How America is preparing for a changing climate

Courtesy Tom Nix, Coweeta LTER.

A new study by researchers from the health, environmental, business and university sectors has concluded that America is doing “more than before” when it comes to climate preparedness, “but less than needed.” Given that some degree of climate change is inevitable, even if we halt all new green-house gas emissions today, they conclude that we need to do more to ensure that America’s health, economy, and environment will be safe in a changed future.

We began discussing climate preparedness, also known as “adaptation,” in our column on Dec. 20, but we want to spend more time today reviewing America’s progress on climate adaptation efforts.

Currently, all federal agencies are developing adaptation plans as part of their annual strategic performance plans. For example, the Centers for Disease Control is helping local health departments assess new public health risks, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is working with farmers, foresters, and ranchers to develop business models that are less vulnerable to a changed climate, and the Army Corps of Engineers is updating America’s water resources infrastructure based on expected sea level rise.

However, states and local governments need to make many key decisions about their response to cli-mate change. These include how they can effectively manage utilities, emergency services, land use planning, zoning and building codes, and transportation infrastructure.

At the state level, at least 22 states have written or plan to write climate adaptation plans. Many others have included climate considerations in other policy areas such as wildlife and natural resources management. Interestingly, these are not just the most “liberal” states. Sarah Palin created the Alaska Climate Change Sub-Cabinet as early as 2007 and Arnold Schwarzenegger asked the California Climate Action Team to develop adaptation plans related to public health, water quality and quantity, forestry and agriculture, sea-level rise, biodiversity, and infra-structure. Georgia’s “Smart Growth” guidelines have been quite successful at promoting coastal conservation in a way that will make communities less vulnerable to sea level rise and more intensive storm surge, while delivering economic benefits to homeowners, developers, and local governments.

A recent study found that 59 percent of local governments—ranging from small, rural townships to large cities—are conducting some form of adaptation planning. This local focus is especially important. Because climate impacts will vary by locale, solutions must also be ta-lored to each environmental, cultural, and economic context. Thus, we see some communities protecting vital water supplies, others helping residents protect their land from storm and flood damage, and still others helping farmers and entrepreneurs prepare for the economic challenges and opportunities of a changed climate.

Finally, the private sector—including companies as large as ConAgra Foods, S.C. Johnson & Sons, and Munich Reinsurance—is working to ensure its operations are not disrupted by climate change, for example by sourcing raw materials from a wider range of world regions.

The authors who say we are doing “more than before, but less than needed”—who include researchers from Chevron, Seattle Public Utilities, The Nature Conservancy, and the American Cancer Society—argue that we need to put more of these government and private adaptation plans into action and that we need to examine more than the “no-regret” actions that we discussed in this column on Dec. 20.No-regret actions are actions that make sense even without considering climate change, like upgrading water and sewage systems when necessary. In fact, many cli-mate adaptation actions will improve our national quality of life in other ways, such as by providing new jobs, protecting drinking water, providing places for children to play safely, and reducing disaster risk.

Fortunately, a number of organizations and agencies have provided very useful guides to help landowners and communities understand local climate impacts, assess their vulnerability, and evaluate possible responses. We provide links to these resources on our website so that interested readers can begin to evaluate whether their family, business and community are prepared for a changing climate.

Perhaps you, your employer, or your business has started to consider climate adaptation. If so, we’d love to hear what these steps are and how you’re thinking about future climate adaptation.


This column is produced by members of the Coweeta Listening Project (CLP), a branch of the Coweeta Long Term Ecological Research Program. Views expressed here are not representative of the USDA Forest Service or the Coweeta Hydrologic Lab. Please share questions, comments, or suggestions for future topics at or Coweeta Listening Project, UGA, 210 Field St., Room 204, Athens, Georgia 30602.


Original Citation: Coweeta Listening Project. The Franklin Press. Column on "Science, Public Policy, Community." Page B4. January 24, 2014.