinating their actions. A range of state and local governments with different responsibilities, arenas of influence, and jurisdictions were included in analysis. Most locations convened a Blue Ribbon Committee to oversee climate adaptation planning; these committees tended to include a combination of government officials, climate researchers, and interested persons (often representatives from business and nonprofit sectors). Committees were often managed by internal staff with backgrounds in planning (e.g., Keene, Houston-Galveston) or environmental protection (e.g., Miami-Dade, King County), who had responsibilities ranging from scheduling meetings to drafting published reports. In Keene, leading government officials including department heads, the mayor, and the city manager directly participated on the local committee. In Chicago, leading representatives from business and society—including the president of Merchandise Mart, president of the Joyce Foundation, and chief technology officer at Boeing – yet no climate scientists—served on the committee.

Many have contended that public participation is essential in environmental decision making, claiming that it can lead to better outcomes and add legitimacy to the process (noted in Newig 2007). Lay citizens often hold important local ecological knowledge and thus might better understand their community’s vulnerability to changes in the climate (Allen 2006). These adaptation planning initiatives incorporated varying degrees of public participation, although for the most part this participation was quite limited. Such a lack of participation might indicate that climate change is viewed as requiring expert scientific or technical judgment or adaptation planning is in its infancy (i.e., there is insufficient understanding of what adaptation is and what it entails). In Houston-Galveston, for instance, the inclusion of a select group of area scientists to serve on the committee was designed to bolster the credibility of their findings and recommendations to local jurisdictions (J. Taebel 2009, personal communication). Only one jurisdiction, Miami-Dade County, made public participation a key component of its adaptation planning. The county claims to have incorporated more than 250 people in the stakeholder process (Center for Clean Air Policy 2009).

It is unclear how effectively different jurisdictions are collaborating around climate change adaptation. For instance, climate adaptation has been prioritized at the state level in Maryland; however, local governments have control over land use, which is a major component in vulnerability to sea level rise and other climate change impacts. Although the state is in the process of providing grant funding on a pilot basis to help these local governments understand their vulnerability to climate change, it appears that county and municipal buy in around climate adaptation is rather limited (Z. Johnson 2009, personal communication). On the other hand, the city of Keene was directly engaged in and well aligned with state-level climate adaptation planning in New Hampshire (M. Engert 2009, personal communication).

c. Use of climate information in planning

As noted in section 2d, the detail and specificity of climate forecasting and impact assessment can have important implications for the approach taken to identify and evaluate strategies for adapting to climate change. This study reviewed who was involved in providing climate information, how sophisticated that information was, and how it was translated from climatic changes to local human and ecosystem impacts. Although several communities relied largely on downscaling from national and regional climate change assessments, three jurisdictions undertook extensive local analyses. King County worked with the University of Washington Climate Impacts Group, one of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments (RISA) teams. Chicago received considerable foundation support to commission nationally prominent climate scientists (see Hayhoe and Wuebbles 2008). New York City drew from their close proximity to local research institutions, particularly experts from the Columbia University Center for Climate Systems Research, for climate science support (NYCCCP 2008).

Emerging research suggests that, to be incorporated appropriately and effectively, climate information needs to be tailored to the particular demands of relevant decision makers (National Research Council 2009). It has also been noted that characterization of uncertainty is an especially important concern in the delivery of climate information and can have major implications for the selection of adaptation strategies (Lempert et al. 2004). The initiatives studied suggest there is not a universal model for climate information delivery in the context of state and local climate adaptation planning; however, it can be valuable to link predicted climate impacts with their corresponding effects to issues already on the local agenda. Different methods incorporated in presenting climate vulnerability include quantifying population and assets vulnerable to storm surge (e.g., Houston); mapping exposed populations using lidar and other technologies (e.g., Miami, Maryland); presenting plausible future climate scenarios across a range of sectors (e.g., King County); and projecting municipal financial damages associated with climate change, such as more frequent replacement of property and equipment (e.g., Chicago).

d. Evaluation criteria used with recommended adaptation strategies

The recommendations presented in the planning initiatives were then analyzed in the context of the numerous normative evaluation criteria that have been proposed in academic literature. This study finds that the adaptation strategies that have been recommended tend to be reversible, robust, and no regrets. Notably, they seldom require significant funding or investment in the short term but rather address operational adjustments. Some of the most frequently cited adaptation strategies are listed with their corresponding evaluation criteria in Table 3. This table includes three strategies recommended by all jurisdictions, notably: use climate change projections in long-range planning; improve climate impact information, monitoring, and analysis; and enhance understanding of climate change impacts across and within government.

Table 3.

Frequently proposed adaptation strategies.

Frequently proposed adaptation strategies.
Frequently proposed adaptation strategies.

