US climate-adaptation plans long on ideas, short on details, priorities

May 2, 2016, University of Michigan

An analysis of more than 40 climate-adaptation plans from across the U.S. shows that local communities are good at developing strategies to combat the harmful effects of climate change but often fail to prioritize their goals or to provide implementation details.

In the past decade, several dozen U.S. communities have created stand-alone climate-adaptation that describe how climate change is projected to impact their communities and what actions should be taken now to prepare.

Expected impacts vary from place to place across the United States but can include longer and hotter summers, heavier downpours, rising sea levels in coastal communities, more frequent flooding and an increased frequency of wildfires.

Now researchers from the University of Michigan and the University of North Carolina have evaluated 44 local climate-adaptation plans, examining how their content and quality varies across communities.

They found that communities applied wide-ranging strategies, such as improving infrastructure design, protecting ecosystems and public education. On average, the adaptation plans included 93 unique strategies for addressing climate challenges.

However, most communities failed to prioritize their climate-adaptation efforts or offer details on how their strategies would be implemented. Only a third of communities included detailed timelines or assigned responsibility for plan implementation.

"This raises concerns about whether adaptation plans, which often involve years of development, will translate into on-the-ground projects that help communities prepare for climate change," said Sierra Woodruff, lead author of a paper published online May 2, 2016 in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Woodruff is a doctoral candidate at the University of North Carolina. Her co-author on the paper is Missy Stults, a doctoral candidate in U-M's Urban and Regional Planning Program and School of Natural Resources and Environment.

"Local communities are already feeling the impacts of climate change, and those impacts are projected to become more severe and intense in the future," Stults said. "We hope that our findings lead to higher-quality adaptation plans and to more resilient communities."

Woodruff and Stults found that the plans varied greatly in the sophistication with which they project future climate conditions.

For example, New York City's climate-adaptation plan used 24 and two future emissions scenarios to generate locally downscaled climate projections. Smaller cities such as Marquette, Mich., relied on historic trends to identify climate change signals that may continue into the future; those signals were used as the basis for adaptation planning.

Most of the plans failed to address uncertainty associated with impacts and how it may cause adaptation plans to be ineffective or maladaptive. Few of the plans specified the metrics that would be used to measure progress toward adaptation goals, which may limit the ability of communities to learn and adjust over time.

Woodruff and Stults also found the planning efforts that originated in municipal planning departments and that engaged elected officials were of higher quality than those created by other government agencies or by outside consultants that may be less familiar with community issues and vulnerabilities.

In the future, greater attention should be paid to timelines, responsibility for implementation, and funding to help ensure that climate-adaptation plans translate into actions, they concluded.

Explore further: Adaptation to increasing flood risk in Europe should aim to reduce impact

Related Stories

Insurance for an uncertain climate

March 24, 2016

In December, negotiators at the Paris climate meeting adopted insurance as an instrument to aid climate adaptation. Earlier in the year, the leaders of the G7 pledged to bring climate insurance to 400 million uninsured individuals ...

Climate change adaptation in high income countries

November 10, 2015

We all know that the climate is changing, but how can we best prepare for some of the changes that lie ahead? Should coastal cities change their building codes to accommodate rising sea levels? Should we allocate more resources ...

Recommended for you

Coffee-based colloids for direct solar absorption

March 22, 2019

Solar energy is one of the most promising resources to help reduce fossil fuel consumption and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions to power a sustainable future. Devices presently in use to convert solar energy into thermal ...

EPA adviser is promoting harmful ideas, scientists say

March 22, 2019

The Trump administration's reliance on industry-funded environmental specialists is again coming under fire, this time by researchers who say that Louis Anthony "Tony" Cox Jr., who leads a key Environmental Protection Agency ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.