A Placemaking Journal

Climate Change Update, Part II: Leveraging “The Biggest Little Things”

“The best strategies are the ones that can be implemented.”

That’s a reminder from Jim Fox, director of NEMAC, the National Environmental Modeling and Analysis Center at the University of North Carolina Asheville. Taking ideas to meaningful action is the bottom-line test of any plan. And it applies particularly to what is arguably humankind’s biggest challenge ever: the struggle to cope with the impacts of climate change.

In Part I of this series, I suggested how the obstacles to facing up to the challenge are essentially political ones, and I allowed as how doing politics is hard. In Part II, I’m counting on Jim Fox and colleagues to help us believe it’s not impossible.

To review:

“It is O.K, finally, to freak out” over climate change,” wrote David Wallace-Wells, author of The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warning in a New York Times opinion piece earlier this year.

What makes it “finally” is the steady data refresh on how fast we’re adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and how slowly we’re cobbling together strategies at a scale likely to lower the odds of catastrophic impacts. Key among the recent warnings is last year’s Fourth National Climate Assessment from the U.S. Global Change Research Program:

Earth’s climate is now changing faster than at any point in the history of modern civilization, primarily as a result of human activities. The impacts of global climate change are already being felt in the United States and are projected to intensify in the future—but the severity of future impacts will depend largely on actions taken to reduce green- house gas emissions and to adapt to the changes that will occur.

Okay, so how are we doing?

While Americans are responding in ways that can bolster resilience and improve livelihoods, neither global efforts to mitigate the causes of climate change nor regional efforts to adapt to the impacts currently approach the scales needed to avoid substantial damages to the U.S. economy, environment, and human health and well-being over the coming decades.

The progressively sterner warnings are ramping up the sense of urgency we’re seeing in mainstream journalism. Here’s a recent Washington Post feature, for example. And on April 14, The New York Times devoted most of its Sunday magazine to climate change topics. The attention seems to be having an impact in recent polls. Which would be good news were it possible to believe that public concern translates to public support for the policies and investments the National Climate Assessment calls for. Here’s Foster-Wells again:

In December, a national survey tracking Americans’ attitudes toward climate change found that 73 percent said global warming was happening, the highest percentage since the question began being asked in 2008. But a majority of Americans were unwilling to spend even $10 a month to address global warming; most drew the line at $1 a month, according to a poll conducted the previous month.

Politicians sense voter hypocrisy. That’s why Democrats and Republicans alike were dismissive of the House of Representatives’ more progressive members’ Green New Deal proposal. Costs too much. Steps on too many toes. Smells a little socialistic.

So where do we find traction on both strategies and implementation? Maybe among some surprising candidates, such as: insurance companies, national security analysts, real estate development pros, agriculture experts, Wall Street, transportation planners, even an international oil company.

Keep debating climate change all you want, they tell us, but they’re accounting for — and charging for — rising risks in their specialty areas.

NEMAC's Jim Fox.

NEMAC’s Jim Fox. Scorched earth hellscape digitally inserted for dramatic effect.

This is a good place to bring in Jim Fox and NEMAC. For the last dozen years or so, NEMAC has been developing and applying computer modeling and visualization tools to help clients analyze vulnerabilities to disasters of types. The focus of their work has shifted along with their client base, says Fox:

“A decade ago, we received work through contractual agreements with federal agencies and state governments. We started with basic education, answering questions related to ‘Did you know?’.  Now, half of our funding comes directly through local governments and regional partnerships looking for products and services to calibrate evidence-based policies and local actions. And the questions we’re answering are more related to ‘Why should we care?’ and ‘What can we do about it?’“

Not so surprising, given the fact that while climate change is the result of globally aggregated causes, effects are inflicted locally. “The topic has become more real to those feeling the increasing impact — and pain — from flooding, wildfires and other impacts,” says Fox.

If enduring disasters weren’t enough of an incentive for metros to begin thinking about long-run preparedness, there’s the increasing likelihood of a short-run price for foot dragging. Last year, Moody’s Investors Service, which provides risk assessments for the broader insurance industry, issued a warning that put future bond seekers on notice:

“Risk modeling and pricing will experience an extra layer of uncertainty since climate change tends to produce an unpredictable environment that makes assessing and pricing risk more difficult. Moreover, there is an increasing risk that pricing trends could consistently lag actual loss experience, which may force the industry to play ‘catch up’ in raising premiums to match increasing losses.”

That sort of notice gets the attention of senior staff and elected officials who might not otherwise consider climate change policy an immediate priority and goes a long way to explaining why “decision making is moving into the local scale,” says Fox.
Hence NEMAC’s expanding client list in coastal regions like South Florida and Charleston, South Carolina and in inland areas around Raleigh and Asheville, North Carolina, where flood events are growing concerns.

NEMAC helped produce a publically accessible online Climate Resilience Toolkit that plugs users into federal data sets that help them assess threats in their regions, suggests appropriate resilience strategies, and provides links to potential funding. In collaboration with its for-profit spin-off, Fernleaf Interactive, the public private combo has developed an even more specialized tool — AccelAdapt — that can be customized to integrate climate adaptation/mitigation strategies into local governments’ existing organizational structures and day-to-day operations.

AccelAdapt links directly to a city’s spatial (GIS) resources, allowing climate adaptation assessments and strategies to not only communicate directly with the city’s comprehensive plan and emergency management plan, but also stays up to date as threat data and property data is updated. In addition, the community can access a quantified assessment that exposes array of vulnerabilities city staffs and elected officials might not have anticipated, which forces them into a more comprehensive approach to the challenges. For instance, says Fox:

“Coastal communities are becoming increasingly aware of global sea level rise, but the nearer term threat that is causing more harm is related to increased flooding (which is driven by a changing climate causing more frequent and intense storms to dump large quantities of rain over several days). This is the issue that caused the recent flooding in Houston, as well as the massive flooding across the Carolinas. By having a tool such as AccelAdapt, communities can determine what they need to invest in now to build resilience, what to invest in next, and what they can wait to invest in at a time when more resources become available.”

This capacity for both analysis and application can provide the missing connections between concern and coordinated action. Cities and their regions present a political complexity that challenges strategic problem solving and that requires an alignment of interests for implementing solutions. They’re different from the global challenge primarily in the breadth of territory they’re responsible for. But there’s catalytic potential in what they can demonstrate — and what they might inspire at increasingly broader scales.

Examples of their success could be “the biggest little things” required to build confidence in solution paths and to respond meaningfully to the getting-to-scale concerns in the recent Climate Assessment:

“I think there are going to be winners and losers,” says Fox:

“The visionary communities with clear champions are going to be early out of the gate and be able to attract some of the limited funds that are currently available for this growing challenge. Other communities that won’t step up are unfortunately going to be the long-term losers. But this is true down through the ages regarding other changing realities. We all know the stories about communities that were not willing to read the writing on the wall regarding changing economies or politics and are no longer as powerful as they once were.

“But it is very encouraging to see communities such as Asheville, Charleston, West Palm Beach and Tallahassee taking leadership roles.  Note that these are medium size cities, ones that do not have the resources as their larger neighbors such as New York and Miami. But these cities and their leadership are passionate about the place they live, work and raise their kids.  They are devoted to keeping their quality of life high, and continuing to keep their hometown vibrant despite a growing list of challenges. Proactively facing current changing realities, and taking an informed view of the future, is ensuring that these cities will be on the list of winners for years to come.”

Ben Brown

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