The strategy of using climate change projections in long-range planning, for instance, is reversible because the policy can be adjusted to suit new information at little expense. It also is a “safety margin,” because the policy should facilitate small marginal cost climate change upgrades in long-lived infrastructure and planning decisions. In these ways, this strategy represents an attractive initial adaptation to climate change. On the other hand, the question looms as to whether the civil servants who will be expected to carryout this policy have the available information and expertise to effectively do so. It is also unclear how binding this policy will be as administrations change and as the bill comes due for longer spanning bridges, larger culverts, or other infrastructure upgrades. This concern is especially meaningful in the context of water resource management, where Rayner et al. (2005) identified several institutional constraints to incorporating climate forecasts in decision making, despite rational choice incentives to do so. Further research needs to be conducted on the level of buy in by decision makers as well as institutional, financial, and technical capacity of state and local civil servants to meaningfully implement this and other adaptation strategies.

e. Timeline for future action

Finally, this study followed the planning initiatives over time to determine whether recommendations were enacted and, if so, which types of recommendations were prioritized and how quickly they were implemented. It is important to note that all of the seven planning initiatives are in a state of flux; however, their progress to date has been detailed in Table 4. King County is the furthest along in implementing adaptation strategies. To date, the county has upgraded specifications for its Brightwater Treatment Facility (scheduled to be completed in 2011) to include water reclamation capacity (Center for Clean Air Policy 2009). This upgrade added $28 million to the $1.8 billion project, or less than 2% of the overall cost, thus exemplifying a safety-margin strategy to adapt to climate change. In April 2007, moreover, the county council voted to fund a $300 million upgrade to its flooding infrastructure, which will help the county confront projected increases in climate change vulnerability from more frequent flooding and extreme precipitation events. Later, in 2008, the county included provisions relating to climate change resiliency in its updated comprehensive plan.

With the exception of King County, however, climate change adaptation has not yet spurred significant policy change among the state and local governments studied. This is noteworthy, given the magnitude of vulnerability to climate change characterized across each of the planning documents and summarized in this paper. Adaptation has most frequently served as a way of reframing or helping prioritize related issues already part of the local agenda. This was notably identified in Chicago through the repackaging of the city’s recent ordinance mandating on-site retention of stormwater in new private development as an adaptation strategy, and it has also been seen in Maryland and Houston-Galveston. These findings parallel similar research regarding local GHG reduction initiatives in the United States (Betsill 2001; Kousky and Schneider 2003), which have been shown to serve as another means of framing issues already on the local agenda. The negative response of Houston-Galveston officials to the area council’s adaptation planning initiative highlights one of several factors potentially responsible for limiting the implementation of adaptation strategies to date: the need for better collaboration and coordination across jurisdictions to broadly implement climate adaptation policy. Other challenges to full-scale implementation are noted in sections 5b and 5c.

5. Conclusions

a. State and local governments are key actors in climate change adaptation

To date, the state and local governments studied have begun to take a comprehensive look at how climate change will affect the natural and human resources under their authority. As Table 4 shows, state and local governments in this study have started both adjusting internal operations and reconsidering issues on the local agenda in the context of how they support or hinder community resiliency to climate change. They have also found no-regrets strategies that offer tangible benefits to the local community across a range of future climate change scenarios (see Table 3). Although local adaptation to climate change has been seen negatively as indicative of an “everyone for themselves” mentality (Pielke 1998), these locations have successfully integrated adaptation with GHG reduction in their climate change action planning. As such, U.S. state and local governments in this study have emerged as key actors in climate change adaptation. Their efforts to date can substantively inform federal action around climate adaptation, offering insight into how to assess regional climate vulnerability as well as the ways in which global climate change translates into both local problems and opportunities for action. These entrepreneurial local efforts should also help inform what might constitute a federally approved climate adaptation plan and which potential adaptation projects could yield the greatest return to vulnerable communities.

b. Adaptation planning initiatives are still in their infancy

Despite the magnitude of expected climate change impacts and the impetus to act now to prepare for climate change (as conceded in each planning initiative under review), the state and local climate adaptation efforts are still very much in their infancy. Outside of King County, there is little evidence that adaptation to climate change has thus far prompted action or substantive policy change in and of itself. Several factors may be responsible for delaying action, including lack of federal guidance and support, budgetary constraints, and insufficient public awareness or engagement around climate adaptation (see Moser 2009; Pew Center on Global Climate Change 2008; Center for Clean Air Policy 2009). In fact, Jacob and Showalter (2007) maintain that federal programs currently in place, in particular the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) National Flood Insurance Program, can actually substantially hinder or disincentivize adaptation at the community level. Importantly, emerging actor networks have formed to help local governments share experiences and disseminate best practices as well as to begin institutionalizing climate adaptation planning (Center for Clean Air Policy 2009). Several of the locations addressed in this paper are part of such networks, notably the Center for Clean Air Policy Urban Leaders Adaptation Initiative and the ICLEI Climate Resilient Cities Campaign. It is important to recall, however, that the dissemination of urban sustainability best practices through such actor networks has seldom facilitated major policy change (Bulkeley 2006). Meanwhile, similar initiatives to disseminate best practices have “tend[ed] to be focused on the environmental and economic dimensions of sustainability, at the expense of issues of equity and justice.”

