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Local Government Adaptation to a Changing Climate Using the STAR Community Rating System

This is the second blog post which provides supporting perspectives for the new STAR Climate Change Guide. Read the first blog post here. In addition, STAR hosted a webinar on  July 20th, with representatives from local governments that discussed the newly released Climate Change Guide, the current state of climate change efforts in the United States, and several local government examples of ongoing efforts. You can watch the recording of the webinar online.

By Alex Helling, STAR Communities Technical Specialist

David Wallace-Wells’ essay from July 9th, 2017 in New York Magazine, “The Uninhabitable Earth”, seeks to depict what the planet may look like under an unmitigated warming scenario. Destroyed economic systems, poor air quality, a depleted food supply, millions of climate refugees, and devastated oceans paint a bleak doomsday picture of our shared future in which the world is largely ruined for human habitation.

Reception of the essay has been mixed. Some applaud a full tilt depiction of a largely uninhabitable planet. Others decry it as counterproductive to promoting climate action at best. Effective or not, the article did certainly stimulate the conversation of climate change and lead the discussions beyond greenhouse gas mitigation to include adaptation to climate impacts.

While there is disagreement about the extent and speed of the impacts and scenarios Wallace-Wells discusses, several things are clear:

  • The planet is warming;
  • Communities and people are already experiencing impacts; and
  • Adaptation is necessary for long-term community member’s quality of life.

The questions at this point are now largely focused upon what society will do to both reduce the extent of warming and adapt to known and unknown impacts.

The Planet is Warming

Communities can and should mitigate their GHG emissions to the greatest extent possible, because impacts will worsen as warming increases. The numerous possible iterations of how warm the planet will get, from the Paris Climate Accord’s stated target of 2.0° C to upwards of 10° C, also generate a variety of consequences, from somewhat manageable impacts if we stay under 2.0° C to completely unmitigated warming that generates incredibly damaging scenarios such as those of Wallace-Wells’ essay.

As discussed in STAR Communities’ previous blog post, the newly released STAR Climate Change Guide can assist communities in comprehensively developing a climate mitigation program to reduce GHG emissions and keep future impacts manageable. Communities can use the information and step-by-step processes discussed in the guide to engage the public and develop partnerships, develop a systematic climate action planning approach, and advance mitigation efforts.

More than 350 commitments through the US Climate Mayors to meet the targets of the Paris Climate Accord show that US communities are ready to lead the way in mitigating climate change, but communities are already seeing impacts as well. Steps must go beyond mitigation to include adaptation to current and future climate related impacts.

Communities are already experiencing impacts

According to the 2014 report, Climate Change Impacts in the United States, infrastructure is already being damaged by increasing extreme weather and sea level rise, wildfires are increasing in extent, extreme summer heat and associated public health risks are increasing, and important agricultural soils are being degraded and destroyed by increasing extremes in precipitation.

Sunny day flooding caused by sea level rise is possibly the most evident existing impact from climate change, as some coastal communities are already grappling with this visible and pressing problem. Tourist-heavy economies, such as beach communities, don’t want their tourists driving through a foot of water with the sun shining, so they are already spending big to adapt. Miami Beach, Florida, for example, is planning to spend hundreds of millions of dollars for flood prevention pumps, infrastructure, and improvements. The City’s plans include eventually raising every street a minimum of 3.5 feet and increasing sea wall height 5.7 feet in response to sea level rise.

Addressing climate vulnerabilities is challenging given the potentially high up-front cost, but imagining a city with abandoned neighborhoods under several feet of water on a sunny day certainly calls into question the future viability of some communities. Adaptation efforts can be expensive, but they will often be necessary in the long run for some cities.

Developing partnerships with neighboring states, regions, communities, and universities can help defray some of the preparatory costs associated with climate adaptation. Broward County, Florida, for example is part of the Southeast Florida Regional Compact on Climate Change, which released the Unified Sea Level Rise Projection report to help inform adaptation-planning efforts in the region. Efforts like these can support multiple local communities that may not have the resources to conduct their own local assessments.

While non-coastal communities may not be exposed to the same immediate and obvious impacts from climate change, they are no less susceptible to impacts if efforts are not undertaken to understand and prepare for climate impacts. For example, an Ann Arbor, Michigan, study showed that precipitation has increased by 44% in the last 30 years and extreme storm events have increased by 41%. In response, the city developed a climate action plan that includes both mitigation and adaptation strategies.

Of the first 62 certified STAR Communities, 27 have already developed partnerships for understanding and addressing vulnerabilities from climate change and 23 have adopted codes or policies that help address future climate threats. Only 18, however, have adopted a formal climate adaptation plan to systematically guide adaptation efforts into the future.

Adaptation is necessary for long-term quality of life

Given the potential range of impacts from climate change, from those currently being experienced to those discussed in Wallace-Wells’ essay, adaptation is absolutely vital for community members’ ongoing quality of life. Just as invasive species pray on unprepared systems that are not yet adapted to a new threat, a changing climate carries substantial risks because it changes the status quo and conditions upon which our current systems are built and prepared for. When these underlying conditions change, and our systems do not, substantial risk and vulnerability is created, increasing the potential for devastating damage and suffering.

Ann Arbor provides a great example of effective climate action implementation for both mitigation of greenhouse gases and adaptation to local, unavoidable impacts. The City developed the Community Climate partnership to implement the Ann Arbor Climate Action Plan, created a stormwater utility based on impervious surface to help fund urban forestry, and regularly releases progress reports to inform the public of progress.

A number of additional certified STAR Communities are also acting proactively to implement climate adaptation efforts. Over half of the certified STAR Communities have programs to help address climate change threats and improve facilities. Fewer communities, 19 in total, have incentives or enforcements that help shift behavior to prepare for a changing climate.

Communities that have started preparing and implementing climate change adaptation efforts and those that have not yet begun can benefit from reviewing the STAR Climate Change Guide. It provides a useful framework for understanding the potentially vulnerable areas of the community through systems based understanding of the potential impacts of climate change. It also provides guidance on the steps necessary to effectively complete planning and implementation processes, and provides links to a number of organizations and valuable resources to support these efforts.

More Information

STAR Communities recently released the STAR Climate Change Guide to support US cities and counties engaged in climate action. The Guide draws upon strategies and best practices in the STAR Community Rating System and the experiences of over 60 STAR-certified communities and supports efforts in both climate change mitigation and adaptation. Local leaders are invited to use the free Climate Change Guide to support new climate action planning, expand existing efforts, implement climate pledges, and advocate for new efforts. The free guide can be accessed online.


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