What Have We Learned About Climate Change Adaptation?

Sea level rise, increased storm frequency and intensity, longer and more intense heat waves, and drought are some of the anticipated impacts of climate change. As recent events ranging from Hurricane Sandy to this past summer’s heat waves in Europe have demonstrated, these phenomena have the power to cause major property damage, disrupt infrastructure networks and, at their worst, take lives.

It is difficult to disentangle the impacts of climate change from the extreme weather events we have always faced. No one can attribute an individual storm or unusually warm year to climate change. However, we need to address the risks either way. The pattern of climate change is increasingly clear, demanding our attention.

Government agencies and other stakeholders making long-term infrastructure investments and land use decisions need to take account of climate change risks and the possibility of extreme weather events. This is not easy. Dealing with dynamic and uncertain conditions is a lot harder than working with the fixed parameters that decision-makers are used to, such as agency policies and design standards. Furthermore, decision makers are often afraid of the backlash they will face if they impose restrictions on individuals or companies based on a future that is extremely uncertain.

At CBI, we have worked with numerous partners to determine how communities can manage the risks associated with climate change, and adapt appropriately.  Here are our recommendations based on what we know so far:

Don’t ignore risks even though it is not clear whose responsibility they are.

One of the most significant obstacles to adaptation planning is the fact that climate change risks require concerted action across various agencies and departments simultaneously. Climate change does not fit neatly into one agency’s area of responsibility. On the contrary, wastewater treatment, public health, transportation, land-use planning and a variety of other agencies are all relevant. For this reason, departmental adaptation plans are generally less useful than policies developed by a range of relevant agencies and associated stakeholders. On the other hand, adaptation plans that are too general and do not focus on specific problems and engage relevant agencies are also proving largely ineffective, as implementation responsibility must be clearly assigned.

Do what is necessary to ensure inter-agency cooperation.

We recently prepared a working paper investigating how communities and states along U.S. coasts are preparing for sea level rise. One of our main conclusions is that cooperation across different levels and branches of government is essential, given that regulatory authority and information are distributed. Each agency is dependent on others if they want to engage in adaptation planning. In some cases, this means that professionals must learn how to talk to experts from very different backgrounds. Meteorologists must learn how to communicate with transportation planners, hydraulic engineers with land use planners, and so on. Unfortunately, there is usually a relatively high transaction cost associated with getting agencies to collaborate before any benefits are realized.  Regrettably, a common driver of collaboration is disaster as – as 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and now Hurricane Sandy have demonstrated.

Deal with uncertainty by planning for multiple futures.

There are various ways to respond to uncertainty. Identifying a range of possible futures is a good starting point. Scenario planning is a method that decision-makers can use to identify divergent pictures of the future – given what we know today and given what is uncertain. Scenario planning involves not just crafting alternative “futures” for comparison, but also assessing which actions taken today are likely to be helpful regardless of which future actually materializes. In partnership with Bio Economic Research Associates, CBI has been teaching scenario planning to local government officials via our in person and on-line course entitled Local Communities Adapting to Climate Change: Managing Risk in Decision Making. These sessions provide participants with tools to assess the robustness of infrastructure planning, land use and development options in light of a range of possible futures. It helps decision-makers to know which actions and policies are likely to perform well under various conditions. We are now working with communities to support the use of scenario planning in practice. In one project, we are working in the Rocky Mountain West with the Sonoran Institute to consider long-term water shortages, growing populations, energy development, and other key factors influencing the future.

Strive for flexibility and on-going adjustment.

While it can be tempting to make a plan and stick to it, this may be a mistake, especially when uncertainty levels are high. There’s a danger that seeking the most agreed-upon outcome will prove counter-productive, leading to maladaptation (or ineffective adaptation). We recommend that decision-makers aim for flexibility and on-going collaborative adjustment, coupled with careful monitoring and feedback. Decision-makers should consider adaptation moves that allow for relatively simple revision and adjustment as new information streams in. For example, constructing a levee in response to today’s flood risks makes sense as long as it is relatively easy and inexpensive to add height later on if sea levels rise. Designers and planners can no longer make plans based on 100-year flood assumptions. 500-year floods (i.e. something that has a .05 chance of occurring in any given year) may be a more appropriate planning standard. Such events are obviously much less likely to occur, but because their impact would be so severe, the small chance they will occur cannot be ignored.

Get people talking.

In our experience, the best way to approach situations like this—in which communities are facing great uncertainty but substantial risks—is to initiate informal dialogue. Regardless of the context or scale, multi-stakeholder engagement can be an effective tool for building shared understanding and, ultimately, getting to agreement. Stakeholders need a forum in which they can learn why others hold very different views. It is often helpful to jointly examine data and evaluate hypothetical options. We are employing this approach with our partners along the Hudson River. In Kingston, New York, a Flooding Task Force is looking at downscaled climate data related to their waterfront and developing adaptation recommendations. Getting people talking can unearth value and cultural differences that drive differing perceptions of risk.

Get people playing.

One way to raise community awareness of the need to initiate local planning for climate adaptation is to organize role-play simulations. These are “games” that allow small groups of citizens and officials to get a feel, in a few hours, for what actual dialogue on adaptation options would be like. They give people a chance to see how a community might work through problems and identify possible solutions in the face of sharp disagreements. CBI has created numerous adaptation role-play simulation exercises that we have used with senior officials in various situations and places around the world, including Ghana and Vietnam, as well with a cross-section of citizens and officials in coastal communities in New England (watch a video of a simulation exercise to the right). Most of these exercises are available through the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School’s Clearinghouse. While role-play simulations cannot reveal the answers to specific adaptation planning challenges facing individual communities, they can help residents and officials learn more about the choices they face in a low-cost and enjoyable format.

Adaptation planning is evolving quickly. We look forward to learning more from our colleagues and friends around the globe as everyone works to face this collective challenge. We believe that a consensus-based approach is crucial, as stakeholders seek to wrestle with challenges that don’t fall neatly into their respective domains, and that will inherently benefit some while threatening the interests of others. Appropriate decision support tools can make the difference between failure and success in addressing one of the most significant challenges communities will face in the next few years.