c. There is a need for better climate information to support decision making

As this paper details in sections 2d and 4c, the quality and specificity of climate information can play an important role in helping communities identify and evaluate strategies to adapt to climate change. Only a few of the jurisdictions studied incorporated highly detailed climate science and climate impact analysis in their planning process, and those that did drew considerably on the availability of outside funding and expertise. The other jurisdictions relied on information that was not specified or presented to fit local concerns, jurisdictional boundaries, decision-maker demands, or policy evaluation needs. As Cash and Moser (2000) contend, when relying on misfit climate information, “explanations and predictions of climate change lack credibility for regional and local decision-makers.” Meanwhile, Pittock et al. (2001) describe that planners and engineers need quantitative estimates of their specific risks and vulnerabilities from climate change to facilitate meaningful planned and anticipatory adaptations. Without these estimates, decision makers may be left unable to tangibly justify the benefits of adaptation investments and are compelled to either delay action or take a gamble on adaptation policy proposals. To that end, advanced economic analysis and other decision-support tools will also be needed to improve decision making and to facilitate action in response to climate change (see National Research Council 2009).

d. The federal government should enhance its understanding of these needs to better support state and local government decision makers

The level of collaboration between the federal government and its state and local counterparts around climate change adaptation planning appears to be in its infancy and therefore rather limited (Center for Clean Air Policy 2009; Moser 2009). This paper demonstrates, though, that state and local governments have emerged as important actors in climate change adaptation, albeit ones in need of improved climate resources and decision support. Policies and decisions made at the national and global level can significantly hinder or help state and local government climate adaptation action (AAG 2003). As Wilbanks (2007) describes, many effective local adaptation actions “depend on structures and resources at global and national scales.” Better understanding the needs of state and local decision makers and working with these governments to provide more sophisticated climate information to help them assess their vulnerability to climate change and adapt to its impacts should be an important goal of a national climate service or similar federal initiative. This will require increased collaboration between different scales of public decision-making entities, described further in section 5e.

e. There is potential for better coordination of climate change adaptation planning

As noted in sections 4a and 4c, each location under analysis took its own approach toward climate adaptation planning, including obtaining climate information, assessing core vulnerabilities to climate change impacts, and prioritizing strategies to foster resiliency in the face of those impacts. Although some locations struggled with a dearth of appropriate climate information, others struggled with too much information and insufficient support into sorting through its quality or appropriateness for their planning process. The piecemeal nature of this process to date has helped spur innovation in climate adaptation planning; however, in moving forward there is an important need for better coordination of these initiatives. Such appreciation for the needs of this community would bolster the legitimacy and credibility of climate change adaptation planning, which could both support the initiation of new planning initiatives and advance the implementation of planning recommendations already being made. Although most attempts to disseminate best practices have thus far proved ineffective (Bulkeley 2006), these climate adaptation innovations could perhaps be moved forward through state or federal support (e.g., via funding guidelines or legislative mandates).

6. Questions for further research

Although this study has provided preliminary insight into state and local climate adaptation planning in the United States, it leaves a great deal of room for further research. This paper did not attempt to evaluate which methods of adaptation planning led to more successful or measurably better outcomes, nor did it identify best practices for other government actors to follow. On a related note, while this paper offered preliminary descriptive insight into the extent to which adaptation is on the local agenda, more detailed research should investigate whether, why, and in what ways climate adaptation has precipitated genuine policy change. This would provide insight complementing the wealth of existing academic literature surrounding issues of power, leadership, and scientific knowledge in state and local environmental governance.

In considering who is engaged in adaptation planning, this paper assessed a range of government actors; however, it did not scrutinize to what extent jurisdictions are collaborating or aligning priorities around climate adaptation or how such collaboration could be facilitated. Given the significance of national and global polities for local climate change policy, as described in section 2c, it would similarly be valuable to study the greater structural, financial, and political circumstances that set the stage for state and local action. Similarly, although the role of public participation in local climate adaptation planning was briefly noted, further research would be needed to better understand whether, how, and in what ways public participation could lead to communities that are less vulnerable or more resilient in the face of climate change. Given that several impacts of climate change, such as heat waves (Patz et al. 2000) and hurricanes (e.g., Elliot and Pais 2006), could disproportionately burden low-income and minority communities, who decides and who benefits from climate adaptation policy also deserve further study.

In the ensuing years, these issues will likely become increasingly significant. Pending federal legislation in particular may present a number of new questions and directions for analysis. For example, what a federally approved climate adaptation plan should consist of and what types of adaptation projects should be eligible for funding under domestic climate legislation will require appreciably more insight into the issues preliminarily addressed in this paper. These emerging developments suggest an urgent need to expand this research.

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Footnotes

Corresponding author address: Kyle Andrew Poyar, Brown University, 69 Brown Street, Box 5254, Providence, RI 02912. Email: poyar.kyle@gmail.com